By Chris Cwik
The MLB amateur draft is perhaps the most difficult of all the professional sports leagues' drafts to predict. Teams are truly choosing raw prospects -- the types of players who will need years of development before they are actually ready for the majors. Some teams even hinge their future on high school players, who may take five-plus seasons before they make their professional debuts.
The Nationals have responded to this uncertainty by adding even more risk into the equation. Over the past four seasons, the team has shown a willingness to select players with major injury concerns with early draft picks. The club selected infielder Anthony Rendon and pitcher Matt Purke with their first few picks in 2011, and followed that up by taking Lucas Giolito in the first round in 2012. After a year without a first-round pick, the team went back to the strategy in 2014, selecting pitcher Erick Fedde.
All four players had significant injury concerns at the time of the draft. Rendon was coming off a less-than-stellar senior year, and had been dealing with shoulder issues throughout the season. Purke also had shoulder issues, which dropped him to the third round. Giolito was drafted with the expectation he would have to undergo Tommy John surgery, while Fedde had the surgery prior to the draft.
No other team has been willing to take these risks as frequently as the Nationals. "I can't think of anyone who has taken as many players with red-flags -- particularly in terms of arms -- as the Nationals have," according to ESPN Insider and Executive Editor of Draft to the Show's Chris Crawford. The strategy has mostly worked out. Rendon has already reached the majors, and looks like he'll at least be a quality regular at third. Giolito is a long way off, but "his pure stuff is as good as any pitcher in minor league baseball," Crawford said. Purke, however, hasn't been successful. Various injuries have prevented him from turning in quality seasons in the minors.
Still, it's clear why the Nationals have decided to go this route. The aforementioned players they selected would have gone significantly higher if they were healthy, so this allowed the team to pick up potentially elite talent at points in the draft where that talent doesn't exist. Both Rendon and Giolito were legitimate candidates to go first overall a few months before each of their drafts, and the Nationals took them with the sixth and sixteenth picks respectively. Perception was mixed about Purke, but the consensus was that he would have gone earlier if healthy, according to Crawford, adding that Fedde would have gone "substantially higher" than 18th this year if he wasn't recovering from Tommy John.
Taking chances with Giolito and Fedde also seems to indicate that the organization isn't concerned with Tommy John Surgery. Though this season has already seen a number of pitchers undergo the second TJ procedure of their careers, the surgery is becoming more routine. In a March study published by The American Journal of Sports Medicine, it was revealed that 83 percent of major league pitchers who have Tommy John pitch in the majors again (while 97 percent pitch again period). As Crawford put it, "Tommy John is still risky and it has a nasty habit of being necessary again, but it's saved an awful lot of careers."
In Rendon's case, it seems the team was willing to bet on his numbers over his college career at Rice University, and not just after one down season. The team also deserves credit for recognizing Rendon's shoulder issues his senior year weren't a red flag. The team took the same approach with Purke, but shoulder injuries are much more difficult for pitchers to overcome.
Overall, the strategy has paid off. After selecting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper with the first picks in 2009 and 2010, the Nationals started to see their fortunes rise. Despite falling in the draft order, the team still managed to draft elite players. There's a pretty strong case to be made that from 2009 to 2012, the Nationals selected the top player in the draft each season.
The team has been able to infuse elite talent into their system by pushing injuries aside in favor of production. It hasn't been perfect, as Purke's situation illustrates. For the most part, though, the team has already seen the fruits of their labor. Rendon is at least a league-average regular, and Giolito looks like one of the game's next big pitching prospects. The selection of Fedde this season proves the team isn't going to change course any time soon. The best franchises in the majors are the ones that can win at the major league level while adding talent in the farm system. The Nationals seem to have found a way to accomplish both.
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Chris Cwik writes for various baseball sites on the internet, CBSSports.com and FanGraphs.com. He has also contributed to ESPN and the Hardball Times Baseball Annual. Follow him on Twitter at @Chris_Cwik.