Perspective by Barry Svrluga
July 10, 2023 at 1:08 p.m. EDT
Give the honchos in the Washington Nationals’ draft war room truth serum, and my bet is they would have preferred strapping, fireballing right-hander Paul Skenes had “fallen” to them with the second pick of the MLB draft Sunday night. But this could also be true: Ending up with do-everything outfielder Dylan Crews as a consolation prize — if a fully loaded Ferrari can be called a “consolation prize” — might be better for the organization. It’s almost certainly safer.
Start with the player the Nats didn’t get: Skenes. That he would go first overall to the Pittsburgh Pirates wasn’t obvious to anyone in baseball even 90 minutes before the draft, when the Pirates reached out in earnest, according to a person familiar with the situation. Skenes to the Nats had been almost presumed throughout the sport for months because he fits the club’s DNA so perfectly.
General Manager Mike Rizzo, and by extension top scouting guru Kris Kline, believe so deeply that championship teams are still built around starting pitching — a belief that isn’t shared by all front offices — that the selection seemed to be a octagonal peg into an octagonal hole. It would have surprised no one.
But there is a line of thinking that if you’re evaluating a player who can positively impact more than 150 games and 1,300 innings vs. a player who would impact slightly more than 30 games and 200 innings in the best, most productive years, the math tells you to take the position player.
The truth is there was so little separating Skenes from Crews that the Pirates and the Nats could have ended up with either and the smiles would have been genuine. There is also consensus, though, that Crews has a higher floor. There are no guarantees in performance or health, but the worst-case scenario for Crews’s career — according to multiple scouts and execs — would be an everyday major leaguer for 10 or more years. The worst case scenario for Skenes: injury. Broadly, it’s just riskier to take a pitcher.
“He’s got a whole bagful of tools,” Rizzo told reporters about Crews on a Zoom call Sunday night. “He does everything well.”
That’s not just a sugarcoating exec defending his pick the night of the draft — a common practice this time of year. That’s the truth about Crews. Extrapolating college stats to the pros isn’t a science, but this jumps out: Crews had 938 plate appearances at LSU. He reached base by hit, walk or being hit by a pitch in 467 of them. That’s a career on-base percentage of .498 — which is mind-boggling regardless of the level, but in the talent-rich, hypercompetitive SEC, it borders on impossible. His OPS for his three college seasons: 1.116, 1.153 and 1.280. That’s PED-era Barry Bonds stuff. Oh, and Crews was a central character — the leading man — on a team that won the College World Series.
There’s another element at play here that could make Nats fans shudder. Rizzo brought it up unprompted Sunday night — as a potential positive.
“His agent is well acquainted with our system and what we’ve done in our championship runs in the past,” Rizzo said. “And he’s kind of schooled him on the way we do things here and the bright future that we have to come.”
That agent, of course: Scott Boras, the most prominent and polarizing in the game. Yes, to Nats fans he might seem like Lord Voldemort. But consider that Boras clients Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper — both first overall picks — were essential to the Nats’ initial construction into contenders. Consider that Boras steered Jayson Werth to Washington in free agency at a time when zero prominent free agents were considering Washington. Consider that Boras client Max Scherzer signed what may well be the best free agent contract in history — seven years, $210 million for six all-star appearances, two Cy Youngs, one World Series title and a 2.80 ERA with a 0.962 WHIP.
Working with Boras can be messy, and the impulse to dwell on the idea that it means the Nats will only have Crews for 6½ major league seasons before he inevitably walks in free agency is understandable. But if you’re working with Boras, it’s because you have talented players. The Nats of the past were littered with Boras clients, only one of whom — Strasburg — signed an extension to remain with the club, and that extension was disastrous. But the nights when Washington rolled out a lineup with Harper, Werth, Anthony Rendon, Strasburg or Scherzer — and later Juan Soto — were the nights the Nats expected to win, the seasons when contention was the only acceptable outcome.
Maybe it’s dealing with the devil, but better to be aggressive about it than to back down. Boras is likely to demand more than the slot value for the No. 2 pick — which this year is $8,998,500 — because he firmly believes Crews was the most talented player in the draft. Paying over slot for Crews would impact how much the Nats could spend lower in the draft. Both sides were happy with the outcome Sunday night, but there could be acrimony ahead.
The takeaway: Relax. This will get done. It might take until the Aug. 1 deadline to sign draft picks, but in the end it makes no sense for Crews to turn down nearly $9 million (or slightly more) and return to LSU for a senior season in which he would have zero to prove. The Nats went to the deadline to sign Strasburg. They went to the deadline to sign Harper. Both deals got done. This one will, too.
And when he signs, Crews will be added to a greatly enhanced minor league system that could both provide players for the Nationals’ everyday lineup and stock them with inventory from which to trade if and when they are contending buyers at the deadline.
There’s no guarantee that any or all of outfielders James Wood and Robert Hassell III — acquired in the Soto deal last summer — and Elijah Green, last year’s first-round pick, will hit. Same for infielder Brady House, the 2021 first-round pick, and pitchers Jackson Rutledge, Cole Henry, Jarlin Susana and Jake Bennett. But what’s true is something Rizzo said Sunday: “You can’t have enough of those players.” It’s on the Nats to develop them now. If you pump them up as “part of the next championship-caliber core” — as Rizzo has done and will continue to do — then bravado has to be backed up with results. We’re watching.
A final word on Skenes: He may well be a star, and it was easy to envision Rizzo and Kline taking him with the second pick and saying, “This is the guy we wanted all along.” Writing the speech would have been easy: Put this 6-foot-6, 235-pound monster in a rotation alongside 2023 all-star Josiah Gray (age 25), future all-star MacKenzie Gore and recovering-from-injury Cade Cavalli (both 24), and Rizzo could have said, “There’s our Strasburg-Jordan Zimmermann-Gio Gonzalez foundation — but better.” The case would have been compelling.
The guess, though, is Nats fans will be more than comfortable with Crews. The path back to being a contender is still long. Dylan Crews makes it a little bit shorter.