Rizzo on players Nats protected from Rule 5 draft

NASHVILLE – This afternoon’s Rule 5 draft marks the end of the Winter Meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Resort. Typically held on Thursday morning the week of the Meetings, the league bumped it up to Wednesday afternoon last year, much to the delight of beat reporters who get to travel home a day early.

The Nationals historically haven’t utilized this avenue of roster building. Designed to keep teams from stashing prospects in the minor leagues, general manager Mike Rizzo has usually turned to acquiring established major leaguers instead of taking a flier on an unproven prospect that has to take up a roster spot for the entirety of next season.

But the Nats did stray away from that last year by selecting Thaddeus Ward from the Red Sox with the first-overall pick in the Rule 5 draft, their first selection in 12 years.

Although they hold the No. 5 overall pick this afternoon and have two open spots on the 40-man roster, the Nats aren’t assured of making a selection. But that doesn’t mean the Rule 5 draft will definitely be uneventful for them.

The Nats, of course, can lose players in this event and they have already taken steps to assure they keep the ones they definitely want.

Last month, they added left-handers DJ Herz and Mitchell Parker and right-handers Cole Henry and Zach Brzykcy to their 40-man roster to protect them from this year’s Rule 5 draft.

“Well, we thought that they were capable of pitching in the big leagues for some team and we wanted to keep them,” Rizzo said. “I think all those guys are capable of pitching in the big leagues. I think they all will play in the big leagues at some part of their careers. And we felt that if we didn't protect them, we would have lost them.”

Herz, acquired from the Cubs for Jeimer Candelario at the trade deadline, posted a 2.55 ERA, 1.132 WHIP and 53 strikeouts in 35 ⅓ innings for Double-A Harrisburg and then had a 3.71 ERA, 1.294 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 17 innings while being named a Fall Star in the Arizona Fall League. Of the four, Herz is most likely to make his major league debut next year.

A fifth-round pick in the 2020 draft, Parker had a 4.72 ERA and 1.419 WHIP in 28 games between Harrisburg and Triple-A Rochester this season. His high strikeout numbers (150 strikeouts in 124 innings) give hope that he could reach the big leagues sooner rather than later.

Brzykcy (pronounced "BRICK-see") missed all of this year after Tommy John surgery but has impressed as an undrafted pitcher who has risen through the ranks in a short amount of time. Across three levels in 2022, he went 8-2 with a 1.76 ERA, 1.011 WHIP, 95 strikeouts and 29 walks over 61 ⅓ innings in 51 appearances. Now he’s looking to bounce back in 2024 after a typical Tommy John recovery program.

“He's typical Tommy John surgery,” Rizzo said. “He's a reliever, we expect him to be in spring training. We may slow play him in spring training to start, but the Tommy John protocol is going well, and we haven't had any blips on the radar on his rehabilitation.”

No injured pitcher on the Nats farm, however, has gone under a more brutal rehabilitation than Henry, who is still recovering from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. A 2020 second-round pick out of LSU, Henry did return to the mound this year, but he fell way short of his goal by pitching only 33 ⅓ innings in 14 games. The Nats are still holding out hope one of their former top pitching prospects can recapture his potential after such a difficult surgery.

“Honestly, I haven't learned much about it,” Rizzo said of thoracic outlet surgery. “It's a difficult rehab to get your arms around. What we're doing is and what I've learned from other GMs who've had these type of surgeries with pitchers is that each player is different. It really is. Tommy John surgery, there's a protocol and ligaments kind of heal and we have the throwing program and that. These are really dictated on how the player can bounce back. When they remove a rib, it's not like sewing something together. All of our bodies are different. The nerves go through your body differently. So it's a really difficult surgery to overcome and rehab from.

“In Cole's situation, we're listening to him. He's in tune with his body. We're trusting that he's doing the right thing for his rehab. And we don't want him to overdo it. We want him to slow play him into getting into health where we could stretch him out. And then he could have one of these careers like some of these other pitchers that had the surgery that he's had.”

As for preparations for their No. 5 pick, the Nationals have had discussions about players they would take if available, even in the minor league portion of the draft.

“We're preparing some names,” Rizzo said. “We're going to meet with our scouting people and Davey and myself, and see if we're going to be (in for) a player in the big leagues portion of it or in the minor league portion of it. Or both.”

Do you select based on need or best player available?

“Best available.”

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