Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE
The Washington Nationals' willingness to take risks with injured prospects has already paid some dividends, but the strength of the minor league system in the future will be determined in large part by how some of the players they took recover from the health issues which scared other organizations away.
"After hitting the jackpot with [Stephen] Strasburg and [Bryce] Harper as back-to-back No. 1 overall picks in 2009-10," Baseball America's Aaron Fitt writes in discussing this year's list of Washington's Top 10 Prospects, "the Nationals pounced on elite prospects who slipped because of health questions with their next two top choices." Washington's next two top picks landed 1-2 in the latest organizational rankings.
In 2011, the Nats' took Rice 3B Anthony Rendon after a junior year in which the infielder struggled with ankle and shoulder injuries that limited him to a DH role. (Though he still managed to post a .327/.520/.523 line with two doubles and six home runs in 63 games and 214 at bats.)
Washington was familiar with Rendon, however. Assistant GM (and former Braves' Scouting Director) Roy Clark was with Atlanta when the Braves selected the now 22-year-old Rendon in the 27th Round of the '08 Draft, so the Nationals knew the infielder well, and as D.C. GM Mike Rizzo explained on the night of the 2011 Draft they did their homework on the medical records of the player considered by many the top hitting prospect in the draft. "We did all our due diligence on the medicals," Rizzo said, "We've gotten all the medical reports and films that our doctors have gone over painstakingly and we feel good about it."
Rendon suffered an unrelated ankle injury early in his first pro season but returned late last summer and was quickly moved from Class-A Potomac to Double-A Harrisburg where he finished the year. Rendon then went to the AFL where he was named one of the top players in the so-called finishing school for the game's best prospects and topped the list of the Nationals' best prospects when Baseball America released it last month.
No. 2 on Baseball America's list is the Nats' top pitching prospect, Lucas Giolito, the 18-year-old right-hander selected out of Harvard Westlake High School with the 16th overall pick this past season. Giolito was considered one of the top pitchers available until a strain of the ulnar collateral ligament caused his stock to drop.
The Nationals drafted the pitcher in spite of the injury concerns, with the Nats' general manager explaining that, "We weighed the risk against the reward. We felt that to get a 6'6'', 220lb right-handed pitcher with a great body and plus velocity and good stuff, great character and great makeup... we just felt that the reward outweighed the risk and we did our homework and our due diligence on his health and his makeup and decided this is the type of player, the type of stuff and the type of ceiling that we want here in the Washington Nationals' organization." Giolito made just one start before he suffered a not-unexpected tear of the UCL which required Tommy John surgery.
As the Nats' GM explained after the injury but before the surgery in an interview with CSNWashington.com's Mark Zuckerman, the worst-case scenario for Giolito didn't frighten the Nationals. "'We knew when we drafted him this was an issue,' Rizzo said. 'And, you know, we were comfortable with the fact that [the] worst-case scenario was Tommy John surgery, and we'll see where that's headed." In an interview with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier, Rizzo said Giolito would enter into a process that has thus far produced good results.
"We'll have a rehabilitation schedule in place the same as we've had with Jordan Zimmermann and [Stephen Strasburg] and [2010 2nd Round pick] Sammy Solis," Rizzo said, "and... in a year he'll be a young 19-year-old guy that's come off Tommy John surgery and will begin his ascent up the minor league system." Solis, 24, suffered a torn UCL and had Tommy John surgery last winter. In an interview with the Washington Times' Amanda Comak, the Nationals' GM said he still felt confident Solis could return to the path that had him described as a quick-to-the-majors pitcher when he was drafted out of the University of San Diego. Solis remained in the 8th spot on BA's Top 10 List this winter for the second straight year.
No.9 on Baseball America's Top 10 Prospect list for 2013 is Matt Purke, the former 1st Round pick (by the Texas Rangers in 2009) that the Nationals selected in the 3rd Round of the 2011 Draft. The Nats offered Purke a well-above slot major league deal so that he'd sign after they reviewed his medical records and decided that it was worth the risk. Purke had surgery this winter on the shoulder that caused teams to pass on him and led to the lefty being available for the Nationals to select in the 3rd Round. If Purke can return to the form he displayed in his first year of college in 2010, Washington will be rewarded for taking a big risk.
No.6 on BA's top prospects list is 27-year-old right-hander Christian Garcia, who's a little old-ish for the prospect label, but coming off a big year in the organization. Garcia, who had two Tommy John surgeries (and a separate procedure on the elbow), had a strong campaign at Triple-A Syracuse and dominated in a relief role with the Nationals after making his MLB debut in September.
The Nationals are considering stretching Garcia out as a starter this Spring after he worked as a reliever all of last season. In a mid-September edition of 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s The Mike Rizzo Show with Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier, Rizzo recounted the process of pursuing and rehabbing the right-handed former New York Yankees' prospect. "We sold him on the fact that we are as good or better than any baseball team at rehabbing young pitchers and maximizing their ability levels," the Nats' GM said. "We did a lot of work on him as an amateur player. Our amateur scouts just loved the make-up and the size, the delivery and the skill-set and our front office, we did the sabermetrics on him and combined it with the scouting metrics and the human eye."
The Nationals' reputation for rehabbing pitchers helped convince Garcia to join the organization. After two seasons of helping the pitcher work his way back the team finally saw the benefits of their work in 2012. "[Garcia] is a true scouting and player development success story," Rizzo said, "Kind of a scrap-heap guy that our scouts discovered, our front office went after very, very hard, our rehab guys rehabbed him and our player development guys developed him."
In a Baseball Prospectus' interview this past summer, Lucas Giolito's father Rick told the show's hosts that the Nationals' willingness to discuss their plans should injury issues arise helped convince him and his son that signing with Washington was the right decision. "[The Nationals] were prepared to talk to us about how they handle guys with elbow problems," the elder Giolito said, "because they have a tremendous amount of experience doing that and, you know, I was convinced that if he went to the Nationals he would be well taken care of."
Two of the five starters the Nationals expect to be in the major league rotation and three of the four pitchers (Giolito, Garcia and Solis) on Baseball America's Top 10 Prospect list have undergone Tommy John surgery and the fourth (Purke) had shoulder surgery. The top prospect in the system (Rendon) was enough of a concern that five teams passed on the top hitting prospect available in 2011. So the risk Washington took in trusting their own ability to rehab players successfully could go a long way in determining just how well they're able to rebuild the system they weakened by trading for what they needed at the major league level over the last two seasons.