Sometime soon after 6 p.m. Tuesday, the Washington Nationals likely will make San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg the first pick in the 2009 MLB draft. And while the rest of baseball bathes the 20-year-old in superlatives, the Nationals’ front office will head back to their draft room, where 800 players are ranked on a series of massive whiteboards, and get to work.
As monumental a night as the Nationals will have just by selecting Strasburg, they will have another big decision to make about an hour later when they’re back on the board with the No. 10 pick.
That pick, given as compensation for the team’s failure to sign right-hander Aaron Crow last year, is almost as central to the Nationals’ draft as Strasburg. Because Washington got the pick as a compensatory selection, it receives no further help if it doesn’t sign the player by the Aug. 15 deadline. It also could offer a hint at two key aspects of the Nationals’ draft strategy: Are they concerned with signability after selecting Strasburg, and how fixated will they be on filling a few key holes in their organization?
Washington has brought in plenty of players for workouts, and the four names who have surfaced as possibilities for the No. 10 pick - Kennesaw State right-hander Chad Jenkins, Stanford right-hander Drew Storen, Notre Dame outfielder A.J. Pollock and Florida high school shortstop Michael Broad - are all projected by Baseball America to go in the lower third of the first round.
If any of those players lands with the Nationals at No. 10, they would likely sign a bonus at or near the slot recommendation for the pick. They also would meet major needs in the organization; Storen has been a closer at Stanford, Pollock’s arm and glove are rated highly in center field and Broad would add a strong middle-infield prospect to an organization that doesn’t have many of them.
Though it might be nothing more than predraft subterfuge, acting general manager Mike Rizzo said Sunday that the Nationals draft primarily on one criterion: talent, not need or signability.
“We put the board together in a way where we base the preferential list of the board on by talent, ability and how much impact potential they can have in your organization,” Rizzo said. “Many, many factors go into the way we put the board together, but we’re not drafting on signability.”
Rizzo said the talent pool in the draft is “average,” and most of the top talent is in the pool of pitchers. The group of position players, he said, is “probably the thinnest it has been in the past several years.”
That could mean the best player on the board at No. 10 is another pitcher for the Nationals to add to their stable of young arms. Whoever it is, Rizzo said, the Nationals will keep their draft strategy rooted on a phrase that was often tossed around the draft room during former GM Jim Bowden’s tenure and likely will be mentioned frequently again this year, the first draft of his career in which Rizzo is in charge.
“Our big term is ‘honor the board,’ ” Rizzo said. “When things start going fast, you have to employ certain strategies and be light on your feet, but you always have to look at the board and say, ‘We have spent all year getting the board the way it is.’ It makes little sense to me to go off the board and take a flier on a guy when you’ve put so much time into putting the board together the way it is.”
How big a factor the Nationals’ budget is - and how much they will try to clear room to deal with Strasburg - remains to be seen. But the 10th overall pick should offer a clue.
“That’s always part of the thought process, turning right from selecting the players to signing the players. There’s no exception this year,” Rizzo said. “We thought about a whole list of players and how we’re going to sign them, what the budget’s going to be, that type of thing. That’s been our mind for a long time.”