In just under two weeks, the Nationals will be tasked with turning the 22nd overall pick into a key piece of their future. With only five rounds in this year’s draft as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, every pick matters—especially those in the first round.
At the expense of contending for playoff spots each of the past eight seasons, the Nationals’ farm system has run thin on blue-chip prospects. The Athletic’s Keith Law most recently ranked their prospect depth 29th out of 30 teams, the lowest they’ve ever been on the longtime prospect analyst’s rankings.
The pressure is on GM Mike Rizzo and the Nationals’ front office to hit on as many picks as possible, and all signs are pointing toward them targeting right-hander Cole Wilcox out of the University of Georgia—if he’s still around by the time their name is called at No. 22.
Now the MLB first-year player draft order is determined by regular-season standings and does not factor in postseason results. That works in the favor of Washington, which went 93-69 and made the playoffs as a Wild Card team before going on an improbable World Series run. However, the player it appears to have in mind still very well could be snatched up before it has the chance to pick him.
Wilcox is a 20-year-old rising junior who boasts a fastball that touches triples digits to go with a plus slider and changeup. Considered a possible first-rounder in the 2018 draft out of high school, the right-hander decided to honor his commitment to Georgia after he was still on the board by the start of the second round.
However, one team did end up taking Wilcox anyway. The Nationals drafted him in the 37th round after reports indicated that they preferred him to their actual pick of Florida high schooler Mason Denaburg. Draft analysts took notice, making Wilcox a popular pick for Washington in mocks for the 2020 draft over the past few weeks.
Law, ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel and Jonathan Mayo of MLB Pipeline all pegged Wilcox going to the Nationals in their first mock drafts of the spring. Although Mayo has since moved Wilcox up two slots to the Milwaukee Brewers, this is not the first time that the Nationals’ pick has been a near-consensus among analysts.
Rizzo has always maintained that he picks the best player available, regardless of position or age. And as his track record has shown, that sometimes also means dismissing any health or off-the-field issues that may give other teams pause.
In 2018, Denaburg fell to the Nationals at 27th after biceps tendonitis knocked his draft stock down from early first-rounder—exactly where ESPN, MLB Pipeline and Bleacher Report all mocked him.
A similar situation played out in 2017, when ESPN, MLB Pipeline and Baseball America each correctly predicted Washington would draft ex-University of Houston pitcher Seth Romero. The projected top-10 talent was dismissed from the Cougars for multiple instances of “conduct detrimental to the team.”
“It’s always the best player available,” Nationals’ Assistant GM and VP of Scouting Kris Kline told MASN’s Dan Kolko in 2019. “In a perfect world you want to take — you know, I mean, for me college pitching is always a priority, because that’s what wins championships in the big leagues, front-line pitching, if that’s available. Those are the guys that you covet."
In the cases of 2019 (Jackson Rutledge), 2012 (Lucas Giolito) and 2011 (Anthony Rendon), higher-ranked prospects fell to them unexpectedly. Erick Fedde (2014) was also correctly mocked to the Nationals by ESPN and Bleacher Report after it was announced he would undergo Tommy John surgery in the days following the draft.
Wilcox doesn’t have any lingering injuries or character concerns, but Baseball America notes that “some clubs are concerned with his arm slot and the shape of his slider."
Slated to be Georgia’s Saturday starter this season, his first chance at regular starts was cut short when the pandemic forced NCAA officials to cancel the spring season. Given he’s only made 23 appearances (10 starts) in college, scouts haven’t had ample opportunities to watch him pitch since high school.
Yet Wilcox will be far from the only player with limited film. The coronavirus outbreak has prevented scouts from getting any sort of in-person look at most high school seniors entering the draft. As a result, teams may be more inclined to make safer choices with college players who have more data available rather than select high schoolers who they haven’t seen.
There’s no guarantee he falls all the way to the Nationals at No. 22. But if Rizzo’s history is any indication, Wilcox will certainly be the favorite to go to Washington if he’s still on the board.
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