Nats take a familiar first-round gamble

Nationals first-round selection RHP Erick Fedde. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

WASHINGTON — Anyone familiar with Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo’s high-risk, high-reward tendencies could have seen this one coming.

Relegated to the 18th overall pick in this year’s draft, which includes all eligible North American high school and college players, Washington made a play eerily similar to the one they made in 2012, nabbing right-handed pitcher Erick Fedde out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Fedde, 21, pitched his way to an 8-2 record with a stellar 1.76 ERA (15 ER/76.2 IP) and better than a strikeout per inning. He was considered among the top college arms in the game, and almost assuredly a top-10 pick in this year’s draft. But he blew out the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his pitching elbow, requiring the corrective Tommy John surgery that seems ubiquitous in today’s game.

If this move by the Nats sounds familiar, it should. In 2012, Washington used the 16th overall pick on high school right-handed hurler Lucas Giolito, who had been considered possibly the first ever prep righty to go No. 1 overall until a similar injury — one that also eventually required Tommy John — hurt his draft stock.

Giolito completed the year-long rehab process and showed signs of his potential in the low minors last season, pitching to a 1.96 ERA over 11 starts. Baseball America tabbed him the No. 21 prospect in all of professional baseball heading into the 2014 season.

The Nationals will hope for the same recovery and progress from Fedde.

“We don’t take hollow chances,” explained Rizzo to the media following the pick. “We do a lot of research. We do a lot of background checks. We work hand-in-hand with our medical team. We have very good success in rehabbing those types of players.”

Long gone are the Washington Nationals’ days of 100-loss seasons. But as their win total on the field rises, their selection spot in the following year’s MLB First-Year Player Draft falls accordingly. As such, they are no longer able to bank on top talent being available when their turn comes around, as it was in 2009 and 2010 with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, respectively.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with the results thus far. Washington has seen six of its nine first-round selections from 2005 through 2011 contribute for the club at the big league level. The only drafts since the club moved to D.C. that failed to produce at least one steady Major League player came in 2006, prior to Rizzo’s tenure, and in 2008, when the club was unable to sign first-rounder Aaron Crow. Crow reentered the draft the next year, and is now a fixture in the Kansas City Royals’ bullpen.

The chart below is a graphic representation of the career wins above replacement (WAR) of the first-round draft picks across the league since 2005 — when the Nationals moved to Washington — through 2011. If a team did not have a first- round pick in a given year, they were not counted in that year’s average, and if a team had more than one first-round pick, the players’ WAR was combined. Totals are current through the games of June 5, 2014. All numbers courtesy of Baseball Reference.

These are Washington’s first-round selections over that span:

  • 2005: Ryan Zimmerman – Fourth overall selection
  • 2006: Chris Marrero – 15th overall selection
  • 2006: Colton Willems – 22nd overall selection
  • 2007: Ross Detwiler – Sixth overall selection
  • 2008: Aaron Crow – Ninth overall selection*
  • 2009: Stephen Strasburg – First overall selection
  • 2009: Drew Storen – 10th overall selection
  • 2010: Bryce Harper – First overall selection
  • 2011: Anthony Rendon – Sixth overall selection

*Did not sign

The 61.5 WAR amassed by that group is the highest mark in Major League Baseball of any group of first-rounders. The next closest total is the 56.5 WAR posted by the Tampa Bay Rays, thanks almost entirely to the contributions of Evan Longoria (37.3) and David Price (19.1). First-round picks of two teams, the Phillies and Padres, actually have combined for negative WAR totals over that span.

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