When the bell rings Monday night and the 2011 Major League Baseball draft begins, the Nationals will find themselves in something of an unfamiliar position: waiting.
For the first time since 2008, Washington won't be the first team selecting its next potential superstar — and for the first time in three years there's no once-in-a-generation talent atop the draft.
There is no Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper this year, instead replaced with what multiple executives have called the deepest draft in at least five years. The Nationals, whose first selection is at No. 6, hold three of the top 35 picks.
"I would rate this draft as without an elite No. 1," said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who spent much of the past two weeks scouting. "But it's probably as deep of a draft with power arms and impact-type players as I've been around the last five or six drafts."
The Nationals also will pick at No. 23 in the first round and first in the sandwich round at No. 34, both compensation for the Chicago White Sox signing Type A free agent Adam Dunn in the offseason. They will not pick in the second round though, their No. 66 overall pick going to Philadelphia as compensation for signing Jayson Werth.
"It's hard to have a more impactful draft [than we did] with those specific first No. 1 picks the last two years," Rizzo said. "But we feel that we're going to get an impactful guy at No. 6, and we think at 23, that's really a strong pick ... and to have 23 and 34 that quickly, we feel that it's going to be good for us because there's a depth of talent there this year."
It's safe to assume that the Nationals know who they want at No. 6 in an especially pitching-rich draft that features what Rizzo called a "cluster" of power arms lighting up radar guns between 95 and 100 mph. They know who they'd like, but it depends on how the dominoes fall with players such as UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon and Virginia left-hander Dannny Hultzen, Bethesda native and former St. Albans standout.
Considering the pitching depth, all signs point to the Nationals possibly selecting UCLA right-hander Trevor Bauer at No. 6. ESPN's Keith Law and Baseball America's Jim Callis slot him in as Washington's choice with Law mentioning that Rizzo was on hand last weekend to see Bauer fire a five-hit shutout of Arizona State that included 14 strikeouts and one walk.
Bauer, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound junior who has been clocked routinely around 97 mph also has a hard and soft curveball to go along with a changeup.
"I think they could pencil him into their late 2012 rotation with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann," writes Law.
The Nationals could also be tempted by a player who is passed over by Pittsburgh, Seattle, Arizona, Baltimore and Kansas City. Several draft experts note that the temptation to take Derek "Bubba" Starling, a high school outfielder from Kansas who's widely considered the best athlete in the draft class at 6-foot-4 and 180-pounds, could be great for the Nationals. Starling likely will carry a high price tag, though, because he's already committed to play quarterback for the University of Nebraska next fall.
But by drafting high school pitchers such as A.J. Cole and Robbie Ray in late rounds in 2010 — and signing them to well over-slot deals, along with the money they spent for Strasburg and Harper, the Nationals have a track record of flexible spending when it comes to the draft.
"We're going to be aggressive," Rizzo said. "It's almost impossible to give it an actual figure of what it's going to take to sign players until you draft them and start the negotiating process, but we're going to be aggressive.
"We're going to continue that trend, and we're going to try and sign the best possible players for the Nationals. If some of those fall down lower in the draft and we can overpay and get those, then we feel that we're that much further along in the process."
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