In the end, the Nationals didn’t get to make the choice for themselves. The Pirates did it for them.
When Pittsburgh went with right-hander Paul Skenes as the No. 1 pick in this tonight’s Major League Baseball Draft, the Nats made the easy decision to follow with his LSU teammate, award-winning center fielder Dylan Crews, as the No. 2 selection. In the process, the organization used its first draft slot on a position player for only the seventh time in 11 years, though for the third consecutive year.
The Nationals later selected another position player, University of Miami third baseman Yohandy Morales, with the first pick of the second round.
General manager Mike Rizzo, vice president of scouting Kris Kline and their team thought they might wind up having to choose between Skenes or Crews if the Pirates went for a potential cost-saving move and took Florida outfielder Wyatt Langford or Indiana high school outfielder Max Clark with the top pick.
That scenario, which was speculated all week, never came to fruition. Pittsburgh wasn’t scared off by the injury risk of a power pitcher like Skenes and went ahead and drafted the flame-throwing ace anyway.
The Nationals happily accepted their consolation prize in the form of Crews, a dominant college hitter for three seasons and the winner of this year’s Golden Spikes Award as the best amateur player in the country.
"We would've certainly liked to have our choice of all the players; it takes out all the uncertainty of what the team in front of you is going to do," Rizzo said. "But we're tickled pink to have Dylan Crews as a National. He's going to be one of the guys that are going be front-and-center of the next wave of championship caliber players here, and we're looking forward to getting him in a Nats uni."
Crews, a 6-foot, 205-pound outfielder, hit a robust .426 with 18 homers, 70 RBIs, a .567 on-base percentage and 1.280 OPS in 71 games this season while helping lead LSU straight through the College World Series championship. The 21-year-old Florida native dominated from the moment he set foot in Baton Rouge, garnering loads of attention throughout, and is viewed as a can’t-miss prospect who could be big-league-ready by next season.
"He had a lot of pressure on him, a target on him going into his freshman year at a major university," Rizzo said. "And he couldn't have played any better. He was freshman of the year in the tough SEC. And he's been great every year since high school. He kept getting better and better each and every year. He's won every award that you can possibly win. He's been the best player on the best team in the country. And I think when you talk to him and watch him, this is only the beginning. He's got bigger and better plans than just winning the national championship at LSU."
The Nationals project a quick path to the majors for Crews, both because of his experience playing at the highest level of the college game and because of his ability to thrive under the spotlight that has followed him for years.
"I like to say pressure is a privilege," he said. "It's how you take it. The transition seemed pretty easy as I got to LSU, and I feel like the transition is going to be pretty easy as I go and play for the Nationals."
Crews took a traditional path through his amateur career, choosing not to enter the 2020 draft out of high school and then thriving at a major college program, which only raised his draft stock. Along the way, though, he idolized a player with a similar skill-set who took an unconventional path that still ultimately brought him to Washington for seven storied seasons: Bryce Harper.
"He just has an ability to impact both sides of the baseball," he said. "I'm going to work hard to just be like Bryce Harper. That's somebody who I looked up to. I'm just going to work to be like him."
Crews, who like Harper is represented by Scott Boras, reportedly was seeking more than the $9.721 million slot bonus assigned for the No. 1 pick, perhaps prompting the Pirates to shift to Skenes, whose financial demands may not be as great.
The recommended slot value for the No. 2 pick is $8.9985 million, and it remains to be seen if Crews will seek more than that, and if the Nationals (who are allowed to spend a total of $14,502,400 on all 20 of their draft picks this year) will be willing to exceed that figure. The organization has worked out a deal with every first round pick since Rizzo became GM in 2009, one year after former GM Jim Bowden couldn't get pitcher Aaron Crow to agree to a contract before the summer deadline.
Given the Nats’ long history of valuing elite pitching over position players, most expected them to take Skenes over Crews if presented with that option. A 6-foot-6, 235-pound ace who transferred from the Air Force Academy to LSU for his junior season, Skenes enjoyed a meteoric rise up prospect rankings charts this year as he wowed scouts with a fastball that consistently topped 100 mph, a back-breaking slider and quality changeup. In 19 starts, he went 12-2 with a 1.69 ERA, striking out an SEC record 209 batters in 222 2/3 innings while issuing only 20 walks and a scant 5.3 hits per nine innings.
The 21-year-old Southern California native became a must-see attraction every Friday night this spring and summer when he took the mound, the kind of college pitching phenom not seen since Stephen Strasburg starred at San Diego State in 2009. The two right-handers bear many similarities, both in their pitching repertoires and intense work ethics. And like Strasburg, Skenes is expected to be on a fast track to the majors, perhaps debuting as soon as next season.
"I have all the love for that kid," Crews said of his college teammate, the first such duo to be drafted first and second in the nation. "That kid is one of the hardest workers I've ever seen in my life. There was no real butting heads about who was going to go (No. 1 or No. 2). I'm just happy I'm in a great organization like Washington."
But as is the case with any pitcher, and has certainly proven to be the case with Strasburg throughout his up-and-down career, the injury risk is high. The Nats haven’t shied away from such risky picks in their history, and they have at times paid the price for it, with previous first-round selections Strasburg (2009), Lucas Giolito (2012), Erick Fedde (2014), Seth Romero (2017), Mason Denaburg (2018) and Cade Cavalli (2020) all needing Tommy John surgery at various points during their careers, and Jackson Rutledge (2019) battling his share of lesser injuries as well.
This time, they never even had the opportunity to gamble and went with an elite hitter for the third consecutive year. Crews joins Brady House (2021) and Elijah Green (2022) as potential game-changing parts of the Nationals’ future lineup. And he could someday soon join some combination of James Wood, Lane Thomas and Robert Hassell III (all acquired the last years via trade) in a hugely talented outfield in D.C.
"He's the type of guy we want here in Washington," Rizzo said. "He's a terrific person. He's got great character. He's very competitive. He's a winner. And he's got a great skill set. I think he's a guy that's going to fit right in here and be one of the leaders of the core group of guys that's going to be part of the next group of championships that we have here."
Despite finishing with the majors' worst record in 2022, the Nationals lost out to the Pirates for the No. 1 pick thanks to MLB's new draft lottery. They will, however, own the first pick in each of the draft's remaining 19 rounds, and when it was their turn to kick of Round 2 tonight they didn't hesitate to select a player many deemed a first-round talent.
Morales, 21, was a first-team All-ACC selection after hitting .408 with 20 homers, 70 RBIs, a .475 on-base percentage and 1.187 OPS in 61 games for Miami this season. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he's big for a third baseman but plays the position surprisingly well. Rated as high as the 20th best prospect in this draft, the kid who goes by the nickname "Yo Yo" was especially coveted by the Nationals.
"One of the loudest bats I heard this year," said Kline, who admitted the Nats had him even higher than 20th on their draft board. "We were pretty happy with that one, to get him at 40."