- The Washington Times - Friday, September 4, 2009

SAN DIEGO | By the time Chris Marrero suited up for his first game of the year at Class A Potomac, he had already played 217 minor league games. He had been through a season-ending injury, a painstaking rehab process and a major league camp.

He had experienced more baseball before the age of 21 than many players see before they reach the majors. And yet, he was here for a third year at Class A, back for another stretch in a world of tedium while trying not to note the players jetting past him.

Marrero’s time in the minor leagues has looked nothing like the trajectory of a typical first-round pick. He entered the Nationals’ farm system at 17 and full of promise but lacking a permanent position. He was already the proprietor of a silky swing that helped earn him a spot as the 15th selection in 2006 but still uneducated in the finer points of hitting, or for that matter, the most basic tenets of fielding.

In many ways, Marrero was a Jim Bowden prospect living in a Mike Rizzo world, drafted by the Nationals’ former general manager for his tremendous upside but being put to work by the current GM on perfecting the coarser elements of his game before he continued his move through the organization.

That move finally came two weeks ago, when the Nationals promoted Marrero to Class AA Harrisburg instead of leaving him at Potomac for the rest of the season as they had originally planned. It clears the way for Marrero to play in the Arizona Fall League, and just as importantly, it sped up the process for a prospect who was dominating - and chafing - where he was at.

Marrero was batting .287 with 16 homers at Potomac, becoming one of the most feared hitters in the Carolina League but wondering when he would get to try the next level.

Now that he has, it seems Marrero’s run at a big league debut is picking up speed. He is hitting .250 with seven RBI in 17 games at Harrisburg and figures to start next season there.

“[Harrisburg is] a place where he thought he should be anyway,” Rizzo said. “All the hard work and the rehab - and it was a painful rehab he put in - it was very rewarding for him to get it. And to sustain the good season that he’s had has been good for him.”

Marrero might have been further along by now if not for a broken leg and ankle that cut his season short last July. He went through a long rehabilitation last winter, simultaneously trying to get his mobility back while making the offensive improvements that would push him through the farm system.

He and several other Nationals minor leaguers - Mike Daniel, Michael Burgess, Danny Espinosa and Stephen King - spent some time at major league hitting coach Rick Eckstein’s house in the Orlando, Fla., area last winter, working with Eckstein and his brother David (the 2006 World Series MVP and currently the San Diego Padres’ second baseman).

“It was just him and David talking to us about the difference between the minor leagues and the big leagues,” Marrero said. “That was the thing I took out of it the most.”

That work had Marrero concentrating on hitting homers through the middle of the field rather than trying to pull the ball. Nationals executives had raved about Marrero’s understanding of hitting minutiae long before those sessions with the Ecksteins, but the extra attention to detail has only helped.

“You don’t see a lot of young hitters understand themselves that way,” Potomac manager Trent Jewett said. “There’s more in there than hitting.”

And there’s more than hitting that the Nationals wanted to see out of Marrero before moving him. Defense has been a concern with the 21-year-old since Washington drafted him, moving him from third base to the outfield and finally to first. Major league bullpen coach Randy Knorr was constantly in Marrero’s ear about defense when he was the Potomac manager last year, and that theme has continued. Jewett said he was harping on Marrero to involve his lower half more in playing defense, to better take advantage of his soft hands.

Marrero said his leg sometimes gets sore but isn’t holding him back daily. The struggle, he said, is that “sometimes I get lazy and stop moving my feet. I’ve just got to tell myself, ‘Push through it,’ and keep moving my feet because that’s what’s going to help me the most.”

But Rizzo said he has been happy with the improvements Marrero has made defensively and thinks he’s ready to compete against the best prospects in the game in the Arizona Fall League.

From there, it’s unclear when Marrero will reach the big leagues. Rizzo said there’s no timetable for Marrero’s major league debut, and he still believes Marrero needs to “master” every level of the minor leagues before moving up.

“Mastering a league, to me, isn’t always what your batting average is,” Rizzo said. “You have to make sure you’re handling the league mentally, physically and emotionally. It’s not as easy as hitting .300 and moving up.”

For now, though, Marrero at least has a new challenge to tackle. And that’s enough of a reward for all the time he put in at Potomac.

“I can hold my own,” Marrero said. “I can play in Double-A.”

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