- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals are intent on rebuilding their organization from within, stocking their minor league system with top talent they hope one day will lead the major league club to a World Series.

Most of the players they have invested in — recent draft picks and Latin American signings — won’t make it to Washington for several years. But in a farm system mostly devoid of upper-level prospects, two names stand out as players who could help the Nationals sooner than later: Kory Casto and Matt Chico.

The question regarding the two, though, is how soon?

Both Casto, a corner outfielder/third baseman, and Chico, a left-handed starter, are being given consideration for spots on the Opening Day roster. But neither has spent a day above Class AA, and the Nationals are wary of rushing anyone to the big leagues before he is ready.

So manager Manny Acta and general manager Jim Bowden have made it clear to both players where they stand this spring. Make an overwhelming impression and there’s a chance they will come north with the club. But don’t be discouraged if they find themselves in the capital of Ohio come April 1, not the capital of the free world.

“Those guys understand,” Acta said. “They played Double-A baseball last year. And it wasn’t like they hit .450 over there. They did have some good production, but you hit .280, you hit 20 home runs with 80 RBI at Double-A, that doesn’t guarantee you skip Triple-A.”

Acta was referring specifically to Casto, who hit .272 with 20 homers and 80 RBI at Harrisburg, Pa., and was named the organization’s minor league player of the year for the second time. But Chico posted comparable pitching numbers in three stops last season, going 12-6 with a 2.88 ERA for Harrisburg and the Diamondbacks’ teams in Lancaster, Pa., and Tennessee.

Impressive seasons, to be sure, but not dominating enough to make them locks for a major league promotion already.

The Nationals, though, don’t believe either player is far off.

Casto, 25, is a refined ballplayer, a gap hitter with occasional home run power who also has shown a penchant for patience at the plate. He has drawn 165 walks the last two seasons and admits there’s not much left for him to work on.

“At this point in my career, I think it’s just refinement,” he said. “There’s not some huge gap that I’m trying to fill. My approach at the plate has been good. That’s something I pride myself in. Make sure I see good pitches and hit good pitches.”

The Nationals have bounced Casto around the field since making him their third-round draft pick in 2003. He played right field at the University of Portland, moved to third base upon turning pro, briefly tried playing second base and now has settled in left field.

He’s probably good enough to serve as a fourth outfielder or backup for Ryan Zimmerman at third base now, but the Nationals have no intention of putting him in that role.

“He has come here and shown everybody that he can hit,” Acta said. “But I’ve been very straightforward with Kory and flat-out told him … at any time if you’re up here, it’s to play every day. There’s no chance of Kory making this club as a backup.”

Casto agrees wholeheartedly with the plan. As much as he would love to play in Washington, he would rather be starting in Columbus.

“Triple-A would be a great experience, just getting more at-bats and all that stuff,” he said. “And as Manny told me straight up, if I make this team, I’m not going to make it on the bench. Which is very understandable. I’m still going to go all-out. But if it doesn’t happen, it’s not like I’m 35 and going back to Triple-A.”

Chico, 23, finds himself in a slightly different situation. The Nationals have plenty of left fielders. They don’t have starting pitchers. And because of that, they might be more inclined to rush the young hurler to the majors.

Few players have drawn more attention this spring than the 6-foot, 205-pound lefty, who was acquired in August from Arizona in the Livan Hernandez trade. With the Diamondbacks, Chico was just another pitching prospect. With the Nationals, he’s at the top of the list.

“Arizona just had so many guys,” he said. “There were quite a few others who felt the same way, that they had gotten lost in the shuffle and felt stuck. It’s a new start here. I get to make a new impression.”

The Nationals’ impression of Chico will become even clearer today once club officials watch him pitch two innings in an intrasquad game. They’re being careful not to put too much pressure on him, but it’s clear he has a shot at a spot in the Opening Day rotation.

Of course, Chico doesn’t want to get his hopes up too much. Just like Casto, he yearns to make his major league debut in April but knows there’s nothing wrong with making it in June or July.

“I’ve been dreaming about this my whole life,” he said. “And now that I have a shot, it’s exciting. Whether it happens now or not, I know I’m still going to have a chance. If I don’t make the club out of spring training, I can always make it a month or two later.”

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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