- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2007

For nearly a year now, the Washington Nationals have trumpeted their efforts to rebuild their farm system from scratch and revamp their scouting and development departments into one of the top organizations in baseball.

With a few notable exceptions involving trades or signings of Latin American players, it mostly has been talk coming out of RFK Stadium. Team president Stan Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden’s efforts to date primarily have involved an overhaul of the front office, including the addition of several well-respected executives with scouting backgrounds like Mike Rizzo and Chuck LaMar.

This week, the talk finally will turn into action. For the first time, the Nationals can make actual, tangible progress toward achieving their goal of being a first-class organization.

On Thursday, this all-star team of scouts will participate in its first draft as a collective unit. And plenty of eyes will be watching.

Washington owns five of the draft’s first 70 picks, a product both of the club’s last-place National League East finish in 2006 and the three compensatory picks it was given after losing free agents Alfonso Soriano and Jose Guillen to the Chicago Cubs and Seattle Mariners, respectively.

By all accounts, this is one of the deepest draft classes in several years and is without a doubt a golden opportunity for an organization with a glut of early picks. The Nationals surely will select a top-notch prospect with their first selection (sixth overall) and will be in prime position to add several more with their subsequent picks (31st, 49th, 67th and 70th).

The first-round choice, of course, will garner tons of attention. But it could be argued that the 31st and 67th picks will be just as important and worth just as much attention.

Why? Because those are the picks the Nationals were awarded as compensation for losing Soriano. In a sense, it’s as if they actually completed a trade with the Cubs and received these two players in return.

Obviously, Washington never traded Soriano. Despite his best efforts to land a top pitching prospect in exchange for the dynamic outfielder, Bowden didn’t receive any offers he deemed worthy before the trade deadline last July 31. He insisted on that day and numerous times since that the two draft picks were far more valuable than any players offered to him by interested clubs.

Well, it’s time to find out whether he was right.

Considering all the time, resources and hype the Nationals have devoted to this year’s draft, they simply can’t afford to blow this.

Of course, there’s no sure thing in the baseball draft, not like in the NFL, NBA and NHL, in which first-rounders are almost locks to become successful players. The early rounds of the baseball draft are littered with botched picks. For every Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez (all No. 1 overall selections), there are plenty of Ben McDonalds, Brien Taylors and Matt Andersons (also all No. 1 picks).

It doesn’t matter how many experienced scouts the Nationals pile into their war room. There always will be high picks who fail.

But if ever there was a club that couldn’t afford to make a mistake, this is it. And if ever there was a draft that simply couldn’t be wasted, this is it.

This is where the Nationals truly begin to build their model franchise. They need to get the No. 6 pick right. And perhaps even more importantly, they need to get the Nos. 31 and 67 picks right, too.

If those picks work out and the players become major leaguers, Bowden’s decision not to trade Soriano last summer will be justified. But if they don’t make it, they will be linked forever with the best player to wear the Nationals uniform and the faceless prospect they could have received for him in a trade.

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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