Nats take flyer on Red Sox righty Ward in Rule 5 draft (updated)

SAN DIEGO – With their first Rule 5 draft pick in a dozen years, the Nationals took a flyer on a right-hander who recently returned from Tommy John surgery, hoping he can make it through the entire 2023 season on the major league roster, most likely as a multi-inning reliever before ultimately joining the rotation.

Thad Ward, who spent the last five seasons in the Red Sox organization, was the Nats’ pick of the litter, going No. 1 in today’s Rule 5 draft, which unofficially wraps up the Winter Meetings.

"It makes you feel good as a player to know that other teams value you," Ward said in a conference call with reporters. "It’s really rewarding to see your hard work get seen. … Honestly, I’m just thankful. I’m going to leave it at that. I’m thankful for the opportunity, and I’m ready to get to work with the Nats and get this thing going.”

Ward, who turns 26 next month, was Boston’s organizational pitcher of the year in 2019 after posting a 2.14 ERA and 157 strikeouts in 25 combined starts between both levels of Single-A. He hasn’t pitched much since then, though, missing the 2020 season (along with all other minor leaguers) because of the pandemic, then missing most of the 2021 and 2022 campaigns while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Ward returned strong this summer, producing a 2.28 ERA and 66 strikeouts across 51 1/3 innings at three levels of the Red Sox system. Seven of his starts came at Double-A Portland, where he had a 2.43 ERA and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

Ward then pitched in the Arizona Fall League, posting a 2.84 ERA and striking out 15 batters over 12 2/3 innings against upper-level prospects.

"Those past years have been unfortunate, and it's been a lot of things I can't control," he said. "I'm definitely not the only person that's had to deal with setbacks as such, so I've been going about it that way. But it's definitely exciting to be getting this opportunity. And to have it coming on the tail end of those setbacks is also kind of gratifying in the amount of hard work and dedication that has come out on the good side of this."

The Nationals, who must pay $100,000 to the Red Sox to acquire Ward, must keep him on their major league roster the entire 2023 season, with at least 90 days on the active roster (i.e. not on the injured list). If they don’t do that, they must offer him back for $50,000.

"He was a guy in the war room that was kind of a consensus pick," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "There's a blend there, and a balance. We didn't want to shoot the moon and give (manager Davey Martinez) a raw player, a young player. But you always like that upside of those guys. So this guy kind of blends those. He's got some upside. We think he's going to get a little bit better."

Though Ward projects long-term as a starter, the Nationals understand it would a tall ask for him to make it through the entire season in their big league rotation. Rizzo said they will stretch out the right-hander like other starters in spring training but likely attempt to keep him as a multi-inning reliever. Depending on how he performs - and depending on how many innings they're willing to let him throw in the wake of his elbow surgery - he could eventually work his way into the rotation.

"We see him as a starting pitching candidate," Rizzo said. "That's what he's always been. That's how we scouted him. That's how we like him. We're not going to rule out anything. He's going to come to spring training with the mindset that he's going to pitch multiple innings, and then we'll take it from there."

This was the first time the Nats selected a player in the major league Rule 5 draft since 2010, when they took right-handers Elvin Ramirez and Brian Broderick, neither of whom stuck. The only Rule 5 acquisition in club history to stick in the big leagues more than one season was catcher Jesus Flores, selected in December 2006.

The Nationals did not lose any players in today’s major league draft. Among the players they left unprotected were catcher Drew Millas, shortstop Jackson Cluff and right-hander Mason Denaburg. They did, however, lose Josh Palacios to the Pirates in the Triple-A phase of the draft. The outfielder, who spent most of August and September in D.C., was dropped from the 40-man roster last week and assigned to Double-A Harrisburg's roster, which left him unprotected.

"He got a small sample of play in the big leagues, but we saw him at Triple-A quite a bit," Rizzo said. "We think with the outfield we've got coming, that it was a way we could reset our 40-man roster."

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