- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

While improving the quality and depth of the Nationals’ minor league system will be vital to the organization’s long-term success, the parent club has been able to fill holes from within this season.

Starting pitching was a major concern entering the 2006 campaign, and when outside options (Brian Lawrence, Pedro Astacio and Zach Day) didn’t pan out, the Nationals turned to the farm system for help. Mike O’Connor and Shawn Hill have been pleasant surprises.

Bullpen help is also on the way in Bill Bray, the club’s 2004 first-round pick. And there is third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, of course. He didn’t spend much time in the minors, but he could be a homegrown talent for the next decade.

With the season a little more than a third of the way done, it is a good time to examine what has transpired so far.

O’Connor and Hill have been two of the biggest surprises not only for the Nationals, but in all of minor league baseball. O’Connor skipped Class AA and made only four starts at Class AAA New Orleans before pitching well enough to earn a spot in the Nationals’ rotation.

Hill missed 2005 because of Tommy John surgery. Most pitchers take two full years to return from the surgery — one to rehabilitate the arm and one to return to form. But Hill pitched well for Class AA Harrisburg (2.64 ERA in eight starts) and after one outing in New Orleans, he had a nice start against the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 27.

“[Hill’s] fastball command is the best I have seen at this level,” Harrisburg manager John Stearns said. “He can work both sides of the plate with his fastball. He is an impressive young guy. I think he has a good chance to be a good major league pitcher.”

Another prospect that struggled with injuries in 2005, first baseman Larry Broadway, is off to a hot start. He is hitting .337 with seven homers and 40 RBI for the Zephyrs, and his .925 OPS is tops among players currently on a Nationals’ minor league roster.

With top position prospects like Kory Casto, Frank Diaz, Salomon Manriquez and Josh Whitesell moving on to Harrisburg, Class A Potomac’s offense has struggled this season. Second baseman Trey Webb has been a bright spot, however. Webb, a fifth-round pick out of Baylor in 2003, has improved in nearly every offensive category this season.

Brian Peacock was expected to be an impact prospect after signing in the days before the 2005 draft, and he is off to a great start with Class A Savannah. Peacock, who has split-time between catcher and designated hitter, needs to work on his selectivity at the plate (eight walks and 45 strikeouts), but he is hitting .288 with seven homers and 11 doubles.

There have been some prospects who have not performed up to expectations in the season’s first two months. Potomac’s trio of top pitching prospects — Collin Balester, Clint Everts and Mike Hinckley — all had rocky starts.

Hinckley has had a few quality starts in the past month, and Everts’ numbers are less important at this point than his staying healthy. Balester has been pulled quickly from his past two starts, but has given up only two runs in three of his last four outings.

“Last year [Balester] got away with just throwing the ball by guys, but this year these guys can hit a little bit,” said Potomac manager Randy Knorr, who also managed Balester with Savannah last season. “We’re going to have to get him to command the ball a little bit better and he is still working on his curveball and his changeup, but I think everything is going to come together pretty good for him.”

Justin Maxwell’s much-anticipated debut was cut short by another injury. Oft-injured former mega-prospect Alex Escobar hit well at Harrisburg and made it back to the majors, but he is back on the disabled list.

And there is Ian Desmond. The highly touted shortstop, who doesn’t turn 21 until September, began the season at Harrisburg. Despite underwhelming offensive numbers at both Savannah and Potomac in 2005, the Nationals decided to continue to push Desmond.

While he continued to impress with his glove — and members of the organization and fans alike are salivating at the thought of Desmond and Zimmerman forming a dazzling left side of the infield — Desmond wasn’t ready for Class AA pitching. He hit .214 with five walks and 35 strikeouts for the Senators before returning to Potomac.

A demotion after being pushed is not uncommon for a player like Desmond, who clearly has one part of his game that is more refined than the other. He is 6-for-17 with the Nationals, and certainly hasn’t lost favor with the organization.

“Ian is 20 years old, which means he is three or four years younger than a lot of these guys,” Stearns said. “He’s got a lot of work to do offensively. He’s going to be a big league player for a very long time, but right now he’s struggling. When he comes through those struggles or conquers them, he will be that much closer to the big leagues.”

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