Nats continue to focus on pitching in Draft

Washington selects 23 hurlers, including 16 on Day 3

June 6th, 2018

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals have focused on adding pitching depth through the MLB Draft over the past five years, and they continued that trend during the 2018 MLB Draft.

Five of the Nats' past six first-round Draft picks have been pitchers, including their selection this year, high school right-hander Mason Denaburg. Washington selected seven pitchers in the first 10 rounds and added 16 more pitchers on the final day of the Draft on Wednesday.

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Seventeen of the Nationals' pitching draftees are right-handers, while six are left-handers.

"There's a lot of pitching, so that was kind of the focus," Nationals assistant general manager and vice president of scouting operations Kris Kline said Tuesday. "The depth of the position players wasn't as great as it's been in years past."

Pitching has been the foundation for the Nationals' success over the past decade, propelling them to four National League East titles during that span. However, only three of the their top 12 prospects are pitchers, per MLB Pipeline. The Nats have traded a handful of their pitching prospects for veteran players over the past few years to compete for championships, most notably when they traded three of their top five pitching prospects for in 2016.

Adding pitching support is especially crucial since left-hander Seth Romero, the Nationals' 2017 first-round pick, was suspended during Spring Training for violating team rules and was sent home. On Wednesday, the Nats assigned Romero to a team affiliate for the first time this year.

The Nationals hope Denaburg turns into a front-line starting pitcher. Denaburg, whom MLB Pipeline ranked the 24th-best Draft prospect, played at Merritt Island High School near Viera, Fla., going 5-1 with a 1.27 ERA this past season.

Denaburg's stock dropped because he suffered from biceps tendinitis this past season, but Kline isn't worried about Denaburg's health after the right-hander thew a simulated three-inning game in front of scouts.

The Nationals' selection of Denaburg also follows a club trend of drafting players with potential injury or behavior-issue risk. Washington selected Romero in the first round last year about a month after the University of Houston baseball team dismissed him due to an undisclosed incident. In 2012, the Nats drafted right-hander in the fourth round despite him needing Tommy John surgery.

With their second-round selection, the Nationals continued to add pitching depth by picking left-hander Tim Cate from the University of Connecticut. Kline said Cate, who notched a 2.91 ERA in 11 appearances this past season, has the best left-handed curveball in the Draft and could be a No. 3 starter. Cate underwent Tommy John surgery at the age of 16, but the Nats aren't concerned about his durability.

All of the players the Nationals took during the second day of the Draft were college players. Kline said that's because most high school players wouldn't sign at that point, hoping to improve their stock in college. In total, the Nats selected 33 college players, 19 of whom were pitchers.

Kline said the Nationals got a steal by drafting right-hander Reid Schaller out of Vanderbilt University in the third round. Like Denaburg, Schaller has battled injuries. Those setbacks were a factor in him going undrafted out of high school, and he missed his first year at Vanderbilt due to Tommy John surgery. Still, Schaller throws his fastball as fast as 98 mph, and while he was a middle reliever in college, Kline said the Nats might turn Schaller into a starter.

While Washington continued to add pitchers Wednesday, it also focused more on position players after selecting just one position player in the opening seven rounds. Over the entire Draft, the Nationals drafted five outfielders, four catchers and four shortstops.

The Nats have a crowded outfield, and their two top prospects on MLB Pipeline, and Juan Soto, add congestion. Still, Washington selected center fielder Gage Canning, one of college baseball's best players this past season, from Arizona State University in the fifth round. Carter Kieboom, whom the Nationals selected in the first round in 2016, is the team's top shortstop prospect, while two other of the club's top seven prospects play shortstop. The array of potential at those positions is one of the reasons Washington is focused on filling its system with talented hurlers.

The Nationals have $5,603,800 to sign their top 10 selections, which is the third-smallest amount in this year's Draft. Denaburg's slot is assigned $2,472,700, as long as he joins the Nats instead of attending the University of Florida.