- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2008

WOODBRIDGE, Va. — His whole life, people would bring up Chris Marrero’s age only to keep themselves from getting too giddy about what he was doing in a batting cage or maybe to chart a hypothetical course off into the baseball stratosphere where he would be residing sooner or later.

For the first time, it’s becoming a measure of how much he still has to learn.

He will miss an 0-2 curveball or bobble a ball at his newest position — first base — and those words take on a different meaning: He’s only 19.

That’s where Marrero is now, and that’s where baseball has caught up to him.

The Washington Nationals’ 2006 first-round pick is at Class A Potomac, where he’s receiving an education in the game’s harsher side for the first time. Baseball always has come so easy to him, from when he was a kid mashing towering fly balls or a third baseman wooing big league scouts at Monsignor Pace High School in Opa Locka, Fla.

Now he is facing players who are older and more experienced, making a shift from third to first by way of a minor league season in the outfield while learning to deal with pitchers who have studied him and know how to get him out. He is hitting .236 with six homers and 19 RBI in 40 games for Potomac.

“This is the first year that he’s had any type of struggle, ever, with the bat,” Nationals minor league hitting coordinator Ralph Dickenson said. “His swing’s pretty good, but his focus is a little bit off. He’s never been in a position like this, so he’s not quite sure what to do. He’s worried a little bit about getting hits, so he’s getting his focus off of how he’s going to get those hits.”

It’s like Marrero has been driving a car coasting down a hill and picking up speed as its momentum builds, and this is the first time he needs to know where the gas pedal is.

“I’ve never struggled in my life with baseball,” he said. “It’s up to me to get out of it.”

He’s on first

As soon as the Nationals picked Marrero, he knew he would be switching positions. With Ryan Zimmerman, third base is the one position at which Washington figures to be set for the next 15 years, and that meant the club might as well start Marrero on a new role sooner rather than later.

The original plan was for the 6-foot-3 Marrero to play the outfield, which he did in a 2007 season split between low Class A Hagerstown and Potomac. He had spent some time learning to play first base after the 2006 season, but this year is the first time he has done it consistently.

Marrero has never been seen as a stellar defensive player, and Potomac manager Randy Knorr is trying to scare some change into him.

“I have this conversation with him daily about ‘do you want to be pulled out in the seventh inning in the big leagues because you can’t play first? Do you know how embarrassing that is?’ ” Knorr said. “He has gotten better at first base. But he’s also got to get more energy and life in him when he plays.”

Said Marrero: “I miss playing third. But right now this is my job.”

His swing ‘will play’

But nobody, from Knorr to Dickenson to the Nationals’ front office, is trying to fix Marrero. He’s not off course. He’s not a project. He’s just 19.

Still, he has one thing most players his age never have: a swing that needs only minor refinements to be major league-ready.

The right-handed Marrero has enough natural power to hit homers without trying to pull the ball and was already comfortable driving the ball to the opposite field when he came to the Nationals.

Dickenson is working with Marrero to involve his legs more in his swing and get less of his power from trying to force his hands inside the ball. But even with a few things to work on, the foundation is there.

“It’s a swing that will play in the big leagues,” Dickenson said.

When that will happen, however, is still unclear. Marrero admits he can get caught up in worrying about how fast he’s moving up rather than trying to get himself ready for the majors. His current goal is to be at Class AA by the end of this season and see where the 2009 campaign takes him.

By then he hopes he will have absorbed one of the toughest lessons the game can dish out: how to struggle.

And he still will be only 20.

“I sometimes think about ‘Man, these guys have all these future [expectations] ahead of me, and I’m not proving it,’ ” Marrero said. “You’ve just got to realize they have confidence in you. Even if you’re not going to hit, they know you can hit. Just have confidence and play your game. Playing baseball is supposed to be fun.”