- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.

The variables are too many - and the methodology too dependent on those variables - to look at the differences between Jim Bowden’s last draft in charge of the Washington Nationals and Mike Rizzo’s first and point to an irrefutable philosophical shift.

After all, Rizzo manned the war room for three of Bowden’s four drafts, and the Nationals’ strict adherence to a best-player-available philosophy might mean the differences between last year’s class and this one are only attributable to the crop of players.

But the evidence is there that Rizzo’s up to something different. It’s striking to look at the first seven picks in 2008 and 2009:

• In 2008, five of the top seven players the Nationals took were born in 1989 or later.

• In 2009, just two of their top seven were born in 1989 or later. And that’s with an extra year gone by.

There are a couple caveats before anyone assumes Rizzo broke from Bowden’s tendency to draft players with tools but lacking polish: Last year’s draft was deeper than this one, particularly with high school players; there weren’t many top talents among position players; the Nationals merely rank the players and go down a list; and so on.

(By the way, while the Nationals rarely break with their list of best available players, all that means is they took the best player on their list. It doesn’t mean that list looks the same as another team’s or even that every top talent in the draft is on the list.)

But it doesn’t change that in 2009, for whatever reason, Washington plucked several players who could reach Nationals Park quicker than the players taken in most Bowden drafts.

Stephen Strasburg, assuming he signs, should be in the rotation no later than next spring. Drew Storen, the team’s second first-rounder, is already with Class A Hagerstown after signing less than 24 hours after the Nationals picked him. The next three players taken - California second baseman Jeff Kobernus, Georgia right-hander Trevor Holder and Kansas State right-hander A.J. Morris - offer more in the way of short-term possibility than high schoolers like outfielder Destin Hood and left-hander Graham Hicks, who landed with the Nationals in last year’s draft.

It has been fairly obvious, if not explicitly stated, that Rizzo has been subtly remaking the Nationals. He set to work immediately on bolstering a bullpen that Bowden blithely thought could withstand a major league season. There have been several players - Collin Balester and Tyler Clippard among them - who made quick jumps to the big leagues under Bowden but have remained at Class AAA Syracuse under Rizzo despite strong numbers.

It only makes sense that a draft stocked with more reliable players would be the next phase of Rizzo’s maneuvering. He has buttressed the bullpen with veterans who have been solid for the past month after the melodrama of the season’s first six weeks. And he appears to be banking on the idea that if the Nationals can get their young pitchers to develop by the end of the year and add another quick-rising young player or two, 2010 might not look so bad after a dreadful 2009.

A draft that brings in players who can outperform Bowden’s high-upside projects would help that become a reality.