- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Washington Nationals signed pitcher Josh Smoker to his first professional contract yesterday, paying slightly above the industry standard to lock up the 31st overall pick from this summer’s draft.

Smoker, an 18-year-old left-hander from Calhoun, Ga., received a $1 million signing bonus, about $800,000 more than MLB’s predetermined “slot” figure for the first player selected in the supplemental round but the same amount last year’s 31st pick received.

Negotiations nearly went down to the wire, with all teams required to sign their picks by tonight or else lose their rights, but Smoker insisted he wasn’t worried a deal wouldn’t get done in time.

“It was only going to be a matter of time,” he said during a press conference at RFK Stadium before last night’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies. “We had the deadline, and we knew that might be an issue. But the Nationals and the Smoker family, we came to an agreement. And now I’m just ready to get the pro career going.”

Smoker, who was rated as the 16th-best player available in the draft by Baseball America, will report this weekend to the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League rookie team. He will remain in Florida this fall to pitch in an instructional league.

A hard-throwing lefty with a fastball that reaches 94 mph and an above-average curveball, Smoker went 13-0 with a 1.24 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 73 innings in his senior year of high school. The Nationals believe he can become a top-of-the-rotation starter in the majors, given time to develop.

“He’s a dominating left-handed pitcher,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “We were very, very pleased that he was still there when it was our turn to select 31st. And we’re very, very thrilled that we were able to complete the deal with Josh and sign him.”

Though he committed to pitch for Clemson this fall, Smoker (drafted with one of two compensatory picks the Nationals received for losing Alfonso Soriano to free agency) had expressed a desire to sign all along. Citing the organization’s willingness to promote young pitchers quickly through its farm system, Smoker said he was anxious to start his professional career.

“That was a big thing,” he said. “Any time you can be in an organization that’s going to take care of pitchers and is not afraid to move them up, that probably had a lot to do with it. It’s the perfect scenario for me.”

Smoker becomes the latest in a growing list of top pitching prospects in Washington’s system. A year ago, the organization was chided for its lack of pitching depth. Now, the Nationals have Smoker and Ross Detwiler (this year’s top pick); current major leaguers John Lannan and Joel Hanrahan; and minor leaguers Collin Balester, Jordan Zimmermann (the other Soriano compensation pick), Adrian Alaniz, Glenn Gibson and Colton Willems as proof of how far the organization has come.

“I’ve never seen pitching depth like this in my career,” Bowden said. “The pipeline’s coming.”

With Smoker now locked up, only one of the Nationals‘ top 20 draft picks has yet to sign: right-hander Jack McGeary, who was selected in the sixth round but plans to go to Stanford if he doesn’t receive first-round money. Bowden wouldn’t comment on negotiations with McGeary, but it appears unlikely he will sign before tonight’s deadline.

Still, Bowden was quick to tout the team’s overall success rate in signing this year’s draft class (including its top eight picks).

“It’s one thing drafting good players,” Bowden said. “But it doesn’t help if you don’t sign the players.”