Nationals again look to build depth through draft

Sean Doolittle, Adam Eaton and Yan Gomes.

All three players are prime examples of where the Nationals needed top-flight major league talent to compete for a title, but did not necessarily have that guy in their system at the time.

All three made significant contributions on their road to winning the 2019 World Series.

In the middle of 2019, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo brought in relievers Roenis Elías and Hunter Strickland through trade. Rizzo sent minor league left-handers Taylor Guilbeau and Aaron Fletcher and right-hander Elvis Alvarado to Seattle for the two major league hurlers. The man who got the last out in Game 7, Daniel Hudson, arrived via trade with the Blue Jays for minor league right-hander Kyle Johnston.

Just in that lot the Nats sent away you have a sixth-rounder, a 10th-rounder, a 14th-rounder and an international signing, spanning drafts from 2015 to 2018. All four players are examples of draft equity the Nats used to build up their system.

With the First-Year Player Draft two days away, Rizzo will again most likely draft for potential versus need. Stockpiling the minor league roster to build home-grown talent is critical to a successful franchise. But having the players that other teams covet down the line is important, too. When you do that, you can get Eaton, Gomes and Doolittle to round out a contender’s roster.

MLBPipeline.com senior writer Jim Callis said the Nationals will implement that strategy again Wednesday and Thursday.

“Whoever you are drafting today isn’t going to step into your lineup anyway,” Callis said. “So what your need might appear to be today might not be your need tomorrow. I am a huge Carter Kieboom fan. Even if you are like, ‘OK, we don’t have a lock third baseman, we are not quite sure.’ What if Carter Kieboom becomes an All-Star and then you have drafted a third baseman?”

Yes, you will have to sacrifice talent to get talent. Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo López had to be traded to get a right fielder of the talent and experience of Eaton to D.C. Eaton went out and connected with two hits, a homer and three RBIs in a pair of must-win final games of the World Series. And to get a guy like Doolittle, yes, the Nats had to give up talent.

Rizzo-Dodger-Stadium-Sidebar.jpg“Mike Rizzo has never been afraid to trade and he has made some good trades,” Callis said. “If you draft talented players, that’s currency you can use to trade. They won a World Series, (but) I am sure part of them wishes maybe they still had left-hander Jesús Luzardo. There is a case in point.

“They drafted Luzardo coming off of Tommy John in the third round (in 2016) and he barely even pitched before they turned him into two relievers (right-hander Ryan Madson and Doolittle). So if you draft good players, you could fill your need. Let’s say things get back to normal in 2021 and the Nats have a hole on one corner on their infield. If you drafted a quality player, you could probably trade that guy to fill that hole. That makes sense for the Nats.”

Callis argues that there has never been a perfect team drafted in major league baseball history. Through the course of building a 25-man roster that can win it all, you are going to have to go out a trade for some critical pieces to put that team over the top. The Nats are no different.

“That’s really the best way to put it and why you don’t draft for need is there has never been a situation in the history of baseball where a team has said, ‘Oh, my God, we have so much talent, what are we going to do?’ ” Callis joked. “Like, ‘We can’t play these guys, there is too many of them!’ That just doesn’t happen. We have both known Mike for a number of years and Mike was a successful scouting director before he became a GM. Mike is confident in his team’s ability to scout and develop players, and I think he will take who he thinks is the best guy.”

Rizzo has made a point these past few months when asked about the state of his scouting department heading into this year’s five-round draft. Despite an abbreviated college season and absolutely no high school games, Rizzo said he was confident the Nats’ scouting department was ready. Callis points out that Rizzo has demonstrated a keen eye in the past for selecting the player that may not be the top overall selection on everyone’s mind.

“He was a first-round pick, but there were guys who weren’t in love with Max Scherzer and when Mike was in Arizona,” Callis said. “I don’t know if he would have picked Max No. 1 over Andrew Miller, who was the hot guy that year, but I know he would have picked Max Scherzer at worst No. 2. Mike was just convicted. He thought Max Scherzer was an absolute stud. And he was right.

“I thought that was one of the cool things of them winning the World Series is that there was no scouting director who believed in Max Scherzer more than Mike Rizzo and they wound up winning a championship together, even if it wasn’t in Arizona.”

The Nats have need this season at third base and down the road at first base. Kieboom could step in at third base this season. Drew Mendoza could be that answer at first base or third base in the future. But right now, Ryan Zimmerman, Eric Thames and even Howie Kendrick will play first base. And in the next few seasons, maybe even in 2021, another first baseman will be needed. Right now, that player would most likely arrive via trade.

“If you just draft talented players, you can go trade and fill your needs,” Callis said. “You will be able to solve your problems that way, too. Nobody is so good that they ever have a team where you don’t have a weakness and they draft and sign their guys perfectly to cover all of that. It just does not work out that way. It’s actually easier to just acquire talent and then address your needs at the time. That’s what you do.”

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