The NCAA baseball tournament is finally here! This year, I have been following college baseball very closely to get a glimpse of what the future of the MLB has to offer. This year, however, the NCAA tournament will be even more important for Nats fans. For the first time in a while, the Nationals hold one of the top 15 picks in the draft, meaning that the player they take in the first round this year could be a franchise stalwart for years to come. This year’s draft features a ton of talent that will instantly improve the Nats’ farm system, but who the Nats will take with the 11th pick is still not clear. Here are the top Nats draft prospects you should be keeping your eyes on in the NCAA tournament!
Ty Madden – Pitcher, Texas
It seems that every year, Mike Rizzo takes a highly touted college pitcher with his first round pick in the draft. In fact, the last time the Nats took a position player in the first round was in 2016, when they took Carter Kieboom. It might seem obvious, then, that the Nationals would be high on Madden, considered to be the third best pitching prospect in the entire draft. This past season, Madden held opposing hitters to just a .196 batting average and kept a 1.80 ERA. Madden was a crucial part of the Longhorns’ run to being ranked #2 in the country. If he’s available at 11, expect the Nationals to take Madden. The Longhorns play Arizona State tonight, June 5th, at 7pm.
Side note – While it would take a Christmas miracle for either of them to be available at #11, you’ve got to keep your eyes on the Vanderbilt Commodores’ star pitchers, Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter. These guys are the real deal. Both have thrown multiple no-hitters for Vandy, including Rocker’s 19-strikeout no-hit performance in the 2019 NCAA tournament. Last night against Presbyterian, Rocker went seven shutout innings, giving up two hits and walking two; Leiter probably gets the nod against Georgia Tech tonight at 7. They’ve both had their struggles, yes, but they’re two special players. Expect Leiter to be taken at #3 by the Tigers, and Rocker to be picked up at #6 by the D-Backs.
Matt McLain – Shortstop, UCLA
Yes, it appears now as if the Nationals have no weakness in the middle infield. Trea Turner is having an MVP-caliber season, and Luis Garcia looked really, really good when he came up for a few games earlier this season. But at the same time, Rizzo’s reliance on college arms in the early rounds of the draft has led to some sort of an imbalance in the Nats’ farm system. Cade Cavalli is on fire for single-A Wilmington this year, Jackson Rutledge and Mason Denaburg still have loads of potential, and even players like Erick Fedde, Austin Voth, and Joe Ross have the potential to become reliable starters down the line. Maybe the Nats choose McLain, who was a first-round pick out of high school by Arizona in 2018, to diversify their prospect pool. He reminds me a lot of Turner–he hits for incredible average, could be a threat on the bases, and has a little bit of secret pop in his bat. If the Nats don’t feel confident that they’ll be able to extend Turner, McLain might be the shortstop of the future. The Bruins play Army at 5pm this afternoon.
Adrian Del Castillo – Catcher, Miami (FL)
This draft is ripe with catching talent, and while it might not seem like a pressing need at this moment, finding a reliable catcher can be really difficult. The Nats could take a flyer on Del Castillo, who is ranked the 24th best prospect in the draft by MLB.com but has shown signs of incredible offensive production. In his senior year at Gulliver Preparatory Academy in Miami, Del Castillo hit for a mind-boggling .527 average with 15 home runs and 35 RBIs, and in 2020, he was hitting .358 before the season was cut short because of Covid. His offensive production went down this year, which is why he’s fallen on the prospect ranking. Still, that kind of history can not be ignored. Del Castillo has also spent time as a right fielder, so he could transition back to the outfield if necessary (the Nats do have a history of picking catchers-turned-outfielders…). Del Castillo’s Miami Hurricanes will take on South Florida tonight.
Gunnar Hoglund – Pitcher, Ole Miss
Hoglund was considered to be a top-10 talent this year, and had the stats to prove it, going 4-2 with a 2.87 ERA and a .178 batting average against for the Rebels this past year (let’s not ignore the 7-0 record with a 0.27 ERA as a senior in high school). However, a few weeks ago, Hoglund elected to have Tommy John surgery. Unlike other teams, the Nats have never shied away from a player with injury concerns, most notably taking Lucas Giolito in 2012 after he needed Tommy John out of high school. If Madden gets taken earlier and the Nats plan to go with an established college arm, Hoglund is a high-risk, high-reward player. Of course, you won’t be able to watch Hoglund as the Rebels face the Florida State Seminoles tonight, but Ole Miss has a really well-rounded team that I could see making it to Omaha.
Madden, McLain, Del Castillo, and Hoglund are the four Nats draft prospects who you should be keeping your eyes on in the NCAA tournament. The Nats also could go with a college player not in the D1 tournament, notably pitcher Sam Bachman of Miami (OH), outfielder Sal Frelick of Boston College, or lefty arm Jordan Wicks from Kansas State. I don’t see the Nats going the high school route unless Jackson Jobe is somehow available. Jobe is going to be really, really good, but the Oklahoma City prep school pitcher will likely go to the Rockies, Anaheim, or Kansas City–all before the Nats’ pick at 11.
The next few weeks are going to be really exciting, where baseball’s future stars will be giving it their all for the chance to win the College World Series. I encourage everyone to watch a game this weekend, especially to cheer for our local teams–the Virginia Cavaliers, Maryland Terrapins, VCU Rams, ODU Colonials, and Norfolk State Spartans are all in the running this year. I’d say that either top-seeded Arkansas, star-powered Vanderbilt, or consistently productive Tennessee will take the title this year.