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I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no babies, Miss Scarlett

I don't follow the minor leagues all that religiously, but that's like Paul Tillich-level stuff compared to my knowledge of amateur baseball. When it comes to the June draft, I mainly smile and nod.

It is in this spirit that I review the first-day draft picks for the Washington Nationals:

No.     Name            Pos.    Level
15 C. Marrero OF HS
22 C. Willems RHP HS
59 S. Black RHP HS
70 S. Englund OF HS
91 S. King SS HS
121 G. Gibson LHP HS
151 C. Van Allen LHP 4C
181 Z. Zinicola RHP 4C
211 S. Brown RHP HS
241 S. Rooney C JC
271 J. Rosas LHP JC
301 M. Salmon RHP HS
331 D. Jones RHP JC
361 C. Kimball RHP 4C
391 H. Pena RHP JC
421 B. McMillan 1B 4C
451 D. Dickerson 3B HS
481 P. Nichols C 4C
511 E. Arnesen RHP 4C
541 A. Carr RHP 4C

Some general grouping observations:

  • Most clearly, there was an intention to focus on high school prospects; this is a departure from the franchise's previous three drafts, at least at the top of the draft.
  • Pitching, pitching, pitching.
  • There was a tendency to prefer top-level talent from Florida and, to a lesser extent (and befitting scouting director Dana Brown's stomping grounds), New Jersey.
  • Not surprisingly, much attention was given to the players who were invited to work out at RFK Stadium; in all, the Nats drafted five of those ten players on the first day.
  • The team's first two draft picks are both high schoolers who have already expressed a desire to go pro immediately. So hopefully the signings will follow smoothly.
  • With Marrero, Englund, and Dickerson, the first day's draft picks indicated nearly as much interest in obtaining power hitting prospects as pitching prospects.
  • How important is "makeup"? Marrero's profile at this site screams, "Makeup!" (Among other things, he has a 4.5 grade point average, scored 1170 on the SAT, and expressed goals of getting "Stronger, Better." His parents, Bladimir and Dania, should be very proud.) On the other hand, profiles of Englund and Zinicola hint at character issues; Englund, for instance, was kicked off his high school team, though he was later reinstated.
  • As Chris noted earlier, if the mock drafts are any indication, the Nats made some good value picks---four first round talents in all (the two first round picks, plus Black and King).
Brian of Nats Farm Authority attended the team's press conference following the top-level selections, and his wrap-up harmonizes with some of these observations. For instance, Brian perceived the organizations goals to be: (1) top-shelf pitching talent, and (2) impact bats.

One would suppose those would be elemental goals of most clubs, but Brian's report emphasizes that the Nats were focusing on long-term, projectable talent. The natural inference is that the club believed that Marrero was the best power-hitting prospect remaining at the fifteen pick and that Willems had the most talent among pitchers remaining at the twenty-second pick. In other words, unlike in past seasons, the emphasis was not on "major-league ready" talent.

The distinction is perhaps most vividly expressed in Kevin Goldstein's wrap-up chat at Baseball Prospectus:

Stewart (Arlington, MA): I would have thought the Nationals would have stockpiled college talent with their needs for warm bodies, but they didn't exactly. What's your take on their day today?

Kevin Goldstein: Thanks for this nice fat pitch. I really, really like the Nationals picks. If you look at those first five picks, every one of them at some point was in the mix for some team in the first round. That's quite a bounty. If you're a Nats fan what do you want? Warm bodies, or guys with a chance to be stars?

(Of course, it helps if you can do one note better and annually draft Ryan Zimmermans: major league-ready players with the long-term potential to star for more than a decade.)

I am in no position to engage in even a cursory evaluation of the quality of today's picks, but I must admit that I like them. Perhaps it's the mere quantity---I thought it exciting to anticipate what the Nats would do with six picks in the first three rounds, and by way of comparison, I regret that Jim Bowden frittered away second- and third-round picks last season. Maybe that's it.

But I suspect it's something more. Both Marrero and Willems, for instance, are both seventeen years old. Assuming they sign and put in their dues early on, the future is wide open for them. It's Englund's eighteenth birthday today. Black, King, and Gibson are all eighteen. I realize that pointing out a high school pick's youth is a tautology, and I recognize that high school picks (especially among pitchers) are risky. (Though perhaps not as risky as widely believed?) But there is something inherently optimistic I feel about these picks, like their futures are as open as this franchise's---and, at some blissful point in the future, their fates will merge.

Going strictly by the percentages, that's wishful thinking to a great extent. Some unknown number of this team's top picks will fail; the number is unknown, but the existence of the number, any number, is known---that's just the way it is with the draft. And studies show that college picks are, all other things equal, more likely to make the big leagues than high school picks.

So, maybe I'm more optimistic than impressed. I'll take that, though.

In the coming years, we'll determine the answers to some important questions about these guys:

  • Will Marrero's swing contain dreadful holes?
  • Will Willems and Black and the rest of the gang avoid the typical TINSTAAPP fate?
  • Will King be able to hit?
  • Will Van Allen and Zinicola learn to pitch?
  • Will Gibson turn out to be a better pitcher than his dad?
But that's for the future. For today, the team's talent base is (assuming a good signing rate) much better than it was yesterday.

And, depending on what kind of trades occur in the next month or two, it could become much better than it is today.