Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Too many injury concerns in Nats recent drafts?

22 comments

As most Nats fans know by now, the team took a big risk and drafted prep RHP Lucas Giolito in the first round despite his having suffered a sprained Ulnar Collateral Ligament (that of Tommy John surgery fame) this spring.   Most pundits have stated the obvious; this is a high risk, high reward pick for sure.  Baseball America loves the pick, as did the notoriously prickly Keith Law.

The team left two rather big names on the board by making this pick, namely Chris Stratton and Devin Marrero.  Marrero’s stock has dropped considerably this season after mashing his first two years in college, while Stratton’s stock has risen mightily and seemed to fit Mike Rizzo‘s typical MO for drafting; big powerful college arms that are close to the majors.

Here’s the question; was this TOO much of a risk?  Anthony Rendon fell to us in 2011 after being the consensus 1-1 pick in his draft class for nearly two years after suffering multiple injuries in college.  And it didn’t take him but about a week of professional games before suffering yet another leg injury, one that (depending on who you ask) seems set to sideline him for the entirety of the 2012 pro season (with the off-chance of returning for the Arizona Fall League).  Meanwhile the team took an even bigger gamble on Matthew Purke, a lefty starter with shoulder concerns in college that have continued into the pros (he was kept in extended spring training for nearly 2 months, having only recently made his pro debut in low-A, where he promptly got hammered).  Small sample sizes, I know.  But stats are stats.

Giolito, if healthy, was in the mix for 1-1.  As was Purke.  As was Rendon.  All three fell because of injury concerns.  So clearly these are top-end talents, each individually worth the risk.  But all three within two draft classes?

There seem to be two common mantras in baseball drafting; You don’t draft for need, and Get the Best Player Available.  Right now the Nats need hitting, both at the MLB level and throughout its farm system.  Maybe the team didn’t like what it saw out of Marrero, or maybe the team is convinced that Giolito’s injury was nothing major and feels like they got a massive steal as the best player on the board at #16 overall.  Fair enough; i’m certainly not privy to Rizzo’s interviews or Giolito’s medical records.  But if none of these three guys pan out, the Nats are looking at a pretty gaping draft hole rising through its system within a few years.

Agree?  Disagree?

Written by Todd Boss

June 5th, 2012 at 1:31 pm

22 Responses to 'Too many injury concerns in Nats recent drafts?'

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  1. Very tough to say whether I agree or disagree with Rizzo’s thinking on this. I can say that I don’t fundamentally object to his choices, but he’s taking substantial risks, and they aren’t the choices I would have made. My own view on this breaks down thus:

    On the one hand, more than any other sport, baseball drafting is a complete crap-shoot. There are a handful of “sure things” like Bryce Harper and A-Rod, but even some of those end up not meeting their potential because of factors like injuries—Mark Prior, Jr Griffey, and even Joe Mauer so far. Because all picks are risky, you either take the “safer” route of choosing a relatively proven, injury-free player or you take the “riskier” route of choosing a higher-ceiling player with injuries or other issues. But even “safer” picks aren’t really safe: Remember that Chris Marrero was seen as a solid, relatively low-risk pick, and he hasn’t panned out yet. So I get Rizzo’s approach on this: There are no sure things, so if you’re already taking a risk, take the high risk that could pay off spectacularly rather than the medium risk that could merely pay off well. (I seriously wouldn’t want to play poker with the man, because Rizzo is a guy who would go all in and be holding a pair of jacks.)

    On the other hand, the reason I don’t play lotto is because I hate bad odds. I might make three picks like this over ten drafts, but not in two, back-to-back drafts. I’ll honestly be satisfied with these picks (Rendon, Purke, Giolito) if even ONE of them reaches his potential, but there’s a much greater chance that none of them will (a possibility that Rendon and Purke have only bolstered thus far).

    So my final verdict is that I couldn’t take the risks that Rizzo is taking, but I really hope he’s right.

    clark17

    5 Jun 12 at 2:46 pm

  2. Unlike clark 17 I am not averse to playing the lottry or relative high risk investments, so I am all in on Rizzon’s thinking. Also whos to day the NATS do not acquire some ML bats in the lower rounds?

    Sec 204 Row H Seat 7

    5 Jun 12 at 3:05 pm

  3. I would say; one major crap shoot risk every few years is ok. But THREE such risks, each of which costs 2-3M or more, within a 2 year period? Tough.

    Though, I will say, I’m reading through Keith Law’s pre-draft chat yesterday (http://espn.go.com/sportsnation/chat/_/id/44054/keith-law-on-mlb-draft) and Giolito is probably the MOST asked about player. Law is not known for giving out easy praise and at various points said this abuot Lucas: “arm injury not as serious as stated” and that “Giolito and Appel are the only two #1 starter ceiling guys in the draft.” That’s high praise from a guy who I do respect when it comes to prospects.

    Bottom line is this; teams really need their first rounders to pan out, especially when it comes to pitchers. I did a post months ago about home grown starters (http://www.nationalsarmrace.com/?p=782) and was absolutely amazed at the number of Aces in the league were first round talents. Go check out that post; of the top 20 starters at the time only Roy Oswalt wasn’t a top 4 round selection (and something tells me there was some odd reason Oswalt was a 23rd round pick).

    Todd Boss

    5 Jun 12 at 3:19 pm

  4. With the new CBA’s draft rules … you only really can “buy” one impact player a draft. So that player is really, really important to get right. If the Nats go over-slot to sign Giolito away from UCLA, then you’re looking at a lot of college seniors in the 4th-10th round. Which isn’t *bad* per se, but the best players coming out of college are the juniors.

    Sure enough, our 3rd and 4th rounders? College Seniors. http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/events/draft/y2012/draftcaster.jsp

    Not to say the team doesn’t focus on hitters and look to get lucky … but outside of the top 2 rounds, the odds of a player panning out diminish very, very quickly. Check out our draft history and look at the hitters drafted outside the top 4 rounds https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AmkEIm1TLiXQdGhVRjRfNW81SG8xRlROQ1ZxZzNfbUE&hl=en#gid=0 … not a lot of success there. Since 2005 the two best hitters look to be tyler Moore and Lombardozzi. Nobody else even comes close to making the majors.

    Todd Boss

    5 Jun 12 at 3:27 pm

  5. Well, you’re right, the team needs bats. But you could trade Zimmermann for just about any guy you’d need, and the same could be said for any of these guys. And also the team is pretty well-set for the next several years anyway — there’s not much sense in signing guys whose cieling is “utility guy”. If you don’t draft someone to challenge for a spot in the major-league rotation, you’re arguably wasting the pick.

    Just sayin’.

    kevin r

    5 Jun 12 at 3:31 pm

  6. Injury concerns for baseball draftees is way overrated. Lucas Giolito is SEVENTEEN. He can lose a year to TJ and still be young for A ball. This, along with Rendon and Purke, are the kinds of moves teams make who are trying to compete at the highest levels.

    As you say, teams need their first round selections to pan out. Who better to pan out than a guy who is by consensus the top prep arm in the draft (if not the top arm overall)? He’s got a better chance than most to develop into a top tier commodity.

    Remember, Rendon’s problem in college was his shoulder. Did he hurt his shoulder again? No. He missed a base and broke an ankle. That’s just bad luck not “injury-prone”. If it isn’t chronic, then it isn’t injury prone.

    tyrusray367

    5 Jun 12 at 3:33 pm

  7. You exhibit one side of the coin for sure; confidence that players can overcome these injuries. To that I respond … 100% recovery rates don’t exist. Players don’t 100% come back from TJ. We’ve gotten pretty lucky in the Nats org so far with respect to major pitchers having and (so far) coming back from the surgery but its no sure thing. Now, that being said Giolito didn’t TEAR his UCL he sprained it. But its not a good sign. Yes he’s young, but injuries aren’t 100%. You ask me; i’d much rather have a healthy, close to the majors college arm than a wild-card injured high school arm.

    To say nothing of this fact; high school arms are the absolute highest risk of any of the four categories of players in the draft (HS arm, HS bat, Col arm and Col bat). Yes there’s a ton of HS arms that are stars in the majors. But there’s soooo many of them that don’t pan out. Look at the Nats HS arm draft history here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AmkEIm1TLiXQdGhVRjRfNW81SG8xRlROQ1ZxZzNfbUE&hl=en#gid=0 . The absolute BEST high school arm we’ve drafted in the last 7 years is probably Pat McCoy, a loogy in Harrisburg who has already been passed up in the rule5 draft. (maybe you argue AJ Cole or Robbie Ray … but they’re both barely hanging on in high-A ball right now, too soon to project as MLB players). Look at the litany of HS arms that flamed out, retired early or just never panned out.

    Rendon absolutely had an ankle injury in college. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Rendon. He broke his ankle in 2009, re-injured it playing for team USA in 2010, had the shoulder injury that limited his junior year in 2011 and now had a season-long leg injury in 2012. You can argue that none of the four are related, and you can say that he’s unlucky and that they’re all coincidences and be right. I’d say he’s injury prone (kinda like Ryan Zimmerman is injury prone) and that his prospects are diminished because of it. What good is the best hitter in the world if he can’t stay on the field long enough to get promoted out of high-A ball?

    Todd Boss

    5 Jun 12 at 4:41 pm

  8. I have no problem whatsoever with Rizzo’s approach.

    Firstly, I am rather amused at your beating alarmist drum on Rendon and Purke. “Small samples sizes I know. But stats are stats.” C’mon, Todd, you know that when the sample sizes are THAT small, they are beyond meaningless in a sport like baseball. Particularly when they involve people at the very beginning of their professional career. To get flustered (or excited, if they had done better) is a sports-talk radio approach. In other words, much sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    Rizzo seems to be taking the approach of seeking a core of ++ talent, being confident that he and the staff are good enough for the middle/later rounds and judicious free agency to bring the Lombardozzis and Desmonds that help create the framework for the stars to shine brightest. A team full of role players may luck into the playoffs every now and then, but it needs everything to go right for a title, and then it’s likely a one-off. With the framework AND 3-4 truly impactful talents, you have a chance to be special.

    For the individual picks, context is the key. On Rendon, Meyer, Goodwin and Purke (and Turnbull, Cole and Ray before them), the aim was to hit the draft hard before the new CBA changed the rules. There were a lot of picks in that crowd, and only Rendon (1st round) and Purke (3rd round) were injury risks.

    On the Giolito pick, context is also important. The short term and middle terms have been stocked, but one area where Rizzo has been criticized (Luke at Nats Prospects has been on this for years) is that he hasn’t taken HS kids. Taking Giolito may, in part, suggest that Rizzo is shifting focus to longer term now. In any event, a chance at a true #1 starter with Halladay comps with the #16 pick in the draft? This troubles me not a bit. Faint heart ne’er won fair lady, and probably very few WS titles. That it isn’t a foolhardy gamble is shown by the industry reaction.

    Of course, whether it works or not is an open question we won’t know the answer to for years. As other commenters have noted, the MLB draft is largely a crapshoot anyway. But from my corner, I’m with Rizzo over the critics on this one.

    John C.

    5 Jun 12 at 6:25 pm

  9. Rendon: four years, four injuries. Two of those injuries were season-enders, a third basically ruined his jr year.
    Purke: Shoulder issues curtailed his sophmore year, he could barely throw in the AFL, and he was kept in extended spring TWO extra months.
    Giolito; injured elbow ligament cost him entire year.

    Oh, for context: Rendon 7.2M guaranteed, Purke $4.15M guaranteed and it probably takes another $3M for Giolito.

    Yes i’m alarmist on this issue. Maybe i’d feel better if Rendon hadn’t gotten hurt again this year, or if Purke broke camp with the low-A team instead of needing an additional 2 months to “build shoulder strength.” Why wasn’t he “building shoulder strength” all winter? He finally shows up in low-A (where based on his pedigree and his age he should be completely dominant) and he gets hammered. And now we’ve drafted an upper-end High School kid who has tommy john surgery written all over him (Anyone remember Jack McGeary? sounds awful familiar; big bonus, big reputation out of HS … tommy john surgery and he’s not even assigned to a minor league team right now).

    Sorry; I think my arguments are supported. I might be “glass is half full” but I’m concerned.

    Todd Boss

    6 Jun 12 at 9:29 am

  10. Second topic; drafting HS players in general. Why do we need to focus on HS players? They are many times harder to project. And scouting them depends less on quantitative (since college players play more games against more consistent competition) and more on the opinions of your area scouts and crosscheckers. There’s a reason many teams don’t focus on HS players and I support Rizzo’s clear path towards focusing on college players. ESPECIALLY when it comes to pitchers.

    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AmkEIm1TLiXQdGhVRjRfNW81SG8xRlROQ1ZxZzNfbUE&hl=en#gid=0

    Here’s the canonical list of HS pitchers taken in the first 10 rounds by this team since moving to washington (oldest to newest): Colten Willems, Sean Black, Glenn Gibson, Sam Brown, Josh Smoker, Jack McGeary, PJ Dean, Pat McCoy, Graham Hicks, AJ Cole, and I’ll throw in Robbie Ray despite his being a 12th rounder since he got paid like a 3rd rounder. Tell me who the most successful player is out of that list? NOT ONE of these guys has played above AA, ever. Smoker and McGeary; injured. Willems just gave up. Even AJ Cole and all his upside got demoted to low-A after reaching Oakland’s farm system. Robbie Ray was great last year but has struggled thus far in High-A.

    To me the lesson is simple: don’t take high school arms early. Yes guys like Halladay, Kershaw and Gonzalez came straight out of HS. But for every one of them there’s seemingly dozens and dozens of Colten Willems, who flame out after 3 years in the low minors.

    Todd Boss

    6 Jun 12 at 9:47 am

  11. I like John C’s aggressiveness, but I have to agree with Todd on the HS pitcher angle. The odds of picking a dominant pitcher out of high school are just too remote. Giolito is 17, and almost certainly hasn’t even finished GROWING yet. You can’t even accurately project what he’ll be like at 21, when he’d still be a minor leaguer. HS hitters are no guarantee, either, but you can at least project them with much greater accuracy (Griffey, A-Rod, Chipper, etc) than you can with pitchers. Regardless of how highly-touted he was, Strasburg was a “safe” pick because he was a college senior in his early 20′s. He’d already gone through many of the risky years when a pitcher’s arm can break down.

    I wrote in my earlier post that I wouldn’t have taken these three risks, but I can break it down better than that, from lowest to highest risk. It might have given me some heartburn, but I probably would have rolled the dice and picked Rendon. He’s a hitter, not a pitcher, and so he’s a much safer bet. Also, he was hitting very well until he got hurt, so the ONLY risk was injury.

    Purke was a bigger risk because (1) he’s a pitcher, and (2) he’s had a major injury. Time will tell if I’m wrong, but I probably wouldn’t have made this pick because his injury was too severe. The only caveat would be that Purke was a lower round pick, so the risk was far less severe. What are the odds of finding a great player in the 3rd round?

    Giolito was the biggest risk of the three because (1) he’s 17, (2) he’s a pitcher, and (3) he’s had a significant injury. In a baseball draft, that’s like the holy trinity of red flags. And the risk is magnified since he was taken in the first round. I sincerely want to be wrong on this, but I never would have taken Giolito. I don’t care that the baseball “experts” love the pick; if they’re wrong, they haven’t wasted a first-round pick. Todd’s list of failed HS pitchers taken by the Nats is even more persuasive for me.

    clark17

    6 Jun 12 at 12:08 pm

  12. Todd — nice post. Two things I think you’re missing here:

    1) the Nats, as constructed, are a petty good team, and with a few tweaks will have at least a decent player under tea control at virtually every position for the next 4-5 years. As a result, they don’t need safe reliable bets on decent (since a decent draftee would only displace a decent+ incumbent), and can afford to shoot for the moon.
    2) By drafting a lot of high risk guys, Rizzo is de facto buying insurance — after all, he only needs one of the 3 guys to pan out (by which I mean come back healthy and reach potential) to break even. I agree all three could bust, which would be bad, but I suspect that’s unlikely.

    Matt

    6 Jun 12 at 9:43 pm

  13. You know Matt, earlier today I was kind of thinking along the same lines as you mentioned here. The team, by virtue of having Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez locked up for years to come, has less need for its farm system to develop the next set of starters, and hence they felt no worries flipping three future potential starters (Milone, Peacock, Cole). I know Rizzo has said he felt comfortable trading those three guys knowing he still had Meyers and Purke in development. In 4 year’s time, surely Jackson, Wang and Lannan are gone and we’ll have either supplemented on the FA market or developed another set of arms (hopefully the latter for cost control purposes). Detwiler may return the rotation, Rosenbaum may turn out to be a serviceable back-of-the-rotation guy, Meyers may put it together, Robbie Ray may live up to his rookie year promise, etc etc.

    So along this line, a gamble on a #1 ceiling arm like Giolito, even given his UCL injury, is warranted.

    I will say this: i don’t think I’d be so worried if Rendon was healthy and if Purke had started strong out of the gate in 2012. Or even if Meyers was looking more promising than he has been as an over-aged starter in low-A. Small sample sizes, yes. But first round draft picks are supposed to come flying out of the gates, not take several starts to acclimate themselves against younger competition. I know at least one of my readers will tell me (yet again) that i’m overrating the age factor of pitchers but i’ll say it anyway; Meyers needs to be in high-A at a minimum, not scoffling in low-A as a college junior draftee.

    Todd Boss

    6 Jun 12 at 11:11 pm

  14. I’d rank the risks slightly different; i’d go Purke, Giolito and then Rendon. Pitchers and bad shoulders are bad, bad combinations. Pitchers and elbow ligaments are still risky of course, but the recovery rate is better (and yes in full disclosure Giolito only sprained the UCL, didn’t tear it).

    I tell you, read Keith Law’s pre-draft chat. There must have been 20 questions about Giolito. Maybe Law kept taking them because he loves Giolito’s potential (and yes … as I write that, I can definitely state that Law absolutely becomes enamored of potential, almost discounting the known quantity over the potential of prospects). So yeah there’s a very high ceiling there. Even AJ Cole didn’t have the ceiling that scouts give Giolito (they don’t throw out #1 starter praise often). So maybe this is going to work out fantastically.

    I’m still shocked at the pick given two things: one there was a big arm on the board out of college who totally fit Rizzo’s typical draft pattern (Stratton). AND, while pitching is key and I love tracking minor league pitchers, this team needs more hitting depth. We went all in on pitchers the last two drafts and are struggling really to develop bats out of the system right now. So when a talent like Devin Marrero sits there, undervalued after a poor jr season despite blowing it up his frsh and soph seasons, I was surprised not to see the team go that route.

    Todd Boss

    6 Jun 12 at 11:17 pm

  15. I’m want to write in here, but since I agree 100% with everything that John C. says, it’s not necessary.

    We’re in great shape Short & Medium term pitching-wise. This is the perfect time to take a H.S. pitcher.

    Mark L

    7 Jun 12 at 7:59 am

  16. Check out the history of #16 overall picks since 1965. Only 3 of the previous 47 players taken at that spot have been true “impact” players, Lance Berkman, Shawn Green and Lance Parrish. 12 of those picked in 2007 or before never made the majors and 11 more had negative career WARs. Players taken this low bomb out much more often than they are a big success, so why NOT take a risk?

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/draft/?overall_pick=16&draft_type=&

    bdrube

    7 Jun 12 at 8:55 am

  17. Ask yourself this; if Giolito has a worst case scenario situation (i.e., he re-injures the UCL after signing in July, misses most of 2013, then finally returns in 2014 in low-A and has lost 5mph off his fastball and has no control, gets converted to a reliever 3 years out and then just quits at age 22 having never risen above high A .. you know, pretty much exactly what happened with Colton Williems), then how will you be viewing this pick 5 years on?

    The answer to that question probably dictates whether you’re a fan of this or not. For me, the success of your 1sts, 2nds and 3rd rounders is absolutely key to judging a draft and judging the GM/scouting director team. Because after the 3rd round, its incredibly rare to find impact talent. For me, I look back at the absolute debacle drafts this team has had (2006 for sure, 2008 to a certain extent b/c of the Crow situation) and I immediately look at the top 3-4 round picks to see how they’re doing. Every once in a while you find a guy taken in the 10th round or higher who makes it (Tyler Moore, Tommy Milone, Steve Lombardozzi) but most of the time they’re all released after a couple years. If you on the other hand look at those picks and say, “gee, the team took a shot, that guy was worth the risk but he didn’t work out so c’est la vie” then I guess you love this pick.

    Todd Boss

    7 Jun 12 at 9:15 am

  18. First, this a really great thread! And second, Todd, the Aaron Crow debacle is awful only if you look at it purely as failing to sign a draft pick. The compensatory pick the next season netted us Drew Storen, who I’d rather have over Crow anyway. Worst case, it’s a wash.

    clark17

    7 Jun 12 at 9:48 am

  19. On the flip side, if they had taken one of the other college options still available and he became a AAAA-type fringe Major Leaguer, which draft history shows happens as often as not at #16, it also would be considered a failure.

    My favorite #16 on the list would have to be be our old friend Billy Traber, taken in 2000 by the Mets. Former Nat Kip Wells was also a #16, taken in 1998 by the White Sox. As far as taking a chance at getting the next Roy Halladay versus the virtually equal chance of getting the next Billy Traber by making the “safe” pick, it’s a no brainer to me.

    bdrube

    7 Jun 12 at 10:47 am

  20. Todd – While I would have preferred Stratton or the Duke kid, as I like college, near major-league ready arms over high risk prep school boys (and, really, who has the sources and resources to scout schoolboy ball – old Ken Beatrice reference)?

    But I do see the logic in shooting for the moon when a kid worth the risk is there. I just don’t want them to do it EVERY time!

    To help me form a final opinion, what is Stratton’s expected ceiling? Is he a future #3 starter? If close to that, I would have preferred that, but I don’t really know.

    Overall, RIzzo and his scouts have rebuilt a completely broken farm system more quickly than anyone could have guessed. Now, I’d like to see them get fair compensation in the MASN deal so the Nats can be more active in the international markets – Latin America, Cuba, Asia, etc. They have done next to nothing in this area so far. That can overcome some high risk draft picks that don’t pan out.

    Steve

    8 Jun 12 at 7:06 am

  21. So far the Nats seem to have gotten lucky, in hind sight, by failing to sign Crow and getting Storen instead. But at the time, this was widely considered a major black mark on Bowden and the organization. Yes we got Storen and found a player who was a) willing to sign for under slot and b) was quick to the majors. But don’t forget we LOST the opportunity cost of not having Aaron Crow playing for us for an entire year. As we sit here now in 2012, we aren’t so much worried about that lost opportunity, since we were god-awful during the 2008 time period and Crow wouldn’t have made a difference. But that has to be a factor when talking about a 1st round pick who doesn’t sign.

    Todd Boss

    8 Jun 12 at 9:01 am

  22. Keith Law says Stratton’s ceiling is #2 starter. SEC pitcher of the year, Friday starter for Mississippi State. Already has four pitches (FB, slider, curve, change). But BA doesn’t rate any of those pitches even at a 70 range. So I don’t see how you can be that high of a ceiling without a knockout pitch. But he’s inarguably a polished starter who one would think could rise quickly to the majors.

    I think you said it right on the nose; shooting for the moon once every few years is great. Shooting for the moon two years in a row is, well, risky.

    I CANNOT WAIT to see what happens with the MASN negotiations. If the Nats don’t get comparable money to what Philadelphia is getting (Remember, Philly and Washington DC are like 6 and 7 in MSA size) it’ll be a major travesty.

    Todd Boss

    8 Jun 12 at 9:11 am

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