- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

There’s nothing more precious or more coveted in baseball than quality young pitching. For teams that can’t spend like the Yankees and Red Sox, developing pitching prospects is the lifeblood of the organization.

Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, Va., is a short trip down I-95 from RFK Stadium, and at the beginning of this season it is home to the future of the Washington Nationals. Because of circumstances that include injury and accelerated development, Class A Potomac’s rotation boasts the three (and maybe eventually four) top starting pitching prospects in the Nationals system.

“The majority of the top pitching prospects in the organization are here with us this year,” Potomac pitching coach Charlie Corbell said. “People should be able to get a good look at what is coming.”

Before the 2004 season right-hander Clint Everts topped the organization’s prospect list according to Baseball America. Last season lefty Mike Hinckley was ranked No. 1. Ryan Zimmerman had the honor this year, but his certain presence all season in Washington means right-hander Collin Balester is the top-rated Nationals prospect.

The trio of prized arms could form one of the most impressive and closely watched rotations in the minor leagues this season. Toss in slender righty Daryl Thompson, who could join Potomac after he has recovered from shoulder trouble, and it could be a fearsome foursome putting away hitters at the Pfitz.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Balester said. “Once Daryl gets healthy we’re going to have, at least I’d imagine, one of the best four-man rotations. Every single time we go we are going to have a chance to win. If everything goes as planned, then we should be pretty good.”

If everything goes the way Hinckley plans, the quartet might never be together. At 24, he is the graybeard of the group. Two seasons ago he was dominating hitters in Class AA. Last season began with him competing for a spot in the parent club’s rotation.

A shoulder problem in the spring ended that, but it only figured to be a matter of time before Hinckley was back. Instead, his left shoulder was never right during a trying season filled with poor results at Potomac.

Now, following an offseason surgical procedure, Hinckley is healthy and ready for a return to 2004 form.

“I hope I’m not here long. My goal is the same as last year,” Hinckley said. “I’ve got the same expectations. I’ve just got to stay healthy. I want to get over to D.C.”

Balester, who will not turn 20 until June 6, is the youngest of the group. He will be one of the youngest pitchers in the Carolina League, just as he was in the South Atlantic League a year ago.

While Hickley’s struggles and Balester’s breakout were among the top stories in the organization last season, the 21-year old Everts rehabbed in anonymity. After Tommy John surgery in September 2004, the former first-round pick spent the first half of last year in Florida working to rehabilitate his elbow.

Everts recovered quicker than expected and was able to make seven appearances in the Gulf Coast League and eight more with Vermont in the New York/Penn League.

Restricted to mostly fastballs and only a few innings each outing, Everts tried to build arm strength and confidence in his repaired right elbow.

Each of the trio’s reasons for being placed at Potomac to start this season is different, and so is the way each pitches. Balester’s best pitch is a fastball that he dials into the low-to-mid 90s. Everts had one of the best curveballs in the minors before the surgery, and his changeup is also top-notch.

While Balester needs to improve his secondary pitches, Everts will work on regaining his fastball. Hinckley, while obviously different as a left-hander, relies more on the location of three quality pitches.

There have been some notable groups of pitching prospects in minor league lore. In the mid-90s, a Mets trio of power pitching prospects — Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson — became known as “Generation K.” Last season at Class AA Frisco, the Texas Rangers trio of John Danks, Edison Volquez and Thomas Diamond were dubbed the DVD rotation.

If healthy, the group at Potomac could be one of the best in minor league baseball, and if so, a catchy nickname could be in the works.

“Maybe we will have to sit down and come up with something,” Balester said. “We might be able to get one going before the end of the year.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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