The Nationals ride into the 2012 First-Year Player Draft with a different feel about their first-round selection. Gone is selecting first two years in a row, or even sixth last year.
This season, the team selects at No. 16, and as Nationals assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel Roy Clark told me Sunday, "We want to pick No. 30 every season." It is great to get the top selection, but that also means you were bad the prior season. That is no longer the case for the Nationals.
Executive editor Jim Callis of Baseball America told me on 106.7 The Fan's "Nats Insider" that these are new times for the Nationals, and that is a good thing. General manager Mike Rizzo and his staff deserve a lot of credit for turning the farm system around. It starts by getting impact guys, even at No. 16.
"You have your prep list, but I think even the Nationals would admit they aren't going to know who they are getting until the picks start to play out," Callis said. "Usually when you pick at No. 16, you have a good chance that someone that surprises you (and) gets to you that you wouldn't necessarily expect."
Guys like Mark Appel of Stanford, Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton and high school shortstop Carlos Correa from Puerto Rico will be long gone by the time the Nationals make their selection around 8:30 p.m.
"You could probably cross off 12 or 13 names that won't get to Washington," Callis said.
So with the Nationals trading away Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole, plus losing Sammy Solis to injury and Matt Purke slow out of the gate health-wise, it is a no-brainer they will go pitching in the first round?
"Yes and no," Callis said. "In terms of need, it would make sense for them to take a pitcher. But teams don't usually draft based on need in the first round. Problem is, at No. 16 it is not like you are picking at the top of the draft and you have to narrow the field.
"A pitcher would make the most sense but here is the problem: There are two high school pitchers that make sense to go ahead of the Nationals. One is Max Fried from California, the other is Lance McCullers Jr. from Florida. I don't think either guy is going to be there (at No. 16). McCullers might. I think he is an interesting guy because Rizzo is not afraid to do business with Scott Boras.
"You look on the flip side of that, I told you Appel will be gone, Kevin Gausman from LSU is going to be gone, Kyle Zimmer from San Francisco is going to be gone, Michael Wacha from Texas A&M will be gone, Andrew Heaney from Oklahoma State is going to be gone and Chris Stratton from Mississippi State is going to be gone."
So who could still be there that might be a steal at No. 16?
"A guy that could be there but shouldn't be there because his arm is too good is right-hander Marcus Stroman of Duke," Callis said. "But Stroman is 5-foot-9. I think he has a chance to start, but guys will tell you he has the best arm in this draft. His arm is that good. It is not a full-of-effort delivery, it is pretty effortless. He is just very athletic and has a tremendous fastball-slider combination."
The Nationals love pitchers with size - like 6-foot-9 hurler Alex Meyer out of Kentucky, now with low Single-A Hagerstown. Would selecting Stroman go against the normal draft trend for taller pitchers the Nationals and the league seem to favor? Callis believes the Nationals might buck that trend.
The Nationals have already shown their fondness for Stroman, having selected him in the 18th round (532nd overall) of the 2009 draft.
"You see a 5-foot-9 guy you think reliever," Callis said. "I think teams back away from the arm a little bit because of his size. But I don't see how there will be a better player on the board at that point because I believe Stroman is the No. 10 or No. 11 best player out there.
"And with the Nationals contending this year, let's say you decide this guy could be a reliever, this guy could be helping your big league bullpen in September. I think you know from talking to me in the past, I am not the type of guy who says, 'OK, there are six pitchers in this draft who could all be pitching in the big leagues in September.' I am very conservative when it comes to that. But I think with a guy like Stroman, you could get him tuned back up after he signs and you could have him in late August pitching in a big league bullpen."
That would be wild to think of one of these guys contributing as early as this season. With the new draft rules, where there is pretty much a slot for each signing and teams get fined if they pay over slot, getting 2012 draft picks on the team now may not have to wait until a mid-August signing deadline like in years past. So watch for a guy like Stroman, or another collegiate pitcher who might drop to the Nationals. Then watch to see how quickly the Nationals get him up to speed.
After all, Rizzo has shown this year with every move (Bryce Harper, the catchers, Tyler Moore, Mike Gonzalez, etc.) that he is going for the win now rather than waiting for a little more seasoning. That win-now attitude might also play into how the team drafts, even in the first round and even with the No. 16 selection.