In strange draft year, Nats confident early scouting will pay off

When they gathered Wednesday night - each individual secluded in his own home - for the first night of this year's draft, Mike Rizzo, Kris Kline and the Nationals scouting department would have been excused if they felt less prepared than they had any previous year they gathered for the first night of the draft.

Nobody had been able to scout anybody in person in three months, which under normal circumstances would be a ludicrous way to try to create a draft board.

Rizzo-Suit-sidebar.jpgInstead, these men insist, they were as prepared as ever, confident they had seen what they needed to see before the novel coronavirus shut down the baseball world in mid-March and denied elite college and high school players the opportunity to fully showcase themselves in 2020.

"It was kind of business as usual," said Kline, the organization's longtime vice president of scouting operations.

And when the Nationals selected Cade Cavalli with the 22nd overall pick, they did so confident they knew the Oklahoma right-hander as well as they possibly could.

"We had eight scouting reports on Cade," Rizzo said. "So we felt really good about where we were at with the amount of reports we had."

Rizzo, who despite his loftier title as general manager usually makes a point to scout as many potential draft picks in person during the early portion of the major league season, didn't get to see Cavalli himself. But he trusted that his scouts knew what they had seen, not only in the pitcher's four starts this season but in multiple outings from previous seasons.

"I think a lot of credit goes out to Kris and his group," Rizzo said. "We often hit the ground running hard in the early, early spring. We're not one of those organizations that want to see a second or third outing of a college pitcher. We like to go out early, get the elite guys a look for the first time, then circle back on the guys we really have interest in later on in the season. That worked well for us this year, because of the shortened season. So we had a really good feel for what the upper prospects were about."

Cavalli presented a bit of an unusual case from the scouting perspective anyway. A two-way player when he started at Oklahoma, he only became a pitcher full-time as a sophomore. And injuries limited him to a total of only 101 1/3 innings pitched his entire college career.

This season would've provided the 6-foot-4 righty an opportunity to show off his progress since devoting his full focus to pitching. Instead, he was able to make only four starts before his amateur career came to an unexpected end.

"I felt like I had four chances to show the scouts what I have. And I felt like I did a pretty good job of that," Cavalli said. "I was building up on each start. It doesn't matter. I ended up with the best organization out there, and I'm fired up I get to be a National."

Kline and top lieutenant Mark Baca already intended to scout a phalanx of top prospects in late-winter and early-spring. They were forced to head home after baseball shut down March 12. But by that point, they already had seen nearly everybody they felt they needed to see, aside from a few high school players from colder-weather areas who never had a chance to begin their senior seasons.

"Obviously, nobody saw this coming, but in the meantime I think Mark and I were home a day or two from Jan. 23 'til March 12," Kline said. "Normally, you get over 100 players (scouted in person) on your list. He and I both had well over 100 by March 12. So we were really in good shape."

The Nationals hope that extensive, early scouting work also pays off tonight for rounds 2-5 of the draft, not to mention afterwards when teams are allowed to begin signing undrafted players for $20,000 apiece.

"The proof will be in the pudding (tonight) when we put the rest of these draft choices on paper, and then when we go and attack beyond the fifth-round type of guys," Rizzo said. "I think you're going to see we have a successful draft because of the way these guys work fast and really got out of the chute well. It was a coordinated effort, and they worked really, really hard in a really, really short amount of time."

Mike Rizzo and Kris Kline on drafting Cade Cavalli
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