It is no secret that the Nationals have made a commitment to drafting and developing pitching. Cade Cavalli, their first-round pick in the 2020 First-Year Player Draft, is the most recent example of that strategy. The Nats have selected 34 pitchers in the first 10 rounds of the last five drafts, and if this year’s draft was not shortened to just five rounds, that number would likely be higher.
General manager Mike Rizzo built a championship team on starting pitching, and it is clear that he hopes to eventually turn over the spots of his aging rotation at the big league level to guys within his own system. But Rizzo’s farm system, highlighted by pitchers filling the top 10 prospect rankings, is why the Nats are not likely to make a big splash in the trade market this offseason.
The Nationals have selected a pitcher with each of their first-round picks over the last five years. These have often been players who fell to them in the first round because of injuries or other issues. Most recently, it was Cavalli, who had back issues in high school and dealt with a stress reaction at Oklahoma. Before Cavalli, it was Seth Romero, who had behavior issues Houston; Mason Denaburg who battled tendonitis his senior high school season; and Jackson Rutledge who had hip surgery before the Nationals drafted him last year. Lucas Giolito had Tommy John surgery scheduled when the Nationals took him in 2012. They like high-risk picks, hoping they can turn into a high reward.
“I think as you look across baseball you can never have too much quality pitching,” said Double-A Harrisburg pitching coach Sam Narron. “The emphasis on where we draft and who we draft stems from that.”
A huge benefit of the Nationals’ philosophy is that developing their own arms is much cheaper. Good free agents come with a much heftier price tag. Plus, when teams draft their own pitching, they get them into the system sooner and can shape them into what they want.
“When you have those high picks, you have the opportunity to get a high-impact guy very quickly,” Narron said. “Of course, the one that jumps to mind is Stephen Strasburg.”
And sometimes their trade value is the reward.
“We’ve had a lot of quality arms that we have developed and they don’t necessarily make it to the big leagues with us, but they have allowed us as an organization to bring in pieces in trades that have helped us win a World Series,” Narron said.
The Nationals traded Giolito and Dane Dunning, their first-round picks in 2012 and 2016, respectively, to the White Sox for Adam Eaton. The Nationals’ trade for Sean Doolittle, in which they dealt away Jesús Luzardo, stands out as an important move that helped them win their first World Series in 2019.
This year, it is unclear whether the top of the Nationals prospect list is touchable in trade talks to get someone like Kris Bryant, but Narron said they have arms that could be ready to go next year and he is impressed with what he saw from Cavalli at fall instructional league.
“Being our No. 1 pick, he’s got a special arm,” Narron said. “The sky’s the limit for him.”