- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2005

There are few guarantees when it comes to baseball’s amateur draft, in which first-round picks are historically just as likely to spend their career in the minor leagues as they are to become 10-time major league All-Stars.

So it is with some trepidation that the Washington Nationals today embark on their first draft since relocating from Montreal, owners of a pick (fourth overall) that could produce a future star … or a future bust.

“It’s a very important pick. It’s huge,” Nationals scouting director Dana Brown said. “We feel like we’re going to be dealing with a big-time player.”

A big-time player who may not have to travel far to get to RFK Stadium.

The Nationals’ top target for the No. 4 pick appears to be University of Virginia third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, one of the nation’s top college position players and a potential heir apparent to 37-year-old Vinny Castilla.

Zimmerman, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound junior from Virginia Beach, is regarded as a defensive whiz, so much so that Washington general manager Jim Bowden is already putting him in the company of Scott Rolen and Brooks Robinson. He’s also a hitting machine, having just batted .404 with six homers and 54 RBI for the Cavaliers.

“We feel like he’s a Gold Glove third baseman with bat potential,” Brown said. “And you look at Castilla, he’s got a two-year deal. Maybe [Zimmerman] could slide right in if he plays like he’s capable of playing.”

Publicly, the Nationals continue to say they are looking seriously at four players: Zimmerman, University of Tennessee pitcher Luke Hochevar and high school outfielders Cameron Maybin (Arden, N.C.) and Jay Bruce (Beaumont, Texas).

And in theory, they would jump at the opportunity to draft either Chesapeake, Va., shortstop Justin Upton or University of Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon. Those two, however, are all but certain to be drafted first and second by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Kansas City Royals, respectively.

The Seattle Mariners, who pick third, are looking at several of the same players as Washington, but the latest scuttlebutt has them selecting Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.

No matter who the Nationals wind up with, club officials insist he will be signable. They have been given no financial constraints by Major League Baseball, and they believe they will have no trouble meeting their top pick’s contract demands … as long as he’s not represented by Scott Boras. Hochevar is the only player in the mix under the uber-agent’s control, which would seem to leave him on the outside looking in.

“MLB has been real good in helping us sign our players,” Brown said. “We’re definitely going to take the best player available. I don’t think signability is an issue. Signability is only an issue if your agent is Boras. Other than that, we’re going to get our player done.”

Washington also has a little more money available for its top pick because it won’t select again until the fourth round. The Nationals had to surrender their second- and third-round picks after signing free agents Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman over the winter.

MLB reviewing Byrd

Bob Watson, MLB’s vice president for on-field operations, received videotapes and written reports yesterday of Marlon Byrd’s incident with umpire Joe Brinkman. A decision is not expected until midweek at the earliest, but a league source said Byrd is likely to receive a minimal suspension, perhaps three games.

Byrd was ejected from Saturday night’s game against the Florida Marlins after arguing a third-strike check swing. While sprinting toward first-base umpire Bill Miller to complain, he ran through Brinkman (the second-base umpire) and knocked him over. Byrd said the contact was accidental.

Delayed response

A formal response from the Baltimore Orioles and Major League Baseball to a lawsuit from Comcast SportsNet (CSN) is now expected June 13, six days later than previously anticipated. CSN says the Orioles breached their contract with the regional sports network by announcing plans to move their local pay TV games to the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), of which the Orioles own a majority interest.

The Orioles and MLB will seek to dismiss the suit, filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, with a hearing on that motion set for June 27. The dispute has involved the Washington Nationals — MASN produces and distributes Nationals games, and Comcast Corp., CSN’s parent company, refuses to show MASN on its cable systems while the litigation is ongoing.

Johnson wins honor

Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson was named co-NL player of the week yesterday, sharing the honor with St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols.

Johnson batted .545 (12-for-22) with four doubles, eight runs scored and five RBI. Pujols hit .458 (11-for-24) with three homers and six RBI.

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