Fedde and Romero latest examples of first-round failures

The Nationals made a flurry of roster moves last week to begin the offseason, thanks to two deadlines. Earlier in the week, they had to remove players from the 40-man roster and add eligible prospects they wanted to protect from the Rule 5 draft. Then a week ago today, they needed to tender or non-tender contracts to their 10 arbitration-eligible players.

In all, they removed seven players from the 40-man roster (Tres Barrera, Francisco Pérez, Seth Romero, Yadiel Hernandez, Jackson Tetreault, Evan Lee and Tommy Romero) and added six Rule 5-eligible prospects (Jake Alu, Jeremy De La Rosa, Jackson Rutledge, Jake Irvin, Matt Cronin and Jose Ferrer). They then agreed to terms with Ildemaro Vargas on his 2023 salary, tendered seven contracts to arbitration-eligible players (Lane Thomas, Victor Robles, Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., Hunter Harvey, Tanner Rainey and Victor Arano) and non-tendered Erick Fedde and Luke Voit.

A lot of movement to keep track of in one week of the offseason.

Two of those moves, however, are the latest examples of an underlying issue the Nats have had in roster construction over the last decade. Fedde and Seth Romero are the newest names added to a growing list of failed first-round draft picks made under Mike Rizzo’s tenure as general manager.

Fedde was non-tendered in his second year of arbitration eligibility after parts of six seasons with the Nationals. He was the 18th overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (just days after having Tommy John surgery) with expectations of being a part of the big league rotation for years to come.

To Fedde’s credit, he was a part of the rotation. He just didn’t produce the kind of results expected of a first-round pick. The right-hander went 6-13 with a 5.81 ERA and 1.630 WHIP in 27 starts this season. He earned $2.15 million as a 29-year-old this year and was projected to make $3.6 million next year in arbitration, per MLB Trade Rumors.

That’s not a steep pay raise, but given his 21-33 record, 5.41 ERA and 1.523 WHIP in 102 career games (88 starts) and the Nats’ new focus on the long-term future, it’s not one the organization is willing to pay.

On the surface, it is probably a smart decision. But it was also probably a difficult one in that it’s an admittance of a failed first-round pick. It is possible Fedde returns on a lower-cost contract, but it would seem both parties are likely to move on.

A positive spin on Fedde is that he at least pitched parts of six major league seasons for the Nationals. The same cannot be said for Seth Romero.

The 25th overall pick in 2017 out of the University of Houston, Romero was a risk from the start. The left-hander was projected to be a top-10 talent, but off-the-field issues caused his draft stock to plummet. The Nats took a chance on him anyway.

Despite multiple suspensions and the eventual dismissal from his team in college, the Nats gave Romero an above-slot $2.8 million signing bonus. He was sent home from his first spring training for violating team policy and then missed the entire 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery.

Romero would finally make his major league debut late in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but only pitched in three games before landing on the injured list after breaking his right hand by slipping on a stairway. He never returned to the big leagues after that, spending the 2021 and 2022 seasons between the minor leagues and the 60-day IL with a calf strain.

Now after two arrests in Texas for driving while intoxicated (one in January, another in addition to possession of a controlled substance earlier this month) in less than a year, the Nats finally decided to cut ties with the 26-year-old.

That makes two former first-round pick departures in less than a week, adding to the list of recent first-rounders who are either no longer with the organization or still trying to prove themselves.

Lucas Giolito (2012) and Dane Dunning (2016) were included in the 2016 trade with the White Sox that netted Adam Eaton. Carter Kieboom (2016) has a career -2.1 WAR, per FanGraphs, and is anything but a sure thing to be the starting third baseman next year after recovering from Tommy John surgery. Mason Denaburg (2018) is still rebounding from his own Tommy John procedure in 2021, making just 13 starts with a 4.15 ERA and 1.462 WHIP at Single-A Fredericksburg this season, and was left unprotected from the Rule 5 draft. And it’s still too early to tell on more recent picks Rutledge (2019, injury history), Cade Cavalli (2020, only one major league start due to injury), Brady House (2021, first full pro season cut short due to back injury) and Elijah Green (2022, only 12 games in the Rookie-level Florida Complex League).

That’s not to say Rizzo has always failed in the first round. He, of course, hit with his three picks from 2009-11 in Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. Strasburg and Rendon helped him win a world championship, with the right-hander being named World Series MVP. Harper was the youngest unanimous National League MVP in 2015.

But those were top-six picks, first overall in the cases of Strasburg and Harper, which are much more sure things. Now Harper and Rendon are no longer in D.C., and Strasburg’s future in baseball is up in the air as he recovers from thoracic outlet syndrome.

The Nationals are counting on Cavalli, House and Green to be the next Strasburg, Harper and Rendon, along with whoever they select in next year’s draft, in which they have a 16.5 percent chance to land the No. 1 overall pick (the draft lottery is Dec. 6 at the Winter Meetings in San Diego).

Until these recent top picks prove themselves worthy of their high selections, the lack of first-round success over the last 10 years is certainly a stain on the Nationals.

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