Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Washington Nationals have come to terms with Michael Burgess, their third pick in last month’s amateur draft, but there are indications the club may not be able to sign both of their top two picks and instead might divert their resources toward signing international amateurs.

General manager Jim Bowden acknowledged yesterday he is in negotiations with several teenagers from foreign countries (most likely the Dominican Republic) who could be seen as better prospects than first-round pick Ross Detwiler and/or “sandwich” pick Josh Smoker.

“If we decide to go forward and sign a couple of players that we’re negotiating with, it might affect our ability to sign our first two picks,” Bowden said. “We may not be able to sign both of them because we may choose to spend the money on another key player of that type of talent. … We have to decide how to spend our money.”

The Nationals continue to negotiate with Detwiler (a left-hander from Missouri State who was selected sixth overall) and Smoker (a high school lefty from Georgia taken 31st overall) and have until Aug. 15 to sign both. If they don’t come to terms with either, they will get the same pick in next year’s draft, a new rule that gives clubs added leverage.

Burgess, selected 49th overall, becomes the highest-drafted player to sign with the Nationals to date. A raw-but-talented 18-year-old outfielder from Hillsborough, Fla., he had expected to be taken in the first round and was surprised to drop so far following a rough senior year in high school.

Negotiations took place over several weeks, with Bowden flying to Florida himself to finalize the deal. Burgess wound up receiving a $630,000 signing bonus, slightly higher than his slot normally would receive. He will start playing for the Nationals’ Gulf Coast rookie league team this week.

“He could have gone to Arizona State and come back in three years or gone to junior college and come back in a year, but he needs to go play,” Bowden said. “He needs to develop. He needs to develop in professional baseball, not in the college ranks.”

The Nationals also signed fifth-round pick Brad Meyers, a right-hander from Loyola Marymount. They now have signed 33 of 53 draft picks.

Kearns takes a seat

Manager Manny Acta gave Austin Kearns a rare night off, hoping the slumping right fielder will benefit from some rest.

Kearns, who is hitting just .254 with five homers and 27 RBI and drove in only four runs during June, was absent from the Nationals’ lineup only one other time this season (May 27 at St. Louis), but he came off the bench to pinch-hit in that game. He’s not accustomed to sitting out but didn’t put up a fight yesterday when Acta told him his plans.

“I understand,” Kearns said. “If Manny comes and asks me if I want a day off, I’m going to tell him no. Sometimes it helps you, but I’m definitely not looking for one.”

Kearns has been working extensively with hitting coach Lenny Harris, particularly on speeding up his hands to get them through the hitting zone quicker.

“I just don’t think that it has clicked yet, what he’s working on,” Acta said. “It just takes time. Give him a chance.”

Escobar close?

Injured outfielder Alex Escobar (shoulder, ankle) ran hard around the bases during a pregame workout yesterday and said he’s close to returning.

Escobar, a supremely talented but oft-injured player who has been on the disabled list all season, likely will resume a minor league rehab assignment within the next week and could be ready to come off the DL after the All-Star break.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment the whole year,” he said. “I feel like I’m finally getting there. It’s a good feeling.”

When healthy, Escobar figures to work his way into Washington’s starting lineup, either in left or center field.

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