Jun 4, 2014, 1:34 PM EDT
In every MLB draft – or any professional sports draft for that matter – there are certain players who present risks. Character concerns are one thing, injuries are another.
The Nationals have proven to be a team that is willing to take a risk on an injured player, and they’ve seen it work both ways.
“You really do have to balance the risk and the reward,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “What we’ve looked at in the past, is that the upside has to really trump the risk of a player not coming back from injury.”
In 2011 the Nats picked Anthony Rendon, despite concerns about a shoulder injury that relegated him to designated hitter for much of his final season at Rice University. Rendon was the top-rated hitter in his class, fell to the Nats at 6th, and this season has emerged as a potential future star.
In 2012 they took Lucas Giolito, knowing he would potentially need Tommy John surgery because of an elbow injury. Giolito was in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick, but slipped to the Nationals at 16. He has since had Tommy John and returned as one of the best pitching prospects in baseball.
Taking an injured player in the third round in 2011, however, has not worked out for the Nats. They selected left-hander Matt Purke, who missed half of his final season at TCU with a shoulder injury. He has since had major shoulder surgery and this past week also had Tommy John. At this point, his future as an MLB prospect is up in the air.
Whether it’s because of the problems Purke has presented, or the minor league success of Giolito, or simply years worth of research: the Nationals consider some injuries much more alarming than others.
“Usually we really weigh elbow injuries a lot more favorable than shoulder injuries, so that goes into it,” Rizzo said.
There are also other factors the Nationals keep in mind.
“A lot goes into the character of the player and the type of makeup that he has. The rehab process is not a simple one, so you have to have the right character and makeup to go through it and to come out the other end better than when you started it,” Rizzo said.
With the 18th overall selection, the Nationals will enter Thursday’s draft with a good deal of contingency plans. Rizzo says they’ll have 18 players in mind, ranked in order. Whoever is the highest rated player left when their pick is called is who they will take.
Two players with first round grades stand out as injury risks. One is left-handed starter Kyle Freeland from the University of Evansville. The other is East Carolina University right-hander Jeff Hoffman.
Freeland – the third-rated lefty starter in this year’s class – had arthroscopic elbow surgery as a high school freshman in 2007. Just last week he underwent an MRI exam that was distributed to all 30 MLB teams to quell any concerns about his health.
Hoffman underwent Tommy John surgery this season after beginning the year as a Golden Spikes Award nominee. The New York-native is ranked as the 13th overall prospect by Baseball America.
The Nats have also been linked heavily to high school shortstop Jacob Gatewood. Gatewood entered the year as the highest rated high school position player, but an inconsistent season at Clovis High School in California damaged his stock. He could go anywhere from the top 15 to the compensation round, depending on which mock draft you look at.
Gatewood is one of the best power bats in this year’s class. He won the two premier high school home run derbies last summer: one at the MLB All-Star Game at Citi Field and one presented by Under Armour at Wrigley Field.
As the Nationals move through the three-day, 40-round draft, there will surely be moments where a player deemed risky because of his injury history is sitting there. According to Rizzo, it will always come down to who is at the top of their board.
“We never go need,” he said. “I’ve never gone for need in the time I’ve been doing this, it’s best player available that gives us the best chance to get an impactful player at each and every round. That’s the guy we identify and go after.”
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