David Huzzard: Looking back at the Nats’ first draft

This evening, the Nationals will take part in the First-Year Player Draft for the 10th time. In their existence, they’ve drafted near the top more often than not, and their first season in 2005 was no different. The Nationals held the fourth pick in what would turn out to be one of the best first rounds of any MLB draft. With the fourth pick that year, the Nationals selected third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Two other third basemen were taken within the first five picks that year. All three of those third basemen are still with their original teams, played third base in the majors and later became left fielders.

The concern over Zimmerman moving to left field is understandable, but he isn’t the first third baseman to make the move and he won’t be the last. The other two third basemen picked in the first five picks in 2005 were Kansas City’s Alex Gordon and Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun. Gordon transitioned to left field in 2010, and since that year has been the best defensive left fielder in the game of baseball. Braun, who has since moved to right field, was the more traditional left fielder, known more for his bat than his defense.

Both Gordon and Braun made the switch to left field much earlier in their careers than Zimmerman, but moving to a less defensively important position is a tactic that has been used for a long time to extend careers. Most of the time, it is a move to first, but often times it is a move to the outfield. One of the more famous instances of this is when the Braves signed Vinny Castilla for the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Chipper Jones was the Braves’ established third baseman, but Castilla was defensively superior and in order to make room for Castilla at third, Chipper Jones moved to left field, and along with Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield the 2002-03 Braves had one of the best offensive outfields of all time.

The Nationals could, in theory, have the same type of outfield with Bryce Harper in center and Jayson Werth and Zimmerman at the corners, but if Denard Span is still hitting when Harper is healthy, that is unlikely to happen. The more likely scenario is that the Nationals finally have their opening day lineup on the field for more than one half of a game, but Zimmerman’s willingness to play left or first gives the Nationals options for 2015.

With Adam LaRoche being the best first baseman in the 2015 free agent class, the Nationals may want to pick up his mutual option, but being the best free agent first baseman on the market means LaRoche may not. If LaRoche is gone, Zimmerman goes to first and either Michael Taylor or Brian Goodwin takes over in center for Span and the Nationals look for a second or third baseman via trade or free agency. If the Nationals end up keeping LaRoche, Zimmerman plays left with Harper in center and the Nationals still need to find a second or third baseman, and without many good second basemen on the free agent market, getting a third baseman with Anthony Rendon at second looks to be the way to go, especially with Hanley Ramirez as the premier position player free agent of the 2015 class.

It has been 10 seasons since the 2005 draft and Zimmerman, Gordon and Braun are just three of the great players who were selected that year. If what were known today were known in 2005, the Nationals wouldn’t have ended up with Zimmerman. When reordering the draft based on cumulative career bWAR, the first overall pick would have been Troy Tulowitzki instead of Justin Upton and the fourth pick would’ve been Andrew McCutchen with Zimmerman already off the board to the Mariners, who held the third pick that year.

By bWAR, the top 10 players selected that season were Tulowitzki, Braun, Zimmerman, McCutchen, Gordon, Jacoby Ellsbury, Upton, Jay Bruce, Matt Garza and Clay Buchholz. If some team could find a way to have all eight of those position players on the field at the same time, that wouldn’t just be a World Series-caliber lineup, it would be one of the greatest of all time. But of the seven outfielders, four of them were drafted as infielders and three of them played infield in the majors.

David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our regular roster of writers.

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