Major League Baseball’s amateur draft is typically more predictable than those of its professional football and basketball brethren for the simple fact that baseball teams are not allowed to trade draft picks. There’s no chance of a team causing chaos by jumping ahead of another to snag a coveted prospect at the last moment.
There still is room for a few surprises, though, and such a scenario played out Monday night as the Washington Nationals waited to pick sixth overall.
After a sequence that made a mockery of several highly regarded mock drafts, the Nationals selected Rice University junior third baseman Anthony Rendon.
“We were pleasantly surprised that he got to us at six,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “Going into the draft season, he was projected to be the No. 1 pick, the best college hitter in the game.”
There’s a reason, though, that five teams passed on Rendon. A safe bet is his injury history. He has had two ankle surgeries, and an ailing shoulder this spring limited him to a designated hitter role in 55 of 63 games.
Still, the Nationals jumped at the chance to select Rendon, who collected several national collegiate player of the year awards in 2010. He batted .327 with six homers and 37 RBIs in 214 at-bats this spring.
“Our medical staff has cleared his health,” said Rizzo, who declined to specify details of what team doctors discovered. “We feel that if that was the reason he fell to sixth, we’re satisfied in the work we’ve done on him.”
Rendon insisted Monday night that he feels “great.”
“I think my injuries only make me stronger as a person,” he said on the MLB Network’s telecast of the draft. “I went through two ankle surgeries. It wasn’t fun but I had to deal with, and now I have a shoulder injury, but in baseball you have to deal with adversities.”
After selecting Rendon, the Nationals tapped this year’s deep pool of power pitchers by drafting 6-foot-9 University of Kentucky right-hander Alex Meyer at No. 23. They also selected Miami Dade College center fielder Brian Goodwin 34th overall
Rizzo felt especially comfortable drafting Rendon because of the player’s relationship with assistant general manager Roy Clark, who was the Atlanta Braves’ director of scouting when they drafted Rendon out of high school in the 27th round in 2008.
If Rendon returns to health and lives up to the high expectations that naturally follow his accomplishments, the club could face an interesting decision in the not-too-distant future.
“Right now we feel that third base is his position,” Rizzo said. “We evaluate him as a Gold Glove-caliber defensive guy at third base. We’re going to delay that decision…until he gets to the big leagues and establishes himself here.”
Rendon said that he’s willing to change positions, but no one with the Nationals has broached the subject with him.
“I feel comfortable playing anywhere,” he said.
The first 40 minutes of the draft contrasted the anticlimactic drafts of the last two years, when Washington had the luxury of no-brainer selections with the first picks. Pitcher Stephen Strasburg (2009) and catcher Bryce Harper (2010), elite talents widely considered to be in a class of their own, were destined for the Nationals months before Washington went on the clock.
Rizzo’s choice Monday was not as clear cut. Four pitchers were selected to start the draft, as Nationals decision-makers waited. They knew Rendon was their man only after Kansas City selected center fielder Bubba Starling fifth.
Meyer went 7-5 with a 2.94 ERA in 14 starts for Kentucky in 2011. He won over Nationals scouts with how he pitched late in the Wildcats’ season.
He tossed a five-hit shutout against top-ranked Vanderbilt on May 6. He also held No. 12 Arkansas to three hits during a complete-game victory in late April and beat No. 4 Florida less than three weeks ago.
“We’ve been tracking him since he was a high school junior; he wasn’t physically or mentally ready to go out then,” Clark said. “He scuffled the first couple of years, but this year he really started putting it together real well in the fall. We think he’s really coming into his own and feel very fortunate to have gotten him.”
Rizzo described Goodwin as a prototypical defensive center fielder and leadoff candidate. A left-handed batter, he hit .382 with eight home runs, 37 RBI and 42 runs scored in 47 games with Miami Dade this spring.
He transferred to Miami Dade for the 2011 season after the University of North Carolina suspended him for violating university policy.
“As a graduate of the University of North Carolina, we did extensive research and feel very good not only about what happened there — it’s unfortunate — but we feel like those issues have been settled,” Clark said. “No apprehensions at all.”