After taking a high-ceiling but relatively unknown prospect, Dallas Baptist gunslinger Jake Johansen with their first pick, the Nationals continued to draft for tools out of smaller programs. And so far, while they haven’t taken home any name-brands, they’ve come away with tremendous value and a lot of bargain-basement tools.
In pre-draft interviews, Mike Rizzo said he was looking for a “hidden gem” and was planning on “overturning every rock” to find it. Well, he’s done a great job, and has snagged plenty of them out of a very thin pool of talent. The best of them, Drew Ward, is a small-town westerner with the makings of a superstar.
Here’s a brief look at the prospects the Nationals selected in the first ten rounds of the draft:
Jake Johansen (68th Overall): Johansen is a 6’6″ right-handed flamethrower out of Dallas Baptist, a school of about twelve thousand students and a member of the WAC conference. One of the oldest prospects in the draft, the twenty-two-year-old Johansen doesn’t have a great track record. He has a 6.04 career ERA at Dallas Baptist and has walked 99 batters in 147.2 career innings. But make no mistake, he deserves to be here. Despite his age, Johansen is a blank canvas with a very high ceiling.
When he’s on, Johansen is an intimidating presence on the mound. A big, strong gamer, armed with a heater that sits 92-95, he has the kind of stuff that will miss bats at any level. He had the best season of his career in 2013 while starting, but the best fit for him at the next level is probably short relief. Out of the bullpen he can touch 96-97 mph, and his height and overhand arm slot creates a nice down-hill plane when he’s on top of the ball. Right now, he relies mostly on a four-seamer, but his two-seamer shows some heavy run and is a potentially killer sinker with that kind of velocity.
Johansen doesn’t used his secondary pitches a whole lot, but they do have potential. He has four off-speed pitches that show promise, and he’s comfortable throwing them early in the count. Of course, if the Nats move him to the pen he’ll only have to focus on his best off-speed pitch, which is his slider by a good margin. The pitch is a disappearing downer, with sharp bite. He throws it out of the same tunnel as his fastball, with hard mid 80′s velocity, and it drops right off the table. It’s primarily a chase pitch right now, but it should eventually grade out as plus once he starts using it more often.
Johansen’s mechanics have come a long way over the past few years, and he’s a nice athlete for his size. He’s fluid and has a clean arm and solid timing. While it wasn’t as much of any issue in 2013 as it was in the past, he was still a little bit inconsistent with his delivery, making it difficult for him to maintain his landing spot and release point. His command continued to waiver as a result. But, his overall ability to throw strikes and maintain consistency velocity on his heater still made extraordinary strides over the past year or so. His wind-up looks much cleaner and more balanced now, with a nice tempo to it. After he posted a 52/48 combined K/BB ratio during his first two seasons, he improved dramatically, to a 75/27 K/BB mark last year. He started to attack the strike-zone with his fastball, and concentrated on staying on top of it and keeping it low to avoid the big barrels of college hitters.
Johansen has some AJ Burnett in him, as a tall, late-bloomer with velocity and a potentially-filthy breaking ball. He wants to start, and the Nationals will surely do their best to develop his hulking frame and electric arm in the rotation. He has all of the tools to be a top-of-the-rotation guy, and working with a pro coaching staff, and focusing on baseball full-time could make him a serious breakout candidate in a few years. Ultimately though, it appears likely that his home will be in the bullpen in the pro’s–at least at higher levels. And that’s okay because in relief, if he can harness his power repertoire, he could be a lights-out set-up man or a closer. Great pick.
Drew Ward (105th): Ward’s name first entered the draft discussion a few years ago when he started tearing apart the showcase circuit. And since then, he’s grown into some serious tools. Hailing from a tiny town in Oklahoma with a total population of 440, he’s a bit off the beaten pitch. But that hasn’t negatively affected his game or reputation with scouts. Unlike other plays across the country, he plays both in the fall and in the spring with the Bison, allowing him to polish his game that much more quicky. And when give the opportunity, he’s thrived in the spotlight and has proven himself against the nation’s best arms. The kid is a ballplayer.
Relatively unknown previously, Ward started turning heads at the 2011 Junior PG National Showcase when he laced a double in the gap off of Clint Hollon and clocked one of the strongest arms at the event. Scouts fell in love with his size and power from the left side of the plate, and year by year, he’s gotten better and better. He puts on impressive displays in batting practice–like the one he did at the 2012 PG Junior National Showcase–and can hit the ball out to all fields when he gets in his groove. That kind of juice from a shortstop is exceedingly rare, so it’s understandable that he earned wide acclaim as one of the elite prospects for the 2014 draft class. However, as he’s already 18 right now, he was set to be very old for a high school pick come June, 2014. So, he decided to put in the extra work and graduate early, allowing him to gain eligibility for this draft.
A tall, gangly farm boy with a lot of room to grow, it’s going to be tough for Ward to stick up the middle. But that’s not an issue considering his other tools. If he puts it together, the left-handed hitter has the opportunity to develop plus power to go with at least average hitting ability. Blessed with bat-speed and great hands, his power swing is refined for his age and he’s very fluid through the ball, whipping the bat-head with his strong core and shoulders. He also generates consistent loft power when he’s loose, and he has a surprising feel for the opposite field. To top it all off, his batting eye is considered to be one of the keenest in the high school ranks, and he’s rarely caught swinging at bad pitches.
A big-bodied kid, if Ward does have to move positions, his 6’4″ frame will work nicely at third base. He already has the prerequisites for the position–arm strength, reach and soft hands–and his aggressive, gamer attitude fits the hot-corner profile perfectly. He moves very well laterally, with active feet and his great balance allows him to make the tough plays. His cannon arm, which hits 90 mph off the mound, affords him great carry on his throws, and he’s able to turn grounders deep in the hole into outs, from shortstop already. He also plays with a low center of gravity for his size, and likes to come in on the ball aggressively.
Ward has posted some crazy numbers during his career with the Bison. He started off by batting .711 with 13 homers in his freshman fall, and then .578 with 11 more bombs the following spring. As a junior this past spring, he hit an insane .556/.765/.1.190 and tallied 9 more home runs and 19 extra-base hits. He’s shown considerable power already, to go with big league plate discipline and an uncanny feel for hard contact. His pretty left-handed swing, long and athletic build and premium fielding tools bear strong resemblance to a young Eric Chavez, and he has the opportunity to put together a similarly star-powered professional baseball career.
Ward committed to play for Oklahoma last spring, a program that his dad also played for. He could be a tricky sign, as he’s blessed with the kind of tools to be a top-ten pick after he spends three seasons polishing his game against Big 12 competition. But, the Nats do have some extra cash to work with, after drafting a lot of college seniors and small-school guys. They could hand him a decent over-slot deal, especially if they’re willing to pay a tax. Regardless, it will be hard for the Nats to let this kid slip through their hands, and they’ve reeled-in quite a few tough signs over the last few years. For Ward, it will be interesting to see if he’s prepared to turn down both a pro contract and a ticket to play in a hot organization.
Nick Pivetta (136th): A big Canadian righty with a hulking 6’5″, 220-230-lb frame, Pivetta wasn’t drafted when he was eligible two years ago, so he decided to attend New Mexico Junior College for a couple of years and then re-try his hand. The decision worked out well as his velocity, which was down right before draft day at the end of senior spring, has suddenly jumped into the low 90′s. And, his over hand curve has developed into a solid second pitch. He snaps it off with tightly-wound, late break.
After Pivetta missed nearly all of his senior season of high school with an inflamed elbow, he had trouble shaking the rust off during his freshman season at NMJC. He wasn’t bad by any stretch, but his performance was underwhelming. He finished 2012 with a 4-1 record, but also a 4.83 ERA.
Pivetta’s sophomore campaign was a very different story however. After showing modest promise the year before, he broke out in 2012 and put together a dominant performance both during the regular season and in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League. He led the Thunderbirds with a 9-2 record, and posted a 3.36 ERA through 83 innings while tallying complete games in six of his twelve starts. Right before the draft, he was pitching for the Victoria Harbour Cats of the West Coast League, recently securing his first win of the summer after going eight innings on Thursday.
Pivetta improved by leaps and bounds heading into his sophomore season, and ended up climbing the draft ranks after putting together a dominant performance. Heading into June, he was considered one of the top-three JUCO prospects in the country by most analysts. The improvement is largely owed to growth and mechanics, and subsequently to increased velocity. Employing the typical scapular-loading techniques that modern power pitchers use, he was prone to arm drag when he was in high school. So he worked hard to streamline his delivery’s timing and arm action. and was largely successful. His delivery got much freer and smoother, and he now does a great job of using his lower-half. A major step forward for Pivetta, was learning to stay closed and over the rubber longer–and leading with his front hip as he breaks his hands and begins to drive towards home plate. That method helps him load his core muscles better, and draw more energy from his trunk.
Pivetta’s mechanical improvements not only helped him stay healthy and efficient, but his fastball velocity also jumped into the low 90′s. He exhibited great arm speed all season, and scraped 95-96 mph in his best starts. And because his long arms and strong hands put tons of spin on the ball, his two-seamer also showed some hard sink low in the zone.
Pivetta has the body, delivery and the arm to be a very successful starting pitcher at the next level–some day, maybe even a mid-rotation guy for a quality Nationals staff. For him to make good on his promise though, it’s crucial that he continues to develop his breaking pitch and command. He throws some quality strikes with his fastball, but isn’t at the point where he can spot it around the zone consistently. He also doesn’t miss very many bats, and while his curve flashes solid potential, he uses it more as a change-of-pace/show-me most of the time. His third pitch, a mid 80′s change-up, could be a nice alternative as a swing-and-miss offering, as he throws it with great arm speed.
Austin Voth (166th): Undrafted out of high school, Voth has improved steadily in each of his three seasons at the University of Washington. The 5.19 ERA he posted as a freshman over 69.1 innings lowered to 4.28 in his sophomore season and then to a sparkling 2.99 mark this spring. Over those three years, he also gained considerable muscle in his core and lower-body, helping his fastball improve to the consistent 90-93 range. This past year, he struck out 99 batters in 105.1 innigs, second in the Pac-10 to Mark Appel, and he also exhibited a strong change and curve. His delivery isn’t bad, and he spots his pitches well, but he is a little bit stiff and his timing isn’t great out of the stretch. He may eventually be ticketed for bullpen, where he’s a potential Craig Stammen type, multi-inning guy. But for now, he gives the Nats a lot to work with as a starter.
Cody Gunter (196th): Boy, Texas area scouts Tyler Wilt and Ed Gustafson, and mid-west cross-checker Jimmy Gonzalez were busy this spring. Gunter is a great pick, exhibiting the talent to be a steal at this slot. He was actually well-regarded last time around, when he was a two-way prospect in the 2012 draft. He ended up going in the 19th round to Miami. He didn’t like that slot though, as the Marlins could meet his $200K asking price. He decided to pass on his Kansas State commitment as well, instead attending Grayson CC for a year before re-entering.
In one short year, Gunter has since developed into one of my favorite small-school prospects. The third baseman has fortified his upper and lower body with quality muscle, and is now built with a square, stone-solid corner infielder’s frame. He hasn’t lost much athleticism either, and looks very strong over at third base. His arm is a cannon, as it used to touch 88 mph off the mound in high school, and he moves in on grounders very smoothly before making accurate throws from a quick, 3/4 release. He gets remarkably good carry out of the short release and three-quarters slot, even at low angles, and throws well off of the pivot to second-base. He has nice feet for a big guy as well, giving him decent range and the ability to shift his weight and make glove-side picks.
At the dish, Gunter does his best work. He’s a very disciplined hitter, and he takes a beautiful cut–one that’s taylor-made for wood bats. He loads smoothly, and separates his ab, shoulder and hand-phases after heel-drop. The great hip-hand separation he gets allows him to use his powerful core to create impressive bat speed. He flashes solid game power to right field already, and can get nice back-spin on the ball with wood when he finds his groove. He should be able to take pitches out to all fields in a few years as he learns to stay inside of off-speed stuff better.
Gunter has been punishing amateur pitchers for years. At Flower Mound high school (Texas), he hit .411/.550/.778 with six homeruns and 25 RBI as a senior. He took home the Dallas Morning News 8-5A Hitter of the Year honors along the way, and was in the running for Gatorade’s Texas Player of the Year award. Last spring was more of the same. Gunter opened the season on a tear, and went 5-5 against Northeast Texas on February 18th and never slowed down after that. He finished with a .321/.500/.542 triple-slash line and his 57 walks was third among the country’s JUCO hitters.
Gunter shows great potential with the stick from the left side of the plate, the kind rarely available after the third round. He has a great batting eye, a nice swing with good present power and plenty more on the way. He’s also a very reliable third baseman, with the arm and range to stick there long-term. The package of tools reminds of a young Hank Blalock, and he’s a relatively good bet for that kind of career.
Jimmy Yezzo (226th): Though wasn’t widely regarded as a top draft prospect, Yez has established himself as a tremendous hitter. Following a break-out sophomore season in 2012, when he hit .358 and slugged .567 for U of Delaware, he kicked his game into another gear this spring. He led the Blue-Hens to a 33-22 record and finished the season batting .410, ranking him first in the Colonial Athletic Association and third in the entire nation. He also led the country in doubles (28) and finished in the top-ten in multiple other categories. A Golden Spikes award semi-finalist and pre-season Louisville Slugger All-American, his performance earned him the CAA Player of the Year Award.
A power-hitting first baseman, Yezzo isn’t a great athlete and at a hair over 6’0″, he doesn’t have the kind of projectable slugger’s body that scouts often look for. Similar to Andrew Knapp though, the former catcher has a stout build with a lot of juice packed into his maxed-out frame already. He’s barrel-chested, put together with sloped shoulders and thick, strong legs. The strength he has stored in his swing creates easy power to all fields, and he should continue to tally homeruns at an above-average clip in professional ball. At the same time, his ceiling isn’t a high as Knapp’s. He’s not quite the same athlete, and tends to swing with short arms. He doesn’t get a whole lot of backspin on the ball yet. That’s not to say he can’t add more, but at this point he primarily uses his pure strength and feel for the barrel to drive the ball.
Yezzo has some tools to hit for average as well. He’ll strike out some, but for the most part, he’s a very discipline hitter and does a fine job of working the count. He knows him limitations, and tries to only put the bat on something he can handle. With strong hands and a quiet, simple swing, his bat control and plate coverage are solid though. He’s comfortable taking outside off-speed pitches to the opposite field, and didn’t have any issue handling college southpaws–though there’s a big jump in left-handed pitching quality in the minors.
The rest of his game doesn’t offer much. He’s a well below average runner, and his defensive skills are essentially limited to a decent arm and soft hands. He can survive at first base just fine, but if the bat clicks, nobody will care about his fielding anyway.
It’s amazing, but only three years ago Yezzo was 5’8″ and scrawny. After a so-so freshman season as a reserve for the Fighting BlueHens, he morphed into a dramatically different player. While he grew along the way, the credit is largely owed to his hard work. He built up his body in the weight room and honed his swing in the cage, developing a sharp, powerful cut. His final two college seasons were outstanding as a result, and he’s leaving Delaware as one of the NCAA’s best hitters. If he can continue to work hard and develop though, he might be able to follow former U of D stars Rich Gannon and Joe Flacco and transfer his skills to the pros. His profile is similar to that of P-Nats coach Brian Daubach when he was a player, or even Jason Kubel, but if everything really clicks and he handles same-side off-speed, he could be a very good everyday first baseman.
David Napoli (256th): After never drafting a player out of Tulane, the Nationals selected a pair of Green Wave stars this year–David Napoli and Brennan Middleton. Napoli was taken first, with the final pick of the eighth round, and he has the legitimate makings of a quality major-league reliever.
Listed at 5’10″ (more like 5’8″), Napoli doesn’t look like a future pro. But, don’t let his stature fool you. Similar to Royals killer southpaw Tim Collins, he’s a big arm in a small package when he’s on his game. He was a returning member of the Green Wave rotation last season, and continued to pitch at a high level. After going 7-3 with a 2.86 ERA as a junior, Napoli posted a 3.00 ERA in 2013 while allowing only 39 hits in 66 innings. He also struck out 51 batters, and his 5.31 H/9 was good for second in the nation.
After going undrafted last June, Napoli did his best to improve his stuff. His fastball velocity has increased noticeably, and his pitches appears much crisper and harder overall. He looked nasty for much of the spring, spotting his heat and sharp breaking pitches on a dime. He wasn’t even at full health and battled through a forearm injury for much of the season, suggesting he has some more to offer when healthy. Furthermore, he has proven to be tough kid and a great teammate.
Napoli’s fastball is already solid for a left-hander, and it sat in the high 80′s with some sink during his starts. Out of the bullpen, it has touched 93/94 mph before, and while he’s not going to add much arm strength, he might be able to inch closer to a consistent low 90′s heater after converting to relief full-time. The forearm issues appeared to hamper his feel at times, but he still works his fastball to both sides of the zone effectively and throws quality strikes like few college arms can. His two-seamer has some tail and sink to it, and he likes to catch the inside corner against right-handed hitters with it.
Napoli’s best pitch though is his vicious curveball. It’s a big 11-5 bender, similar to Collins’ slower breaking ball, and it has a knack for making opposing hitters look silly. It’s his put-away weapon, and he likes to bury it in the dirt as his chase pitch. Impressive for his age, he’s also adept at dropping it in for called strikes early in the count, and can place it already.
Command will be the key variable for Napoli moving forward. He flashes plus feel and command at his best, but his nagging forearm led to career high walk rates, and he’ll get into trouble fishing for strikeouts and over-throwing. He walked 33 batters in 66 innings last year–4.5 BB/9–and he ran high pitch counts consistently. Especially if his velocity falls back to the 86-88 level he’d shown prior to this season, it’s crucial that he does a more consistent job of spotting his pitches around the strikezone. On the bright side, he’s solid at repeating his compact mechanics right now, and he’s a strong athlete.
Napoli has the ingredients to thrive as a professional reliever. When he’s healthy, the lefty can throw a solid fastball with movement and a future plus breaking ball for strikes, and also has a change-up that’s improving. His balance, his ability to repeat his mechanics and his obvious feel for pitching suggests he should have at least solid-average command over his fastball and breaking ball after working full-time on his game for a few years.
Jake Joyce (286th): A hard-throwing reliever out of Virginia Tech, Joyce put together a solid career for a team that climbed to the top of the college ranks over the past four years. VA Tech’s bullpen was packed with quality arms, and Joyce was most reliable of them. He also has the best chance for a strong pro career.
After dominating as a senior at Carlisle High School and being honored as Virginia’s co-player of the year and Timesland Player of the Year in 2009, Joyce thrived in the bullpen at Virginia Tech. He became the go-to guy, and the team’s workhorse out of the pen. As a senior, he went 7-1 with 3 saves and posted a 4.16 ERA in 30 appearances, while striking out 55 in 62.2 innings along the way. His fastball clocked mostly in the 91-93 range last year, and but occasionally jumped to 94/95 when he maxed-out up in the zone.
Joyce isn’t going to change the game as an impact player, but he’s tailor-made for a decent career in professional baseball as a middle reliever. He’s short and compact, with a live fastball and lightning-quick arm. With a hefty, low stride his delivery adds some deception. He appears to jump at the batter, and finishing closer to the plate adds the illusion of even more velocity. He also has a great number-two pitch, a nasty slider. He throws it with hard, disappearing break, and uses his max-effort/fastball delivery to drop it off the table–leading to a lot of over swings The two-pitch combo makes him a nice pick-up for the Nats, and he could move relatively quickly up their minor-league ladder.
Brennan Middleton (316th): I’ve always liked Brennan Middleton a lot. He’s not a flashy, but he’s a darn-good baseball player with a gusty, head-first approach. He was the Green Wave’s on-field leader, and his coaches and teammates love him. Embodying the term “reliable,” he was a rock in Tulane’s lineup for four years, batting .297/.372/.368 over 720 at bats and he was the cornerstone of their defense.
Middleton is a lot different than the other guys the Nats drafted so far. He’s not a tools guy, but then again, there aren’t a lot of those left by the tenth round anyway. He does, however, fit the front office’s affinity for scrappy college middle infielders with plus hit tools (think Tony Renda or Rick Hague). At Tulane, he proved to have very nice contact skills, and though he’s not scaring any pitcher away from throwing their heater–he hasn’t hit a homer in two years–he works the count with a smart approach. He’s also a good bunter, and his fringy speed plays up because of great hustle.
At shortstop, Middleton is already an average pro fielder, equipped with a a solid-average arm and great throw accuracy. His range grades solid-average too, both to his glove and arm side, and while he won’t wow anybody with flair, he can make all of the necessary plays and avoid careless errors. His ceiling isn’t much higher, but his floor isn’t much lower either. The overall package reminds me a lot of Steve Lombardozzi, and ultimately, that’s the kind of player he could develop into if he really hits.