SAN FRANCISCO - When they're putting together their draft preferences, and when they're working through their selections each June, the Nationals' front office has a simple phrase that governs almost everything that happens in the draft room: Honor the board.
The Nationals' scouts and front office staff spend weeks ranking draft picks in order of preference, putting hundreds of names on magnets on the tagboard that sits in the team's draft room. That's when all the hard work is done. When the draft starts, the process should be fairly simple; the minute before a pick is due is not the time to make rash decisions. There will be occasions when the team makes slight deviations from its rankings, but as a rule, it goes right down the list and takes the best player available on that list. Honor the board.
In the first round of yesterday's draft, the Nationals put that principle into practice in as striking a fashion as any time since the team came to Washington. With the sixth overall pick, they took Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, a talented hitter with an impressive glove who had been projected to go No. 1 overall through most of the spring. He fell to the Nationals because of injury concerns, but they snapped him up because his potential kept him near the top of their board.
"We were pleasantly surprised that he got to us at (No. 6)," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "As late as about 24 hours ago, he was supposedly going (No. 1) one or two in the draft. Our vice president of player personnel, Roy Clark, actually drafted him out of high school with the Atlanta Braves, got to know him very, very well. We've had a long relationship with him and his family, and we feel good about it."
The Nationals feel Rendon's talent will play in the majors, and the 21-year-old said he's comfortable playing a number of different positions. There is one obvious question about the pick, though: The position Rendon currently plays, and the one he will play to start his minor league career with the Nationals, is currently occupied by Ryan Zimmerman, the team's franchise player.
Rizzo said Rendon was the best player on the board, and even Zimmerman said he understood the pick. At some point, though, Rendon and Zimmerman could be on the same roster, meaning one of them would have to switch positions. One theory is that Rendon - who was limited to designated hitter duty with the Owls this year because of shoulder problems - ends up at second base, with Danny Espinosa at short and Ian Desmond as an Omar Infante-esque utility player. He played there in high school - "when I was 5-foot-4 and 120 pounds," Rendon said - and said on Tuesday he'd be happy to play there again.
It's also worth asking if Zimmerman will spend the rest of his career at third base; the Nationals had preliminary discussions with Adrian Beltre last winter, and though things never got serious, it would have given the Nationals two Gold Glove winners at third base. According to a team source, the Nationals have privately been irked by Zimmerman's sidearm throwing motion from third, which has contributed to double-digit errors each season of his career. And, Zimmerman is due to become a free agent after the 2013 season; by that point, Rendon would be 23.
There are multiple scenarios that could play out between now and then; one or both players could get hurt, one could move positions or Zimmerman could eventually switch teams. Third base isn't a need at the moment, but it's not inconceivable that it could be one in the future.
All that, though, is secondary to the main reason the Nationals took Rendon: He was the best player on their board, and under that philosophy, they decided to take him and let the rest sort itself out later.