Heading into the draft, I mapped out the Washington Nationals’ unique situation for DistrictSportsPage.com, in my article Washington Nationals MLB Draft Preview: Local Prospects and Hidden Gems. I wrote-up extensive reports on many of the prospects that the Nats had scouted pre-draft, and analyzed the many possible picks they had an opportunity to make.
In the end though, the Nats surprised me–and everyone else–and picked a player that I’d barely ever heard of. They selected Dallas Baptist fireballer, Jake Johansen with the 68th overall pick. Johansen had earned a previous draft pick from the Pittsburgh Pirates last summer, selected in the 27th round, but he didn’t sign.
The last team to make their first draft pick yesterday, the Nationals had a limited talent pool to work with. So, it was expected that they weren’t going to walk away with the kind of talent they had in recent years. That’s the price of winning (and signing overpriced closers). Obviously, they weren’t walking away with a Strasburg, a Harper, a Giolito or a Rendon. I knew that. But given their commitment to toolsy talents in recent years–even in later rounds–I expected them to take home a guy like Connor Jones–Virginia’s Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year–or Virginia Tech Star Chad Pinder.
Well, to be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect. Analyzing the Nats situation was extremely difficult. Because after the first round or so, the rankings become extremely hard to predict. Variables like signability, a team’s scouting coverage, relationships with players, and money all start playing a much larger role. And now that the draft’s new hard-slotting rules are in place, teams are forced to make their later picks based on how much cash they predict to have available after signing their top guy.
I figured that most of my favorite prospects from this year’s draft wouldn’t get even close to their draft slot. Obviously Clint Frazier, Maro Gonzales and Robert Kaminsky weren’t going to make it, but maybe largely overlooked Stephen F. Austin star like Hunter Dozier, or Marshall’s Aaron Blair, or switching-hitting Nick Swisher-clone Andrew Knapp would still be available.
Or, maybe the Nats would be willing to take a gamble on a top-shelf talent with a strong college commitment–like Jones, Kyle Serrano, or Travis Demeritte. Each of those guys has a strong enough commit that they’d almost definitely be available for the picking. In that case, if the Nats front office could use a hefty chunk of their bonus pool to convince the kid to sign, then great, they’d get a first-round talent late. And if they didn’t, then no biggie, they lose a late second-round pick in a weak draft. Ultimately, both two out of three of those guys were available–Demeritte went 30th overall to the Rangers–but the Nationals passed on selecting them.
By the time the Nats were on the clock, most of the top talent was off the board. There were very few intriguing college arms to choose from, and even fewer college position players available. Along with Demeritte, college talents like Knapp, Austin Wilson, Tom Windle, Blair, Kevin Ziomek, and Dillon Overton were all gone. So, I figured that a good strategy would be to use most of their $2.737 bonus allotment on a tough-sign, high ceiling arm. Jones and Serrano both fit the bill, and both are well on their way to superb careers–whether at the college or pro level in the near-term.
But once again, neither of these two were selected. And it looks like both are well on their way to college.
So, maybe they’d go with a local kid that their scouts liked a lot. Someone like Virginia Tech’s Pinder, essentially a high-floor/can’t-miss prospect that could appeal to Rizzo in a similar way that Rick Hague and Tony Renda have in past years. But no, Pinder went to the A’s a few picks later in compensation round B, after the Nats made their selection.
Andrew Knapp was maybe the toughest loss though. I really thought this guy could make it to DC. Even though he’s one of the few quality catchers in a light college crop, I assumed most scouts would focus on his defense far too much. But that’s not his game. I often compare Knapp to Nick Swisher for his body, tremendous batting eye, easy plus raw power and promising hitting skills. He is pretty much as close you can get to a sure-thing, MLB bat outside of the top-20 picks. But in the end, he didn’t even get close to the Nats, and ended up getting selected by their division rivals–the Phillies–fifteen slots earlier.
Okay, so how about a toolsy, high-ceiling position player? Local burner Matt McPhearson–a personal favorite of mine–was passed over. McPhearson is the draft’s fastest runner–blessed with true 8 speed–and he has the potential to be Kenny Lofton part deux. His wheels, range in centerfield, arm strength and polished left-handed swing and approach in the box make him an extraordinarily safe bet to be a Major League impact player–somewhere along the lines of Brett Gardner if he falls short of the Lofton-level.
The Nats also passed on similarly-gifted players. They didn’t end up selecting local guys that they worked out multiple times pre-draft like Andy McGuire and Errol Robinson–though both appear poised to fulfill their commitments–and most of the other top tools prospects were off the board by the time they had their chance. Along with Demeritte, Ryan McMahon, Clint Hollon, Billy McKinney and Alex Gonzalez were all gone early.
So you get the point. It wasn’t shaping up to be the Nationals day early on. But when they got the opportunity to make their pick, Mike Rizzo, Roy Clark, Kris Kline & co. came through in the clutch yet again.
The Nationals broke away from their recent drafting norm, and took unpolished Dallas Baptist gunslinger Jake Johansen. For the most part, the pick is all making sense now. Kris Kline and Roy Clark did stated in pre-draft interviews that they were looking for power arms and starting pitching depth. Johansen can help in both areas. And while brand-name picks like Serrano and Jones were on the board, both guys would be a headache to sign away from college. Serrano is planning on playing for his father, coach Dave Serrano, at Tennessee, while Jones is attending pitching talent factory UVA.
Johansen isn’t a typical pick, but judging by the run on alternative options early in this draft, he might have been one of the best choices left on the table by the time the Nationals finally got their turn to spin the roulette wheel.
On paper, Johansen’s college career hasn’t been too promising, as he’s managed a poor 6.04 ERA through 147.2 innings pitched between the bullpen and the rotation. He has whiffed 127 career batters, but has also issued 99 free passes.
But, there’s much more to him than his stats. He’s one of the oldest guys in his class, recently turning 22 in January, and should be a relative breeze to bargain with. And from a performance standpoint, Johansen is the kind of prospect that might actually perform better once he turns pro. He’s a flamethrower, and his fastball clocks 92-95 mph consistently on the radar gun when he starts. And when he came out of the bullpen earlier in his career, he would even scrape triple digits on occasion. That kind of juice works great against wood bats, but can lead to vicious exit velocity against the bigger barreled bats in the NCAA. Furthermore, Dallas Baptist isn’t exactly a haven for talent, and Johansen hasn’t had quality defenders behind him during his career.
Johansen’s career numbers aren’t nearly indicative of his talent and potential. His command actually took a huge leap forward last season while he pitched out of DBU’s rotation, posting an impressive 75/26 K/BB ratio, and thats what transformed him into an early-round prospect from a late-round guy. His ERA was still a so-so 5.40, but considering his FIP was 3.81 and opposing hitters (seemingly) got lucky with an abnormally-high .373 BABIP, there’s reason to take that figure with a grain of salt. Those that saw him pitch–like the Nationals–saw some serious potential. There’s some risk, but if it clicks, he could be a lights-out late-bloomer like AJ Burnett, and if it doesn’t, he might be a discount Andrew Brackman.
Of course, the big, country-strong righty has plenty of work to do before he can be considered a legitimate pro prospect. Built like Thor, at a muscular 6’6″/240 lbs, Johansen offers plenty of canvas to work with, but also suffers from some of the common issues that tall hurlers struggle with. Though he’s getting better, his delivery is prone to losing balance and his landing spot can move all over the place once he gets uncomfortable.
But all and all, Johansen was a great pick. If the Nationals player development team can help him refine his mechanics and continue to hone his command, he could be a very strong mid-rotation starter. An important factor for him moving forward will be his ability to throw stikes, get ahead in the count and use his off-speed stuff to draw more swing-throughs. Beyond his fastball, he also throws an array of promising offspeed pitches–with the best being his high 80′s slider. Until this season though, his tendency to work deep counts and fall behind kept him from using anything that wasn’t straight with regularity. But when he’s confident and on his game, he throws his breaking ball with nasty disappearing break, and it flashes killer potential if he can refines his feel for it.
I like the Nats’ pick here. They managed to get great upside for little risk, and they did so in a very picked-over talent pool. Johansen’s pure fastball velocity alone is worth taking a gamble on with a late second-round pick. Because even if he doesn’t develop the starting skills that the Nats hope he can, he can still retreat to the bullpen and throw darts at opposing hitters in shorter outings. In that case, he could could concentrate on improving his best two pitches–his fastball and his high 80′s slider–and could eventually grow into an effective set-up man–with or without solid command. If the Nationals coaching and player development staff can help him put it together though, he could be filthy.