PHOENIX | From his position at first base Tuesday afternoon, Chris Marrero looked around the diamond and saw not only the 2009 Phoenix Desert Dogs but perhaps the 2011 Washington Nationals as well.
On the other side of the infield, he saw Danny Espinosa, a shortstop with a cannon arm and a surprisingly potent bat. Behind the plate, he saw Sean Rooney, perhaps not as talented as Derek Norris but a strong alternative to the recently injured catcher. On the mound, he saw Stephen Strasburg starting and the possibility of Drew Storen closing, a pair of just-drafted right-handers who may reach the majors before the rest of the bunch.
As he scanned all this, Marrero couldn’t help but get excited at the prospect of playing alongside these same teammates in a couple of years on a much larger stage than the sparsely attended Arizona Fall League.
“We definitely have a bright future coming up,” he said. “The Nats, we might not be showing it in the big leagues, but we do have good players in the minor leagues. It’s just a matter of time before we break out.”
For three years now, the Nationals have been touting their plan to build a contender from within, developing top talent in the minor leagues. To date, fans in the District have seen only glimpses of that, a handful of young players who made it to the big leagues but were unable to turn the franchise into a winner.
This six-week developmental league for elite prospects, then, is the first real opportunity for the Nationals’ best and brightest to play alongside one another and perhaps serves as a precursor for things to come.
“That’s a pretty formidable group,” said Desert Dogs manager Gary Cathcart, whose roster also includes prospects from the Orioles, Blue Jays, Rays and Athletics. “There’s a bright future for all those guys and the Nationals.”
Two-plus weeks into the season, Washington’s prospects have acquitted themselves well. Marrero is hitting .333 with two homers, eight RBI and seven walks in 10 games. Espinosa is batting .314 and flashing one of the league’s strongest arms at shortstop. Storen didn’t allow an earned run in his first four appearances before blowing a save Monday. Fellow right-handers Josh Wilkie (0.00 ERA in seven innings) and Jeff Mandel (one run allowed in four innings) have pitched well. And Rooney has caught well in limited time.
They’ve done this against the most formidable competition any of them had faced at Class A or Class AA. The fall league is designed to showcase seven of the top prospects from each organization, most of them on the cusp of the majors.
“The competition that we’re facing so far pitchingwise is very tough,” said Espinosa, a third-round pick in 2007 from Long Beach State who has yet to reach Class AA. “There’s a lot of velocity out here. Everyone can throw whatever pitch they want for a strike.”
And this isn’t even known as a pitchers’ league. Offense rules the day in the warm afternoon sun and 1,200-foot altitude of the Phoenix area. All six Arizona Fall League clubs are batting .276 or higher; none has a team ERA under 4.50.
“If you’re able to pitch well in this league, you’re going to have success down the road,” Storen said.
Strasburg and Storen, the first and 10th picks in this year’s draft, aren’t far from making an impact and have a shot at making the Nationals’ roster out of spring training. The others aren’t quite there yet, though Marrero and Espinosa made major strides this season and have been showing the past two weeks they can hold their own against this level of competition.
Marrero, Washington’s top pick in 2006, finally reached Class AA late this season after batting .287 with 16 homers and 65 RBI at Class A Potomac. Fully recovered from the broken ankle that derailed his 2008 season, the 21-year-old is an accomplished hitter still learning the defensive nuances at first base. (During Tuesday’s game, he dropped a routine throw that allowed a run to score but made a nifty grab of a sharp grounder an inning later.)
“The more I play there, the better I’m getting,” he said. “Give me a little more time, and I’ll be ready.”
Espinosa may already be major league-ready at shortstop. His Desert Dogs teammates and coaches rave about his throwing arm. And he progressed offensively this year at Potomac, surprising even himself by hitting 18 homers with 31 doubles thanks to an emphasis on using his legs and hips.
“I always thought if I played a professional season, I’d have a handful of homers,” he said. “I give the Nationals all the credit. They got me to use my lower half, and it worked.”
With Strasburg and Storen expected to crack the big leagues in early 2010 and Marrero and Espinosa maybe one year behind them, it may not be long before those four find themselves together again. None of them, though, sounds content to simply make it to the District.
They all sound intent on fulfilling the Nationals’ promise to field a winner at last.
“That’s what we hope,” Storen said. “We all want to win. Obviously we want to get to the big leagues, but we also want to be part of the group that makes an impact and helps us win.”