Your 2014 World Champion is...
June 6, 2011

As the title suggests, I'm a bit optimistic about the Washington Nationals' future.  Oh sure, they'll keep losing as long as the front office thinks it's funny that Teddy loses every night.  But that joke has already run its course and a smart public relations department is one that can find better ways to sell a night at the ballpark to fans than teasing us as to who will win the mascot race.  Do the Nationals' have a smart PR department?  We'll find out soon because the Nats have stumbled into the mother load of player talent over the last three Rule 4 amateur player drafts. 

Two years ago, they brought home arguably the best college pitching prospect ever, Stephen Strasburg.  The jury is still out as to whether he can stay healthy enough to realize his enormous potential, but when he's on the mound there's no doubt he is one of the most dominant starters in baseball.  In his rookie season he posted an absurd 1.07 baserunners per inning despite a mediocre defense behind him.  For an established ace like Roy Halladay or CC Sabathia or Tim Lincecum that's a good season.  But that's a testament to Strasburg's incredible ability to strike batters out, a rate of 12 per 9 innings so far, which is pretty much new territory for starters of any age or level of experience.  In that draft they also picked up a pretty decent closer in Drew Storen.  In his brief career so far he's saved 16 of 19 chances, which is about major league average for a good closer.

Last year, they were able to draft first overall again and took who Baseball America has described as the best power prospect in the history of the draft dating back to 1965: Bryce Harper.  After decimating junior college pitching as a 17-year old, he is now doing the same against pitchers 2 and 3 years older than he at Single-A in his first professional season at age 18, when most players are still in their final year of high school.   He'll earn his promotion probably in the next few weeks to a higher level of A-ball and it would not be at all surprising to see him in Double-A for a cup of coffee by the end of the season.  In addition to Harper, the Nats also drafted a highly regarded high school pitcher named AJ Cole, who if not for a complete lack of run support and some shoddy defense could very well be 6-0 at the same level Harper is playing.  The 19-year old has not allowed more than 2 earned runs in any of his six starts and is striking out batters at a rate of 10.6 batter per 9 innings and striking out five times as many as he's walking.  That's pretty special for a 19-year old against older competition.  Did I mention that his fastball sits in the high 90s?  Hagerstown also features another 2010 draftee, a left-handed counterpart to Cole, Robbie Ray.  He doesn't throw as hard but he commands four pitches and like Cole should move fairly quickly.

So far, so good, but the cherry on top came tonight, assuming the Nats sign their top three picks. 

In the first round, due to concerns about a shoulder injury he suffered early in the college season, Anthony Rendon fell from the consensus #1 pick overall to the Nats with the #6 pick.  To show how highly he was regarded before this season began, there was significant discussion before this season who would have the better career: Bryce Harper or Anthony Rendon.  Harper had the huge power and the raw physical tolls, Rendon had good power but an extraordinarily good eye at the plate and plus defensive skills at a premium position.  He had been compared favorably to All-Stars Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre, David Wright and the Nats' own Ryan Zimmerman.  The shoulder hindered his performance this season but perhaps not as much as people might imagine.  First, there was the Rice University line-up.  Last year the Owls had some draft-worthy bats surrounding Rendon which allowed him to showcase his full range of talent.  This year the team had only one other hitter with a slugging percentage over .390, so Rendon rarely got pitches to hit and consequently led the NCAA in walks with 80.  As a frame of reference, Rice only played 63 games this season, so Rendon's rate, if he played a major league season, would translate to 206 walks.  Only Barry Bonds in 2004 ever drew more walks in a single season.

The second factor that affected his performance was the NCAA change to a safer bat that did not have as much elasticity and perhaps be more accurately reflective of his potential major league power.  The effect on offense was substantial: home runs were down by 40% throughout college baseball.  Rendon smacked 20 bombs his first season and 26 bombs last year.  Just as a thought experiement, taking 40% off those totals would have given him 12 and 16 homers respectively.  This year he hit only 6 homers but his doubles total increased from 12 to 20.  His number of extra base hits did not decrease by that much this year as it turns out, from 35 and 39 down to 28.  That might just as easily be explained by the amount he was pitched around as his injury.  Considering a college season is usually around 200 at bats and a major league seasons gives a hitter almost 600, is there really that big of a difference between a hitter who produces 18 homers and 50 doubles from one that hits 35 doubles and 35 homers?  Rendon is probably somewhere in between which is to say a very good hitter regardless of how the power develops.  The preliminary medical reports on him are that he could have sat out 20-30 days and it would have healed fully but with a team that obviously could not hit at all, there was no way Rice could have made it to the postseason without Rendon, so he toughed it out for his team.  We'll know one way or another when Washington signs him and he starts playing against professionals.  So who will have the better career: Harper or Rendon?  Right now the consensus says Harper but it doesn't really matter since the Nationals now have both... or will once Rendon signs.

With their second pick in the first round they took Alex Meyer, a tall (6'9") right-handed pitcher from the University of Kentucky.  The strength of this draft was in right-handed power pitchers led by UCLA phenom Gerrit Cole and Oklahoma high-schooler Dylan Bundy.  Both pitchers touched 100 mph with their fastballs a few times this season.  There were three other hurlers who touched 100 mph as well: Archie Bradley and Taylor Guerrieri (two high-schoolers) and Meyer.  The risk with him has always been his mechanics, as it is with any really tall pitcher.  It's just hard for a guy that lanky to get all the moving parts consistently in-synch.  And true to form he had some terrible outings this spring.  But mixed in were some excellent performances against last year's national champion and favorite to make it back to this year's College World Series, South Carolina (8 innings, 3 earned runs, 8 Ks), and two of the favorites to win it all, Florida (7 innings, 1 earned run, 9 Ks) and Vanderbilt (a 9-inning shutout with 1 walk and 5 Ks).  In fact, he pitched against six of the teams that made the national field of 64 and against them he went a collective 4-2 with an ERA of 2.34, allowing 1.21 baserunners per inning and striking out 45 in 46 innings.  Against the best, he was at his best. 

And with their first pick in the supplemental round the Nats chose centerfielder Brian Goodwin.  Last year he was a toolsy athlete playing for the University of North Carolina but an academic matter made him ineligible to play for the team this year so he transferred to Miami-Dade Junior College.  MDJC has a history of some good baseball players passing through including Don Baylor, eventual Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, Placido Polanco and San Francisco Giants' current centerfielder Andres Torres.  After hitting .382 with a .492 on base percentage, 8 homers and 16 steals this season and a world of tools as yet untapped, Goodwin should join those guys as major league regulars. 

All of these players should be making their first appearances in the majors, if they haven't already, by the 2013 season and be regulars by the 2014 campaign.  They, along with highly regarded catching prospect Derek Norris, will join star talents Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos and Jayson Werth on the big club.  Assuming Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa can continue their progress, the Nats will have plus defenders at every position on the field, an offense anchored by two of the best hitting prospects in a generation and a rotation that will feature three pitchers who can touch 100 mph plus both a lefty and a righty with four-plus-pitch arsenals.  And only Jayson Werth will be older than 29 years old. 

That, dear baseball fans, sounds like a championship team.  Maybe their PR department can figure out a way to sell that instead.