By JAY LeBLANC
July 10, 2008
The Washington Nationals had two first-round picks in the 2006 MLB draft and were thrilled to walk away with a pair of high-upside Florida high schoolers in first baseman Chris Marrero and right-hander Colton Willems. Two years later, both players look like pieces the Nats can build around. Though he’ll miss the rest of this season after suffering a broken leg in mid-June, Marrero oozes power potential and has firmly established himself as Washington’s top prospect, while Willems - who won’t even turn 20 until July 30 - has experienced success at every level so far while steadily making his way up the team’s organizational ladder.
At 6’ 3” and 175 pounds, Willems has the projectable build scouts love in young hurlers, and he wowed them as a high school senior with a three-pitch repertoire that included a fastball that topped out at 97. After selecting him with the 22nd overall pick, the Nationals sent him to their Rookie-level Gulf Coast League affiliate for his introduction to the pro game. He pitched well, posting a 3.38 ERA, but was limited to just 16 innings because of a sore elbow. Willems made the step up to short-season Class A ball as a 19-year-old last season and held his own against older competition. Pitching for the Vermont Lake Monsters, he went 3-2 with a sparkling 1.84 ERA in 12 starts despite fanning just 31 batters and walking 26 in 58 2/3 innings of work, and earned New York-Penn League Mid-Season All-Star honors.
Now ranked by Baseball America as the No. 9 prospect in the Nationals organization, Willems moved up to full-season Class A this season and is pitching well for Washington’s South Atlantic League affiliate, the Hagerstown Suns. Despite working with decreased velocity - a result, he believes, of mechanical problems and a touch of dead-arm - Willems is 5-4 with a 3.63 ERA after 15 starts. While he still isn’t striking out a ton of batters, he’s not walking as many either, with 46 K’s and just 23 walks in 84 1/3 innings. He’s pitching especially well of late, holding his opponents to two earned runs or fewer in six of his last seven outings. I recently had a chance to chat with the talented young righty:
Q: What was your first reaction when you learned you’d been drafted by the Nationals? Did you know they were looking to pick you?
A: Actually, I had no idea until the last few days into it. I had a lot of other teams coming by and telling me they were interested. It was the All-Star Game, actually after the All-Star Game, that they told me they were real interested.
Q: What All-Star Game was that?
A: It was the Florida High School All-Star Game, and that’s when I started knowing they were interested in me.
Q: Could you talk a bit about the different pitches you throw and how you use them?
A: Yeah, I throw a fastball, changeup and slider. I was learning the curveball but they banned that, so I’m just working on the slider now. Right now I only can throw 11 a game. Mainly, I’m just working on my fastball - fastball-changeup mostly.
Q: Do you consider yourself a strikeout guy, a guy who pitches to contact or some mixture of the two?
A: Well, recently I’ve lost my velocity a little bit, and now that I’m on a limit of 11 sliders I’m more of a contact guy. Before I was a strikeout guy, but I’ve learned that being more of a contact-ground ball pitcher, I can get through the game a lot easier and I can pitch more innings.
Q: Why do you think you’ve lost your velocity recently?
A: It was a little bit about mechanics. My arm hasn’t been completely free and I think it might have been a bit of dead-arm also, but it’s a couple of things combined.
Q: Is there any pitcher, past or present, that you try to model your approach after?
A: There isn’t anybody, really, that I try to be like. I just try to be myself and go out there and do what works best for me.
Q: What are some of the things you’re trying to work on this year?
A: This year I’ve been working on just trying to hit my spots and get ahead of hitters. I’ve been working on my changeup a lot - mostly just fastball-changeup, hitting my spots. I’ve been cutting a few balls with my fastball; I’m trying to get that straightened out.
Q: Your pitching coach, Paul Menhart, pitched in the majors with the Blue Jays, Mariners and Padres. What kinds of advice has he given you as you work toward getting there yourself?
A: He gives me a lot of advice. He’s a great coach. I’ve learned a lot from him, and every day I learn something new from him. Nothing in particular - just every aspect of the game, on and off the field.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo by Amanda Rice
Be sure to check out our previous National Pastime Prospect Q&A’s: Matt Wieters, Orioles; Ross Detwiler, Nationals; Adrian Alaniz, Nationals; Jake Arrieta, Orioles; Greg Golson, Phillies; John Shelby III, White Sox; Brandon Erbe, Orioles; Chris Marrero, Nationals; Jason Donald, Phillies; John Ely, White Sox; Nolan Reimold, Orioles; Michael Burgess, Nationals; Wes Hodges, Indians.