It’s no secret that the Nationals have been very hit-and-miss in their history with first-round draft picks. All-Stars Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and Anthony Rendon headline the Nationals’ biggest successes while more recent first-round picks such as Seth Romero (released due to off-the-field issues), Erick Fedde (Career 77 ERA+), and Carter Kieboom (Career 63 OPS+) highlight the bigger disappointments. For the 2023 season, it is imperative that 2018 first-round pick Mason Denaburg and 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge prove they have what it takes to avoid being classified as first-round busts.
Numerous comparisons can be drawn between the profiles and paths of both Denaburg and Rutledge. They are both right-handed pitchers that stand tall on the mound with the ability to mix fastballs in the mid to upper 90s with above-average breaking balls and promising off-speed offerings. Both have also had their prospective careers derailed by injuries.
Drafted out of Merritt Island High School in 2018, Mason Denaburg’s struggles with injury started before his name was called by the Nationals with the 27th overall pick. Bicep Tendonitis limited Denaburg’s innings in the spring of his senior year, prompting concerns about the then-18-year-old’s health. These concerns were validated in the following years as Denaburg’s struggles to stay on the field culminated in shoulder surgery in 2019, and the infamous Tommy John surgery in 2021. These injuries combined with the lack of a 2020 MiLB season have limited Denaburg to throwing a minuscule 59.1 innings prior to the 2023 season. When healthy, Denaburg’s fastball has been up to 97 mph, paired with a high spin rate curveball and a developing changeup, all thrown with average command. In his first season back from Tommy John surgery, Denaburg saw some success in his limited innings, showing flashes of why the Nationals took a chance on him in the first round of 2018.
An imposing presence on the mound at 6 foot 8, Jackson Rutledge is 4 months the elder of Denaburg after being drafted out of San Jacinto junior college with the 17th overall pick of the 2019 draft. Despite Denaburg’s highly praised potential, Rutledge has been ranked significantly higher on prospect lists since he joined the Nationals organization. Rutledge uses his massive frame to run his fastball into the upper 90s and has hit triple digits on occasion. He boasts a sharp slider in the upper 80s, a slightly above-average curveball, and like Denaburg, a developing changeup. Rutledge pitches with a deceptive short-arm delivery but has struggled with command at times.
Rutledge has had slightly more success staying on the field, being able to throw 171 innings to date. Of course, this is not to say his health has been without issues. A shoulder injury and recurring blister among other things stunted his development and prevented him from rising through the minor leagues. When healthy, Rutledge has enjoyed inconsistent flashes of brilliance mixed with periods of poor control leading to strings of bad starts that inflate his ERA. Mostly due to his inconsistency, Rutledge has shown more promise than his end-of-season stat lines would lead you to believe. He drew attention on the big stage of the 2021 Arizona Fall League, showing off his weapons as he struck out 7 in 3.1 innings of relief in the title game.
Denaburg and Rutledge both ended the 2022 season in low-A Fredericksburg, posting middle-of-the-road ERAs and decently encouraging strikeout rates, but most importantly finishing healthily. The success of the 2 pitchers relies most heavily on their health moving forward. Both turning 24 years old during the 2023 season, it’s time for Denaburg and Rutledge to prove they can stay healthy, develop, and rise through the ranks of the minor leagues before their youth runs out. It’s yet to be announced where Nationals prospects such as Mason Denaburg and Jackson Rutledge will begin their 2023 seasons, but entering their mid-20s, it’s a reasonable expectation for both pitchers to start in high-A Wilmington to have any chance at making up crucial time in their developmental schedules.
Although neither pitcher has enjoyed the level of success you would hope for from such once-highly-rated prospects, it’s safe to say it wouldn’t be encouraging to see multiple 23 and 24-year-old former first-round picks starting the season at the same level as much younger prospects, such as 18-year-old flamethrower Jarlin Susana
(Acquired in Juan Soto trade). Their injury problems and inconsistent performances have significantly lowered expectations for the former first-round draft picks. Hopes for big league impacts are fleeting, especially for Denaburg, who had dropped out of the Nationals’ top 30 prospects list according to the MLB Pipeline in 2022 (Rutledge sits at #12 in the 2022 rankings). It’s now or never for Denaburg and Rutledge. Whether they’ll be seen as draft successes or busts is dependent on their future health and ability to tap into the tools that made them so enticing to the Nationals years ago. This season is imperative for both of them, and it’s hard to imagine
either living out successful major league careers without an impressive 2023 season.
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