Nats poised to make first Rule 5 draft pick in 12 years

SAN DIEGO – It’s been 12 long years since the Nationals last selected a player in the Rule 5 draft. Such was life for a franchise that spent the better part of a decade contending for a division title and October glory.

These days, though, the Nats aren’t talking about contention anytime soon. They finished with the majors’ worst record this season. That earned them a shot at the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft (they found out Tuesday night they’ll pick second instead of first). And it guaranteed them the No. 1 pick in today’s Rule 5 draft, which promises to bring an end to that long drought of inactivity.

“We’ve got a list of players that we’re going over,” general manager Mike Rizzo said earlier this week at the Winter Meetings. “If they’re players that fit what we’re trying to do right now, we’ve crafted the roster that we can take a player on. We’re going to go through the list and see if there’s someone that we really like. And if we like somebody, we’ll take them.”

There’s every reason to believe the Nationals will take somebody. Maybe even two somebodies if they want to use both of their vacant 40-man roster spots on low-risk prospects left unprotected by other organizations.

For those who don’t remember how this works: The Rule 5 draft allows teams to acquire players with at least four or five years of minor league service who aren’t currently on 40-man rosters. For the bargain-basement price of $100,000 apiece, teams can snatch those players away with one big condition: They must remain on the major league roster for the entire season (including at least 90 days on the active roster, not the injured list).

Rule 5 success stories are few and far between, but recent drafts have produced players who stuck, like the Tigers’ Akil Baddoo, the Red Sox’s Garrett Whitlock, the Orioles’ Anthony Santander and the Phillies’ Odúbel Herrera.

In the Nationals’ current situation, there should be ample patience to keep a Rule 5 pick on the roster all year, provided that player deserves it.

It’s not as simple as drafting the most talented available player, though. It’s got to be someone advanced enough to be able to survive a season in the majors. It also needs to be someone who isn’t clogging up a roster spot that should go to someone else.

“I think it’s a combination of who’s the best player that gives you the chance to impact your team the greatest,” Rizzo said. “I think that’s the way we look at just about everything, and that’s the way we’re going to attack this one, too.”

Does that mean a position player or a pitcher for the Nats?

“For me, I’d rather have a pitcher, because you could use him as a young player,” manager Davey Martinez said. “It will be tough, if he’s 19-20, to just put him in and try to get him consistent at-bats. But we’re weighing all our options to see what’s going to be best.”

There doesn’t appear to be a consensus best available player, but a handful of names have consistently been mentioned in the days leading up to the draft.

Potential pitchers on the Nationals’ radar include left-handers Erik Miller of the Phillies and Antoine Kelly of the Rangers, plus right-handers Andrew Schultz of the Phillies and Thad Ward of the Red Sox.

Potential position players include outfielder Corey Julks of the Astros, first baseman Malcolm Nunez of the Pirates and third baseman/first baseman Austin Shenton of the Rays.

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