Perhaps lost a little bit in the Harpermania is something else going on in Hagerstown. A slight, left-handed 19-year old named Robbie Ray is completely dominating his opponents. Though he is still of tender age, Ray is proving -- along with his better known teammate -- that he may soon be in need of tougher competition.
Ray, 6'2", 170, has made six starts for Low-A Hagerstown. His record is modest at 2-0, but the rest of his stats are gaudy: 30 innings pitched, one earned run (yes, one), 12 hits, eight walks and 30 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .125 off of him. He has faced a total of 110 batters and allowed just 24 to reach base via hit, walk or hit by pitch.
How dominant has Ray been? In four of his six starts he's given up just one base hit in each. In a fifth start, he gave up two hits. That's right, of the 12 hits he's given up total this season so far, seven came in one game, the only start he's been scored upon. In that start, he went six innings, allowing those seven hits, without walking a batter, and struck out four. That was his "bad" start.
Ray's last outing on Monday, he again went six innings. He gave up one hit and walked two, striking out nine. Ho hum.
Every year around draft time interest peaks in the Nats player development system. Ray is a testament to what the Nats are trying to accomplish. He was a 12th round pick in the 2010 Amateur Draft. He was ranked much higher by the scouting systems, but fell to the 12th round as he had a strong commitment to the University of Arkansas.
GM Mike Rizzo, V.P. of Player Personnel Roy Clark and Scouting Director Kris Kline were able to talk young Mr. Ray and his family into accepting the Nats offer to begin his professional career by offering him "above-slot" money; essentially paying him what he would have gotten were he to have been drafted in the first couple of rounds. The Nationals acquired fellow 2010 high school draftee A.J. Cole in much the same manner.
Further, they are positioned to do the same thing this year. The Nats selected LHP Matt Purke with their third round pick (96th overall) in the recently concluded 2011 draft. Purke (6'4", 180) was drafted 14th overall by the Texas Rangers in the 2009 draft after his high school career and reportedly had a deal in place. But with the Rangers ownership issues that year, MLB was overseeing their finances and rejected the original deal. Purke decided against the revised deal and instead enrolled at TCU.
The kid didn't disappoint his freshman year. He went 16-0 with a 3.02 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. He had 142 strikeouts against just 34 walks in 116 1/3 innings, earning NCAA College Freshman of the Year, and was named second team All-America starting pitcher. Scouts drooled and proclaimed him one of the top three players for the 2011 draft.
A bout of bursitis limited Purke to just 11 starts in 2011 however, and he took a month off to allow the shoulder to calm down. But he was similarly excellent when he did pitch, going 5-1 with a 1.71 ERA, posting a .187 batting average against with 61 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings. He pitched most recently June 4 in the NCAA Regionals, going five innings and allowing two runs. He was on a pitch count and left after 83 pitches.
Purke was sophomore eligible for this draft since he's already 21. The injury, combined with the fact that he retains his college eligibility should he not sign, caused him to fall in the draft and subsequently be available for the Nats to select with the 96th overall pick. It was a risky pick, to be sure. But Purke's a Top 5 talent when healthy, and if the Nats can make him an attractive enough offer, perhaps he'll forgo his remaining eligibility and begin his professional career, much like Ray and Cole did last season.
This is precisely how team with deep pockets are supposed to operate. For years, the Yankees and Red Sox have selected players with high upsides that had signability issues, or commitments to college, and talked them into taking their money. The Nationals, in the last two drafts, have operated similarly. It's a gamble, but so far Rizzo looks like he's winning with the dice.
If Purke really did just have a muscle strain and after an extended time off can be back to normal -- and if he decides to take the money and forgo next year's draft -- the Nats gamble could pay off huge, giving them another top-pick talent in the third round.
Injuries and attrition being what they are, even first round picks in the MLB draft are a crapshoot -- only about half every year end up making an eventual impact in the big leagues. But it's easy to think about the pitching talent the Nats have amassed in the last two drafts and get excited.