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Player development coming slowly, surely

- 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.

Callis said Marrero could be ready for the majors by the end of 2010 and Burgess by early 2011, since each player has only played one full professional season.

The lag time with Detwiler is more puzzling, since he came to the Nationals out of college and made his big league debut at the end of the 2007 season.

Assistant general manager Mike Rizzo said Potomac pitching coach Randy Tomlin spent most of the season working with Detwiler on not throwing across his body, the "kind of small tweaks" that could expedite Detwiler's path to the majors.

"I've talked to four or five major league scouts that have come up to me and said he's one of a handful of left-handed pitchers in all of baseball with the stuff he possesses," Rizzo said. "He's recognized among baseball as one of the elite prospects."

Callis isn't as sure that Detwiler, or any of the Nationals' pitching prospects, can be an ace.

"It wouldn't surprise me if Zimmermann ends up being the best," Callis said. "It's a good group. I like those guys, but don't think there's necessarily a No. 1 starter in that bunch, where people are saying, 'Washington, you're not going to be able to touch them.'"

Hope still plentiful

Taken as a whole, however, the state of the team's system still has Rizzo and Boone excited.

They talk about how Washington will have a prospect at shortstop at every level of the minors next season, from Gonzalez to Ian Desmond at Class AAA Syracuse to Dominican talent Esmailyn Gonzalez at Hagerstown.

They said the same is true at catcher and center fielder, and the lessons absorbed by their teenage hitters should take effect soon.

"[Fans] can't feel what I feel," Boone said. "When I come [to the ballpark], I'm excited. Yeah, I'm frustrated with the kind of year we had, but I'm really excited with what I know is going to happen."

Rizzo, who receives credit around baseball for building the 2007 NL West champion Arizona Diamondbacks, has said this rebuilding project might be ahead of that one.

To him, it's a matter of having enough patience to wait for it to pay off.

"There are eight or 10 players that are coveted by many major league teams in our minor leagues," Rizzo said. "[General manager] Jim [Bowden] fields calls all the time on trade proposals, and all he tells them is, 'We're just trying to follow the plan.'"