Nats must start turning draft picks into quality big leaguers

At the crux of the Nationals’ decision to trade away eight veterans and begin a franchise rebuilding project this summer was an acknowledgment by the front office that its farm system desperately needed to be restocked.

Had their system been filled with more prospects who could step in and take over when veterans either got hurt or saw their skills fade, the Nats might well have stayed the course and made an attempt to continue winning now instead of shifting focus to the future.

But that simply wasn’t the case. A minor league system that had been rated among the sport’s worst for a few years just wasn’t in a position to make up for the problems on the big league roster. So when general manager Mike Rizzo traded away those eight veterans, the 12 young players he acquired in return immediately were used to restock that barren farm.

Things do look better now, though the problem is far from solved. The Nationals still need more future big league talent in their system. And to do that, they’re going to need to be better at scouting, drafting and then developing players.

To that end, organizational changes appear to be coming.

Thumbnail image for Rizzo-Chats-With-Martinez-at-Cage-Sidebar.jpg“We’re certainly going to make some changes in the player development and scouting ranks, just to get some new ideas and some fresh looks and some fresh sets of eyes in there,” Rizzo said Sunday. “And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Ten or 12 years with the same staff shows the cohesion, and then when you make some nice tweaks to get a new set of eyes and some new ideas is never a bad thing.”

Among the questions Rizzo needs to confront: Are the Nationals not drafting good enough players? Or are they not developing enough good players into big leaguers? Or is it a combination of the two?

Whatever the answer, the lack of impact players coming up through the system in recent years is striking.

Since 2013, players drafted and then signed by the Nationals have produced a total of only 4.0 WAR in the major leagues, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The only player from that group worth more than 1.0 WAR is Nick Pivetta, their fourth-round pick in 2013 who two years later was traded to the Phillies for Jonathan Papelbon and on Sunday struck out Juan Soto in the final at-bat of the season to clinch a wild card berth for the Red Sox.

No Nationals draft pick has gone on to produce more than 1.0 WAR for them since Anthony Rendon, the sixth overall pick in 2011. Their other draft picks since then to reach the big leagues in D.C. are Lucas Giolito (who blossomed into an ace after he was traded to the White Sox), Spencer Kieboom, Austin Voth, Erick Fedde, Jakson Reetz, Austen Williams, James Bourque, Andrew Stevenson, Koda Glover, Carter Kieboom, Tres Barrera, Jake Noll, Ben Braymer, Seth Romero, Wil Crowe, Gabe Klobosits and Cody Wilson.

The Nats have had more success in signing and then developing players out of Latin America, with Soto headlining a list of big leaguers that also includes Victor Robles, Luis García, Yadiel Hernandez, Wander Suero, Jefry Rodriguez, Joan Adon, Raudy Read, Pedro Severino, Wilmer Difo and Reynaldo López.

Asked about his comfort level with the club’s player development, Rizzo offered compliments while acknowledging changes to come.

“I like all parts of it,” he said. “We’re going to make some tweaks to get some new ideas and some fresh thoughts out there. But I’m happy with a player development department that’s helped us win four division titles and a World Series championship in the last 11 years. I’m happy with what they’ve done for us in the past and what they’re going to do for us in the future.”

In their defense, the Nationals spent the better part of a decade selecting players near the bottom of each round of the draft, a byproduct of eight consecutive winning seasons. Rendon was their last top 10 pick.

At the same time, though, other perennial contenders have managed to develop quality big leaguers from the 20th draft position and lower: the Cardinals (Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Dylan Carlson), Dodgers (Walker Buehler, Gavin Lux, Will Smith), Yankees (Aaron Judge) and Braves (Mike Soroka, Austin Riley).

The Nats hope they did finally snag a future star late in the first round when they drafted Cade Cavalli with the 22nd pick last summer. The 23-year-old right-hander enjoyed an often-dominant first full professional season, leading the entire minor leagues with 175 strikeouts while thriving at Single-A Wilmington (1.99 ERA, 0.885 WHIP in seven starts) and Double-A Harrisburg (2.79 ERA, 1.276 WHIP).

Cavalli did struggle in six September starts with Triple-A Rochester, going 1-5 with a 7.30 ERA and 1.865 WHIP as more advanced hitters proved tougher to strike out than they did at lower levels.

“I’ve seen every start he had this whole season on video, and my assessment is he wore down at the end of the season,” Rizzo said. “Better competition, worn-down pitcher. But the developmental part of Cavalli could not have gone better. He made every start, he threw deep in the games every time he pitched. His stuff was good, and he finished his season with still the same stuff that he started with. ... So you got yourself a good young arm, that’s a fresh arm, and got through a full season. Started in A-ball and ended in Triple-A, and it couldn’t have gone better for him.”

It remains to be seen if Cavalli figures into the Nationals’ opening day plans in 2022 or if his debut will come later in the season, but his development and ascension to the big leagues will as critical to the franchise’s near-term chances of winning again as anyone.

The Nats also hope they got themselves a future star infielder in Brady House, the No. 11 overall pick of this summer’s draft who put up big numbers (.322 batting average, .394 on-base percentage, .970 OPS) in 16 games with the club’s Rookie-level Florida Complex League team.

But there will be pressure on Rizzo and longtime scouting director Kris Kline to hit a home run with the No. 5 pick in next summer’s draft, the first time they’ll pick that high in more than a decade.

And then there will be pressure on the organization’s minor league coaches and instructors to turn that young player, plus House, Cavalli and others into big leaguers for the Nationals, who very much are staking their chances of becoming a championship organization again on being successful at something they struggled with for a long time while pursuing that all-important championship.

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