The Nationals hadn’t held a top-10 pick in the draft in 11 years. Not since Anthony Rendon dropped down the board and landed in their lap with the No. 6 pick in 2011 had they been in a position to choose a player as early in the draft as they did Sunday night, when they used the fifth overall pick on Florida high school outfielder Elijah Green.
Which brings an added amount of pressure to an organization that hasn’t struck gold with a first-round pick in a long time and knows it needs to get this one right.
“I think there’s more pressure when you pick at the bottom,” longtime vice president of scouting operations Kris Kline insisted late Sunday night. “Obviously, every year you’d like to pick at the bottom, because that’s a reflection of how your major league team is doing. But we’re going through a process here of rebuilding.”
The Nats’ track record with early first-round picks is solid. Who wouldn’t take Ryan Zimmerman, Ross Detwiler, Aaron Crow, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Drew Storen and Rendon? Sure, Detwiler and Storen aren’t on the same level as the big names there, but each made it to and stuck in the big leagues for a while. (Detwiler’s still pitching for the Reds, some 15 years after he was drafted.) And Crow, though he didn’t sign with the Nats, ultimately made an All-Star team with the Royals before his career fizzled out.
The Nationals’ track record with late first-round picks is anything but solid. Of their last nine selections, only Lucas Giolito (16th in 2012) has produced more than 1.5 Wins Above Replacement in the big leagues, and he’s done it for the White Sox. Erick Fedde (18th in 2014) has established himself as a back-of-the-rotation starter on a rebuilding club. Carter Kieboom (28th in 2016), Seth Romero (25th in 2017), Mason Denaburg (27th in 2018) and Jackson Rutledge (17th in 2019) all have been too injured and/or ineffective to make it so far. Cade Cavalli (22nd in 2020) and Brady House (11th in 2021) are hoping to be part of the organization’s next contending roster.
The Nats need Cavalli and House to do just that, and now they need Green to realize his immense potential and become the organization’s next big name.
“When you get this type of person and this type of skill set where we did, we’re all thrilled,” Kline said. “This guy could be an impactful superstar.”
There’s inherent risk involved in taking an 18-year-old, though. Green clearly has all the physical tools to suggest he’s going to be a star big leaguer, but he’s a far less polished player at this point than a college player three years older would be. So there’s now also pressure on a revamped Nationals player development operation to help him realize his full potential, even if that takes some time.
Green, the son of former NFL tight end Eric Green, seems to understand these things don’t happen overnight. Even in a best-case scenario, it’s probably going to be three or four years before he takes the field at Nationals Park as a major leaguer.
“I know baseball’s a grind,” he said. “So I’m always going to be patient with it. I’m going to keep my head down, work every day. And whenever I get my time, I get my time.”
The path to the majors could be shorter for Jake Bennett, the Nationals’ second-round pick. A 21-year-old left-hander from Oklahoma, he pitched in both high school and college with Cavalli, and this summer was a workhorse on a Sooners squad that went to the College World Series.
Bennett, who the Nats actually began scouting before they were ever interested in Cavalli, should be a more finished product, with the potential to climb the organizational ladder more quickly.
“This particular player, we’ve known since high school,” assistant scouting director Mark Baca said. “So we’ve actually followed him along and watched him grow – I mean, really grow – all the way from high school to college.”
If Bennett does make it to D.C. in short order, he’ll buck a disturbing trend the Nats desperately need to reverse.
They haven’t had a second-round pick of theirs produce at least 1.0 WAR in the majors since Jordan Zimmermann, drafted way back in 2007. The best of the 14 other second-round picks they’ve drafted since Zimmermann? Andrew Stevenson, Sammy Solís and Wil Crowe, with the possibility more recent picks Cole Henry, Daylen Lile and Sammy Infante could still make it.
The only way this franchise is going to climb back to the lofty perch it held only a few years ago is through draft and development. That’s how it originally became a perennial contender, with a core group of homegrown players leading the way and a handful of calculated free agents or trade acquisitions supplementing them.
As we’ve seen in painful fashion, they don’t have anything like that right now. They’ve done a decent job developing talent from their Latin American program, but they’ve done a dismal job developing talent from their drafts.
The Nationals hope they already started to change that narrative in the last two years with the drafting of Cavalli and House. But neither of them was a top-10 pick.
Green was. And that makes his eventual development into a big-time player for this organization critical.
“You’re talking about a skill set that is potentially going to hit in the middle of your order and be impactful,” Kline said. “There are very special players in this draft, but their skill sets aren’t the same. You had some really good-looking hitters, but maybe they had some deficiencies in other aspects of their game. But Elijah has a chance to be a five-tool package at the major league level. And when I say five tools, I mean five above-average tools at the big league level.”