In baseball today what all teams seem to be looking for is the “next big thing,” but I’m not necessarily talking about the next big player here. No, what teams are looking for might be the next big thing from an economic outlook, that is to say, the next big market inefficiency. Even neophytes in the baseball world can probably look towards the Oakland A’s and Billy Beane to recall the [we’re tired of hearing this word] Moneyball inefficiency that was exploited by Beane and his intrepid financial and statistical band of baseball explorers.

Since then teams have attempted to capture the next bolt of lightning in a bottle and keep it hidden inside their wine cellars of ideas, hoping that it might mature before the genie is let out—and it’s no longer a secret or proprietary; to let other teams reap its diminishing returns until it becomes passé.

You might guess my surprise then when I realized it seems that Mike Rizzo and the Washington Nationals were parading their market inefficiency in front of the entire baseball world, and not only that, but daring the rest of baseball to have the stones to beat them to the punch.

After having the luck (and terrible MLB squad) to not only have back to back 1/1 picks in the 2009 and 2010 drafts, but to have Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper be available in those consecutive drafts, the Nationals then had to start contending with not having such a surfeit of incredible draft picks to keep building on their still hungry farm system needs.

The question then was: How can Rizzo stock a system that needs 1/1 talent without (hopefully) having any 1/1 picks on even the distant horizon? The answer appears to be: bet the house, and then double down, again, and again. Rizzo decided the way to get this superior talent at a discount rate was not to try and mine the depths of the later rounds for diamonds in the rough, but rather to find prospects that the entire baseball world agreed were diamonds, but that because of injury troubles now appeared to be rough.

So Rizzo went searching—and found—his inefficiencies that other teams felt weren’t worth the risk anymore, and pushed his chips into the pot. In three of the next four years after licking his draft chops about Harper and Strasburg, Mike Rizzo and the Nats took players in the first round that were in the discussion to be top ten picks but had fallen because they had been bitten by the injury bug: Anthony Rendon (2011, 6th overall), Lucas Giolito (2012, 16th overall), and Eric Fedde (2014, 18th overall).  Not only were these picks top ten caliber before their stock began to tumble, but Rendon and Giolito were solidly in the discussion for #1 overall.

I said to myself, “There must be something I’m missing here.” So since I’m not even a draft dabbler, much less an expert, I went to one: Ryan Sullivan, editor in chief of NatsGM.com and Baron of all Baseball Podcasts.  What follows in part of the transcript from an email interview I had with Ryan on this topic:

1. Looking at the three main first round injury picks of the last four years (Rendon, Giolito, Fedde) where were they ranked before their injury worries occurred and how did they fall afterwards?  Were other teams/pundits still high on these prospects?

Each of these prospects were at the top of their draft class before their injury concerns occurred. Rendon in 2011 was seen as the #1 or #1A prospect, depending on your thoughts on Gerrit Cole, in that class prior to the injury to his ankle as a sophomore. Rendon was injured most of the final two seasons at Rice, which when combined with an unusually strong draft class in 2011, allowed him to slide to #6. If he was fully healthy, he would not have escaped the top-3.

Giolito was the clear top high school pitching prospect in the 2012 draft and likely the top pitcher in his entire class (This would have made him the first HS RH pitcher taken 1/1 in draft history – Paul), but he pitched only once in his senior season before being shut down due to arm injury issues. The situation with Giolito was made complicated because few teams wanted to spend a top-10 pick on an obviously injured high school arm, yet he comes from an affluent family and had a quality alternative option of going to college. Most teams outside the top-8 figured due to the new slotting rules in the MLB Draft that they could not sign him, therefore he slid to Washington at #16.

Finally, Fedde was one of the top prospects in this year’s draft before Tommy John surgery a few weeks before the draft clouded his draft prospects.  If fully healthy, Fedde would have been selected around #7-#12, as his talent was comparable to selections Aaron Nola, Kyle Freeland and Jeff Hoffman, who went #7, #8, #9 respectively.  Draft pundits still liked Fedde quite a bit leading up to the draft, but there were questions about which team would take the gamble and rehabilitate him.

2. Out of those three, which could have been the best value at the pick the Nationals acquired them at?

This is a difficult question because all three situations are so different, but Giolito was most likely seen as the greatest value of the three at draft time, although many speculated/questioned whether Washington could sign him.

3. Were any of those three a higher risk than the others?

Once again, another good but difficult question because all three have “different” risks associated with them. Rendon was seen as a slam dunk from a talent perspective, but would he stay healthy or would Washington have squandered likely their last top-10 pick for a decade?

Giolito was perhaps the best value of the group, but high school pitchers have extreme risk associated with them and he had the leverage to attend UCLA and re-enter the draft three years later. Finally, Fedde was a large risk because he was quite literally injured (at draft time), which is a difficult conversation to have with your owner if he dishes out a 7-figure signing bonus and the man never plays. If I have to make a choice, I would probably lean Giolito but I could confidently argue all three players.

4. Can you think of any other picks the Nationals utilized this strategy on in later rounds? For example, a guy they got in the 5th round that pre-injury was ranked as a 3rd rounder, etc.

Immediately off the top of my head Matt Purke, Sammy Solis, and Andrew Suarez come to mind, as Purke was a 1st round talent who slipped to Round 3, Solis was a fringe 1st Round supplemental talent who slid to Round 2, and Suarez could have gone in the supplemental 1st round.  Unfortunately all of these gambles appear to be misses for the team, but because of the nature of the draft and the risk verses reward elements, a team only needs to hit on a few of these for the strategy to be successful.(Note: Since we did this interview, Solis actually debuted with the Nationals…and then went on the DL with shoulder trouble.)

5. Do we have any examples of any other teams employing a similar strategy, or is Rizzo ahead of the rest of the league (if he’s ahead at all)?

I am not sure I am the best person to answer this question, as I do not have a mastery of all 30 farm systems and the habits they have in the draft.  That being said, we saw Toronto gamble this year with Jeff Hoffman and other teams have gambled on injured talents in the draft, but I think it’s fair to say the Nationals have used this strategy more often than the other 29 teams in the past 4-5 years.

6. How does this advantage compare to other teams seeming drafting/scouting edges?  The Cards and their ability to find MLB players in super late rounds might be an example of this.

Yet again, another tough question but certainly teams have tendencies in the draft and attempt to exploit what they feel are the strengths of their scouting and development people.  For instance, Tampa Bay and Miami tend to lean extremely heavily toward high school pitchers in the draft, whereas the Mets and St. Louis have tended to be more college heavy in the past seasons.  Obviously Tampa thinks they can develop young pitching well and St. Louis believes they can out-scout other clubs for collegiate talent.  Whether or not these strengths are legitimate are eventually borne out on the field many years post draft day.

7. Finally, if you could re-rank the drafts involving Rendon, Giolito and Fedde, but with their current healthy/recovered status, where would they be projected to be drafted today?

If the drafts were held today, I think the argument would be made in 2011 between Gerrit Cole, Jose Fernandez and Anthony Rendon for the top-3 picks, with team need and risk tolerance likely the deciding factor between them.  If the 2012 draft happened now, there would be a difficult choice between Giolito, Byron Buxton, and Carlos Correa for the top spots, but most likely Giolito goes #3 if a re-draft occurs.  Finally, Fedde would be selected in a similar area to where he was chosen last June, perhaps down a few spots due to some impressive debuts from others drafted late in Round 1.

So it’s not just me then!  It looks like Mike Rizzo and his front office staff in the District are making a concerted effort to exploit the temerity of the other clubs in baseball to gamble on what appears to be temporarily damaged goods.  Ryan notes that Toronto went after Jeff Hoffman out of ECU, who was discussed as a 1/1 candidate before he succumbed to the cruel icy grip of another UCL detonation. So maybe the window is closing on D.C.’s (apparent) monopoly on this early round tactic, but I wouldn’t count on Mike Rizzo not going back to the well at least one more time in this year’s draft.

There has been much discussion this year about pitchers, especially college pitchers, falling out of line at an alarming rate before they can complete the long march to the draft. In his latest mock draft, Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel even devotes a paragraph aside to discuss the fortunes of injured college hurlers such as Brady Aiken, Michael Matuella, Kolby Allard, Nate Kirby, and potentially Kyle Funkhouser.

Could Rizzo be eyeing one of these big names who have fallen on hard times with the Nationals first pick even though the Nats don’t have a pick in this year’s draft until pick #58?  I’d point your attention to Ryan Sullivan’s latest mock draft, Ryan expresses doubt that the aforementioned Matuella will survive until the Nats take the stage, but if he is there, he expects he won’t survive to pick #59.

Your move baseball, but I think we all know where Mike Rizzo and company are laying their bets, and they’re all in.

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