- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2007

It’s one thing to talk a good game. It’s quite another to back words up with action.

If events of the last week don’t convince fans that the Washington Nationals are willing to do both, there really is no hope.

Upon taking control of this franchise a year ago, the Lerner family (through team president Stan Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden) declared it would invest heavily in scouting and player development and build a contender through the draft.

Well, the signing period for this summer’s draft came to an end Wednesday, and all the Nationals did was sign all 20 of their top picks. Yes, 20-for-20.

Included in that banner crop were four of the 30 best players available in this year’s draft, as ranked by Baseball America: left-handers Ross Detwiler, Josh Smoker and Jack McGeary and outfielder Michael Burgess.

Throw in other early round selections like right-handers Jordan Zimmermann and Adrian Alaniz and infielder Jake Smolinski, already making names for themselves in the minor leagues, and the Nationals are entitled to do a little crowing right now.

“I think we had the best draft in baseball,” Bowden said.

“Special,” scouting director Dana Brown said. “You can go four drafts without getting a [top] left-handed starter. To get three in one draft, that’s special. That’s unheard of, really.”

Few around the sport disagree. The Nationals are being lauded left and right for their efforts in the draft, both in identifying the best available players and in locking them up.

Washington’s ownership made a major investment last fall in hiring highly respected scouting director Mike Rizzo away from the Arizona Diamondbacks and making him an assistant GM. Then the Nationals added Chuck LaMar, failed GM of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays but long regarded as a top scout, along with special assignment scouts and crosscheckers Bill Singer, Kris Kline, Jeff Zona and Jimmy Gonzales.

The message was clear: The Nationals were going to stock up on the best and deepest pool of scouts they could find, hoping they in turn could find the best amateur players out there.

That was the first stage. The second stage, of course, was then going out and signing all these players they had scouted and drafted. That’s easier said than done. It takes money, lots of it, to persuade some of these top draft picks to sign, especially those who already have committed to playing in college.

That’s where ownership stepped in and fulfilled its role in this process. The next thing you know, Ted Lerner is writing a check to Detwiler for $2.15 million, McGeary for $1.8 million and Smoker for $1 million. All three are now aboard and making what the club hopes won’t be a long trek to the major leagues.

During his first five seasons heading up the franchise’s scouting department, Brown had to watch as other organizations ponied up to make sure they locked up those hard-to-sign players. With MLB still calling the shots, Brown knew he wouldn’t be able to pull off the same moves.

“No chance,” he said. “No chance. They’re spending a lot of money and building up their systems, and you have to sit back and worry about signing a player because you can’t get an extra $5,000.

“That’s how it was. Now it’s different, and that’s exciting for me.”

Lest anyone get too comfortable and start predicting Detwiler, Smoker and McGeary pitching Games 1, 2 and 3 of the 2010 World Series, let’s not forget how uncertain the baseball draft is. History says only one or two of this year’s picks will hit it big in the majors. Several will never even make it to Washington.

But in committing to sign all of their picks this year and in previously adding more top prospects to their system through trades and international signings, the Nationals have put themselves in the best possible position to watch this all pay off.

In short, they have made a statement — to their fans and to the rest of baseball — that they will match words with action.

“This is certainly an affirmation of everything that we’ve said from the day we got here,” Kasten said.