Washington has, perhaps, had the best first round selection in back to back drafts. In June of 2009, the Nationals selected Stephen Strasburg with the number one overall selection.
In the following June, the organization selected Bryce Harper in that same slot.
It may be true that Strasburg and Harper haven’t/never will live up to expectations, but that’s more so because those expectations were so high, even unattainable, and less because they haven’t been very good and productive players.
Those aren’t the only two good picks the Nationals have had, but that is where we’ll start.
The Nats took Strasburg out of San Diego State University in 2009. When they took him, it took some time to reach an agreement, but eventually the team and Strasburg agreed on a $15 million contract. ESPN said that Strasburg was one of the most highly touted prospects in the draft’s history.
The ascension was meteoric. In 2010, Strasburg’s first year in professional baseball, he started 11 games between Double-A and Triple-A, pitching to a 1.30 ERA over 55.1 innings.
By June, he was in the big leagues. On June 8, 364 days after being drafted, Strasburg made his major league debut at Nationals Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It was a night not soon to be forgotten. He went seven innings, allowed four hits, gave up two runs, walked nobody, and struck out fourteen. The collective reaction was that the greatest pitcher had arrived. Of course, it was against the middling Pirates, a team that went 57-105, but it was impressive, nonetheless.
As we now know, Strasburg hasn’t gone on to be the best pitcher of all-time, but is that so bad?
Over his 10 seasons, Stras has collected 112 wins, a 3.17 ERA, 1,695 strikeouts, an ERA+ of 130, and a 2.96 FIP. He led the National League in strikeouts once (2014, 242), FIP once (2017, 2.72), and led all of baseball in HR/9 (2017, 0.7).
He’s also a 3x All-Star, World Series champ, and World Series MVP award winner. We also all remember the debate surrounding the strict innings limit that Strasburg faced early on after returning from Tommy John surgery.
Would the Nationals have fared better before now in terms of a world championship?
Possibly, but now that the team has won, I think fans are willing to overlook these past indiscretions.
While he hasn’t led the league consistently in anything, he has been the mark of consistency, year in and year out pitching well. And in a sport like baseball, isn’t that all you can really ask for?
There are top prospects, and then there’s Harper. The upper echelon of highly-revered prospects.
In a 2010 draft packed with future big leaguers, Harper was the top man on the market.
To compare, here’s how the first round shook out: the Pirates took Jameson Taillon second overall, followed by the Baltimore Orioles taking Manny Machado. Drew Pomeranz was scooped up by the Cleveland Indians, and Matt Harvey was selected by the New York Mets. Yasmani Grandal went off the board to the Cincinnati Reds, while the Chicago White Sox picked Chris Sale. The Houston Astros took Mike Foltynewicz, and the then-Florida Marlins selected Christian Yelich. With the 38th selection during the supplemental pick portion of the draft, the Toronto Blue Jays selected Noah Syndergaard.
There were a host of others selected that eventually got the call to MLB, but those were the most notable.
ESPN noted that Sports Illustrated called Harper the “Chosen One.” In that same article, the slugging lefty belted a home run at Tropicana Field that was alleged to go 570 feet (it was measured by his coaches). The legend of the 17-year-old grew.
Originally a catcher, the Nationals opted to move Harper to the outfield when they selected him so that he didn’t have to be exposed to the rigors of catching while also trying to match expectations in the box.
While Harper did win Rookie of the Year in 2012, MVP and Silver Slugger in 2015, and has been selected as an All-Star in six of his eight seasons, he hasn’t lived up to the expectations of some. When you’re as highly regarded as Harper was, it’s hard to live up to those lofty measuring sticks. Had he been any of the other picks, we’d likely spend more time talking about how great he is. Sometimes those are the breaks of a phenom.
Harper’s career slash line is .276/.385/.512, which gives him a career OPS of .897. He’s got 219 home runs over those eight seasons. If he keeps his production levels steady through the end of his Philadelphia contract (a big “if”), then he’ll likely capture 500 home runs on his career. He’s been worth 31.8 total wins on his career, according to Baseball Reference. Finally, his average wRC+ over his career is 138, or 38 percent higher than the average player.
By current numbers alone, Jay Jaffe’s JAWS leaderboard has Harper as the 72nd “best” right fielder of all time. He’s bound to climb the list as his career progresses. He’s no Barry Bonds, but he’s far from replacement level.
The third baseman got drafted in 2005 out of the University of Virginia. When he was taken fourth overall that year, Zimmerman was certainly no Harper, but good things were expected from him. That same year, he only played 67 games spread between Single-A and Double-A before making his debut on September 1 in a game against the Atlanta Braves.
After that, he wouldn’t look back except on injury assignments. Zimmerman is perhaps exactly what you want out of a draft pick: the hallmark of major league consistency. It’s unlikely that by the time it’s all said and done, he’ll be making any all-time lists, but JAWS does have Zim currently ranked as the 44th best third baseman in the history of the game. That’s nothing to scoff at, but it’s also unlikely to plant him on many Hall of Fame ballots.
A career .279/.343/.475 hitter, Zimmerman’s numbers aren’t eye-popping but are indicators of a solid major league career. He’s also belted 270 home runs, his highest mark being 36 in 2017. Not bad for a guy that didn’t have a lot of projectable pop.
Trying to enter his 16th season with the Nationals, Zimmerman has largely been relegated to a replacement role. But his career 116 OPS+ makes him 16 percent better than the average player. He also matches that number in wRC+, coming in at a cool 116.
The other “Zimmermann” on the block at the same time as Zimmerman was a pitcher. He made his mark in Washington before being on the move to Detroit, where he is yet to replicate that success. He was a two-time All-Star in DC, coming in 2013 and 2014.
During those years, he carried a 3.25 and 2.66 ERA, respectively.
In his contract year, he pitched to a 3.66 ERA, not quite as good as the previous two years, but good enough to get the Tigers attention.
Despite his advanced metrics showing a regression as well (a serviceable 108 ERA+ and 3.75 FIP), Detroit signed him through 2020 at a rate of $110 million over those five years. His ERA+ hasn’t reached 100 since. The highest the righty finished in Cy Young voting was fifth, which was in 2014.
After seven years in Washington, Zimmermann was well-received in his return to the nation’s capital, but he hasn’t had the same kind of impact on the organization as a whole, like the others I mentioned. For that reason, among others, of the two pitchers on the list, Strasburg beats out Zimmermann – and it’s not particularly close.
There are other notable picks, like Ian Desmond, or perhaps even Danny Espinosa. There are other players that were picked by the Expos, though they never spent time with the team, but did still go on to have good careers, like Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, and Grady Sizemore. The former were included because I don’t think they’re quite competitive enough for this list, while the latter don’t make the list for obvious reasons (namely, they didn’t play a single major league game in the Montréal/Washington organization).
The two players on the list worth arguing over are Harper and Zimmerman for what they contributed to the organization. Over the long haul, Zimmerman has contributed more bWAR to the Nats’ cause, albeit over 15 seasons. The two-time All-Star has become a fan favorite in Washington, and he’s only two years removed from one of those two seasons. We don’t know what the future holds for Zimmerman at the end of 2020, but he’s been in Washington since the team’s inception, and that makes him a face of the franchise.
I’ll have to bifurcate the fans into two categories. For those that want purely a statistical analysis for this piece, Harper was the better pick than Zimmerman.
But for those who look at players as “team” guys, players who will stick around and be a cornerstone of the franchise, then Zimmerman might be the favorite.
At the end of the day, it seems that the nod has to go to Zimmerman based solely on his “staying power.” Despite Harper’s production, the view of him remained negative, at least in some sects. Because of the unreasonable burden placed upon him from a production standpoint, he could never live up to those expectations, meaning he can’t ever become the player he was “supposed” to be (prior to his arrival, I think the expectation of some is that he would have a season like he did in 2015 every year), therefore making him a lesser draft pick than Zimmerman.
That leaves us with the final round: Strasburg versus Zimmerman.
It shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise that the two players left standing were both around when the Nationals finally broke the seal by advancing to the NLCS and ultimately winning the World Series. Fanbases tend to view players in that sort of “achievement” light. If you were expected to produce a certain outcome, anything other than that outcome is a failure.
The Nationals didn’t win while Zimmermann was pitching, and they didn’t win with Harper in right field. But they did win with Strasburg pitching, and with Zimmerman as a veteran presence, someone who has seen the entire evolution of the organization. The former is obviously valuable, and the latter is certainly worth something. Ask any “baseball person,” and they’ll tell you that a veteran presence is important, the “been there, done that” guy, whether that’s witnessing winning or losing, they know how to help the younger players navigate the perils and pitfalls that Major League Baseball can create.
With that said, by some metrics Strasburg had the second-best season of his career last year, a time when the Nationals needed it the most. His 138 ERA+ was the second highest in a season in which he threw at least 100 innings; the same is true for his 1.038 WHIP; for those that appreciate this stat, he led the National League in wins (18), the highest of his career, and he pitched 209 innings, another league leading stat.
Finally, he came up big when it mattered most. He tossed 14.1 innings in the World Series with a 2.51 ERA and struck out 14. It wasn’t a Madison Bumgarner style performance, but it was good enough to win World Series MVP.
For as much that can be made out of Zimmerman’s veteran presence, he struggled with injuries and performance.
For all the reasons outlined above, Strasburg is the best Nationals’ draft pick of all-time.