- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2008

By the traditional metric of baseball success - wins and losses - the Washington Nationals‘ minor league teams enjoyed a productive 2008 season.

The organization posted a winning record for the first time since the team came to the District, its 432-405 mark the ninth best in baseball. Three teams qualified for postseason play, with two of them (Class A Potomac and the Nationals’ Dominican Summer League affiliate) winning league championships.

But in the minor leagues, player development takes precedence over the final record. By that standard, 2008 is a little harder to judge.

Myriad injuries and ineffectiveness at the major league level forced the team to move some players through the system quicker than it had planned. In several cases, that unearthed players who hadn’t registered as potential major leaguers before the season.

The biggest story of the year might have been pitcher Jordan Zimmermann’s rapid development. Zimmermann raced from Potomac to Class AA Harrisburg in his first full professional season, won organizational pitcher of the year honors and put himself in position to make the Nationals’ rotation out of spring training in 2009.

However, the players that will eventually propel the organization are the high draft picks that Washington handed large bonuses to.

First baseman Chris Marrero, the team’s first-round pick in 2006, struggled early at Potomac and broke his right leg sliding into home plate in June, truncating a season that had started to turn around. And left-hander Ross Detwiler stagnated at Potomac, his mechanics going through an overhaul that robbed the 2007 first-rounder of consistency much of the year.

Josh Smoker, last year’s second-round pick, was sent from Class A Hagerstown to rookie ball.

And presented with the opportunity to infuse the system with another frontline pitcher, the Nationals failed to come to terms with first-round pick Aaron Crow, as the two sides were almost $1 million apart as the Aug. 15 deadline passed.

“They have made a lot of progress,” said Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis, whose publication moved Washington’s farm system from 30th to ninth in baseball last year. “Looking at it objectively, you hope some of these guys would do more than they did this year. It’s slightly disappointing these guys didn’t show more, and not signing Aaron Crow is a blow as well.”

That event alone led assistant general manager Bob Boone to predict that Nationals will drop in next year’s Baseball America rankings, but the team remains optimistic about its plan panning out.

“I think there’s probably 20 or 30 guys in our minor-league system that will play in the big leagues,” Boone said. “When I got here, I’d probably say there were three. The talent that’s in the system is in the upper echelon with all the clubs.”

Trouble at the top

The configuration of the Nationals’ minor-league system is somewhat warped; all three of its playoff teams were in the lower ranks of the minors, and while the team’s store of major league-ready players grew with trades for Emilio Bonifacio, Alberto Gonzalez and Anderson Hernandez, none of its best prospects will likely reach the big leagues next year.

Marrero and outfielder Michael Burgess, the two players most expected to add the power bat the Nationals desperately need, will probably start 2009 at either Potomac or Harrisburg. Marrero is working out with the Nationals’ instructional league team in Viera, Fla., this fall, and Burgess - although he struck out 162 times between Hagerstown and Potomac this year - still hit 24 home runs.

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