- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

There are questions about Emilio Bonifacio, the newest member of the Washington Nationals’ stable of prospects, but few of them revolve around his physical gifts on a baseball field.

Scouts harp on his base-stealing approach, not his ability to get from first to second in time. They raise doubts about his knowledge of the strike zone, not his innate ability to turn a grounder to shortstop into a base hit.

Most of the uncertainties about the 23-year-old, whom the Nationals acquired Tuesday from the Arizona Diamondbacks for reliever Jon Rauch, deal with things he hasn’t mastered yet rather than things he’ll likely never pick up. Like a number of the Nationals’ top prospects, the speedy second baseman arrives at Class AAA Columbus with a few intangibles to learn, and whether he becomes a complete major league player will be partly a reflection of the organization’s ability to develop him.

There’s little question Bonifacio brings plenty to work with.

“He was the fastest guy I ever scouted,” said Nationals assistant general manager Mike Rizzo, who signed Bonifacio out of the Dominican Republic in 2001 when he was with the Diamondbacks. “I just really loved his acrobatic, kind of live body. He always threw well, he always moved really well.”

Bonifacio has drawn comparisons to Mets second baseman Luis Castillo, and the Nationals hope he can become a major league leadoff hitter. But there are still aspects of his game that need to change for that to happen.

Baseball America’s scouting report of Bonifacio said his “swing isn’t conducive to the small-ball game he needs to play,” and though Rizzo said his plate discipline is getting better, Bonifacio’s numbers in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League this season suggest he still has work to do.

Despite hitting .302 at Class AAA Tucson, Bonifacio’s on-base percentage is just .348, and he has struck out 64 times in 367 at-bats, or once every 5.73 trips. That’s down from a mark of once every 5.25 at-bats each of the last two seasons but higher than the Nationals would like to see from a leadoff hitter.

Still, Rizzo and others see enough potential to envision Bonifacio at the top of the Nationals’ order for years.

“Hitting ability, he’s a work in progress in the leadoff aspect,” Rizzo said. “I got a call from [former Giants and Dodgers outfielder] Brett Butler, who was a terrific leadoff hitter in his day. I hired Brett with the Diamondbacks … He said, ‘You took my boy.’ He said, ‘This was a guy we were grooming to be me for the Diamondbacks.’ With that praise, it kind of says it all for me.”

In his debut at Columbus on Thursday, Bonifacio went 2-for-5 with a strikeout, a run scored and a caught stealing.

Desmond returns

Shortstop Ian Desmond, who missed nearly two months with a wrist injury, rejoined Class AA Harrisburg on Monday. He went 5-for-13 in a three-game rehab stint with the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League affiliate in Viera, Fla., before returning.

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