- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2022

When the Nationals are on the clock with the fifth pick in Sunday’s MLB draft, the feeling will be familiar for many fans, but unfamiliar for others.

Since the franchise moved to Washington in 2005, the team has held a top five pick three times and a top 10 pick six times. However, it’s been more than a decade since the Nationals held a pick this high in the draft, a result of being one of the best teams in baseball for so long.

The Nationals are now back in the cellar like they were from 2008 to 2010. But Sunday’s draft is one of the few moments of the year that make the current rebuild — the NL-worst .333 winning percentage, the four losing streaks of six-plus games, the 7-33 record versus division opponents — feel at least a little bit worth it. 

No one has a crystal ball, and first-round picks oftentimes flame out or don’t live up to expectations. And then there’s Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon — first-round picks by the Nationals from 2009 to 2011 — who became stars or major contributors. In the case of Strasburg and Rendon, they led the team to a World Series championship in 2019. 

If the Nationals’ rebuild turns out to be successful like it was back then, this year’s draft won’t be the one that’s seen as the start. It could be 2020, when the team selected starting pitcher Cade Cavalli, now the organization’s top prospect, with the 22nd pick. Or 2021, when the Nationals picked shortstop Brady House, now a top-100 prospect in baseball, with the 11th overall pick. 

But whoever general manager Mike Rizzo selects at No. 5 overall Sunday night — along with his subsequent picks in the 20-round draft — could be vital to keeping this “reboot” as short as possible, which is something the longtime Nationals executive has said is his goal. It officially began last summer when Rizzo traded eight veterans, including starting pitcher Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner, at the deadline. 

“This is a reboot year,” Rizzo said on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday. “We don’t call it a rebuild because a rebuild is a five- or six-year process. I think this is a shorter reboot. We’ve shown in the past that we know how to do these things.”

Rizzo has also compared the Nationals today to the team in 2009, his first year as general manager, and said the organization is in a better spot now than it was back then. Whether that’s true remains to be seen, but there’s no arguing that hitting on back-to-back-to-back first-round picks as Rizzo & company did in 2009 with Strasburg (No. 1), in 2010 with Harper (No. 1) and 2011 with Rendon (No. 6) is a difficult feat, even for the best-run organizations. 

“I really believe that the reboot is in full go. I think that we’re in a better position than we were in 2009,” Rizzo said in early June. “A few short years later, we won the division, and I think we’re in a better position now because our minor leagues are much better now than they were then. And I see what’s happening with our young core group of players here in the big leagues, and our group of prospects in the minor leagues, and I see the plan, the blueprint, working just the way we want it to work at this point.”

The most common player the Nationals have been linked to in mock drafts is Georgia Tech catcher Kevin Parada, a power-hitting college player whose future as a backstop is in question but may also not be necessary. He slashed .361/.453/.709 with 26 home runs for the Yellow Jackets this spring. 

Another common choice in the mocks is high-schooler Elijah Green. The 18-year-old outfielder is considered by many to have the best all-around tools in the draft class. Green is the son of two-time Pro Bowl tight end Eric Green.

Other players the Nationals could be interested in are high school second baseman Termarr Johnson and Cal Poly shortstop Brooks Lee, although Lee may be selected as high as No. 1 overall by the Orioles. 

Of course, the mocks are assuming none of the top prospects — namely high school shortstop Jackson Holliday and high school outfielder Druw Jones — fall to No. 5. Holliday is the son of former big leaguer Matt Holliday, while Jones is the son of 10-time Gold Glove outfielder Andruw Jones. The slot value for the fifth pick is $6.49 million. 

The MLB draft begins with the first two rounds Sunday at 7 p.m. Rounds 3 through 10 begin Monday at 2 p.m., and the remaining 10 rounds kick off Tuesday at 2 p.m. 

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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