The Washington Nationals are leading the National League East by percentage points going into Monday’s games. Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft begins Monday. These two events are not unrelated.
Two reasons the Nats are (finally) finding success are the contributions of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, two of the most hyped draftees in history. And Washington had the distinct pleasure of selecting these players with back-to-back No. 1 overall picks in the 2009 and 2010 drafts.
After dealing with Tommy John surgery that cost him more than a year’s worth of starts, Strasburg has returned to the form he displayed when he first burst onto the major league scene. He is punching out 10.9 batters per nine innings with a 4.65:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, leading to a 165 ERA+. Traditionalists eat up his 6-1 record and 2.35 ERA.
Harper is tearing it up right of out gate, posting a .288/.380/.542 triple-slash line, good for a 148 OPS+. He’s also walking nearly as often as he strikes out and making highlight-reel defensive plays with regularity.
Basically, these guys are living up to the hype, which is saying quite a bit given the lofty expectations placed upon them. The funny thing is, the Nationals wouldn’t have either of these terrific players if they weren’t so terrible a few short years ago. By posting awful 59-103 and 69-93 records in 2008 and 2009, Washington “earned” the first pick in both of the following year’s drafts.
Yes, this is exactly how the draft is supposed to work. The worst teams from the previous season get the first shot at the top talent in the draft with the hopes of developing that talent into a cheap, young nucleus around which pricey free-agent pickups and savvy scrapheap acquisitions can be added. Ideally, these players all gel a few seasons down the road and the former doormat becomes a potential juggernaut. The Tampa Bay Rays are another example of how this is supposed to work.
But Washington had the additional benefit not only of back-to-back top picks, but also of having these two preternatural talents available and ownership’s support to pay what it took to sign them, spending roughly $25 million on two kids with no professional experience. And while the Rays can pin some of their success on multiple No. 1 overall picks, only David Price has contributed directly to Tampa Bay’s winning ways. The Rays also took Josh Hamilton, Delmon Young and Tim Beckham at the top of the draft, but none of those players did much to push the Rays to the top of the AL East.
Having the first pick is great—it’s yielded such talents as Justin Upton, Joe Mauer, Adrian Gonzalez, Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones and Ken Griffey Jr. over the last couple of decades—but using that pick on the right player is crucial. After all, Matt Bush, Bryan Bullington and Brien Taylor have gone No. 1, and nobody remembers any key on-field contributions they’ve made.
Draft well, develop your minor league talent, and spend wisely to supplement that talent. It seems so straightforward, but we all know it’s not. Just ask the Pirates.
But when it works out—and the baseball gods bless you with two consecutive über-talents—things can come together very quickly. Just ask the Nationals.