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Jackson Rutledge was on scouts’ radar as a St. Louis high schooler in 2017, though his strong commitment to the University of Arkansas caused him to go undrafted at that time. After seeing limited action as as freshman for the Razorbacks, he transferred to the JuCO ranks and blossomed into a first round pick in 2019 at San Jacinto (TX) College.
The Washington Nationals selected Rutledge with the 17th overall pick last night — the highest the team has drafted since taking Lucas Giolito #16 in 2012 — which comes with a slot value of $3.61 million.
Built in the mold of a classic power pitcher, Rutledge stands 6-foot-8 with a broad 250-pound frame. Because he’s effectively a college sophomore — having only played two seasons between Arkansas and junior college — there’s the extra upside that comes from being a bit younger than most college draftees (20 years, 2 months).
Already big in high school, his fastball has ticked up from the 90-to-93 mph range two years ago as Rutledge tightened up a hefty frame and grew into his extra-large build. The heater now touches the upper-90s and sits comfortably at 95-96 mph, coming downhill at hitters with natural angle from a very short, catcher-like arm-circle that adds deception. His best off-speed is a power slider in the high-80s, a potential swing-and-miss pitch that flashes above-average upside. Rutledge shows good feel for spin, and an ability to mix a sharp 79-to-81 curve for another look. Though pitchers with this type of unconventional size and plus velocity don’t need to be as refined as those with less raw stuff, he will still need to develop better overall control and improve his below-average changeup to fit a rotation profile.
The Nationals have a penchant for taking upside gambles in the first round, and Rutledge fits the organization’s preference for power arms early in the draft. Many of those rolls of the dice have panned out well, though there’s undeniably a certain attrition rate that comes with Washington’s boom-or-bust strategy. That said, shooting for ceiling has allowed the Nats to consistently find value drafting outside of the top 15, and Rutledge has the upside to be another one of those successful picks. His height and unconventional arm action have some potential for injury, though the ceiling for this type of XXL flamethrower can be a power frontline starter. Josh Johnson was in the same mold, and while he had some dominant years, the peak was fairly short. Nate Pearson (Blue Jays) is another similar pitcher in terms of size and stuff, himself a JuCO transfer and former first-rounder pick who has continued to show flashes of dominance (and burgeoning ability to fit in the rotation) with improved control and mechanics in pro ball.
As I noted in the Nationals Organizational Review for 2080 Baseball, the Nationals have a top-heavy system that’s about to thin considerably as Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom graduate from prospect eligibility. Rutledge immediately joins Wil Crowe and Mason Denaburg as one of the top pitching prospects in Washington’s pipeline. It’s easy to see him as an imposing back-of-the-bullpen arm giving his frame and arm-strength, though the Nats will run him out as a starter for now in hopes the control and third pitch improve enough to develop into the No. 2/3 rotation piece Rutledge has the tools to become.
Jackson Rutledge, RHP, San Jacinto College
Ht/Wt: 6’8”/250 B/T: R/R Age (as of 2019 MLB Draft): 20y, 2m
Background: After tossing 15.2 innings as a freshman for Arkansas last season, Rutledge transferred to San Jacinto (TX) and has established himself as the top Juco player in the draft. The big righty has flourished this season, going 9-2 with a 0.87 ERA on the bump with 134 strikeouts in 82.2 innings (14.59 K/9). He’s committed to Kentucky, though it appears increasingly unlikely that he’ll make it to Lexington.
Notes: At 6-foot-8, Rutledge works downhill, creating tough angles for hitters that are further amplified from a high ¾ arm slot. Utilizing a low maintenance delivery, Rutledge’s arm action is very short, firing darts from his ear and creating deception. He’s a bit of a short strider toward home plate, limiting his extension. His 70-grade fastball sits comfortably in the 94-to-97 mph range, touches 99 and explodes through the zone – velocity he’s been able to carry deep into games. His best secondary pitch a plus slider, a nasty biting offering at 85-to-88 mph that tunnels well with the fastball, drawing an abundance of swings and misses. The curveball flashes above average, with sharp downer action and moderate depth. The command was below average in an early season viewing, though the quality of the stuff creates sizable margin for error, and he’s displayed improved control this season, cutting his walk rate significantly.
A native of Washington, D.C., Adam will be periodically contributing scouting pieces on Nationals prospects for Federal Baseball. Currently, he’s the Assistant Director of Professional Evaluation at 2080 Baseball. Previously, Adam worked in the Baseball Operations departments of the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers after serving as a Senior Prospect Writer for Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter: @2080adam. Adam can be reached at email@example.com for all podcast and media requests.