Friday, August 29, 2008

The news that Washington Nationals prospect Esmailyn Gonzalez won the Gulf Coast League batting title this week can be taken as surprising given his age (18) or somewhat expected given that this was his second season in the short-season rookie league.

Perspectives aside, the fact that the GCL Nationals shortstop improved his batting average nearly 100 points from one season to the next is a sign that the team’s splashiest international signing is on the right track.

Gonzalez finished the season hitting .343 in 49 games with the Nationals, helping them reach the Gulf Coast League playoffs and capping a year that has represented a major step forward for the Dominican Republic native, who signed with Washington for $1.4 million at age 16.



He batted .245 with no homers and 11 RBI in a 33-game first season in the Gulf Coast League but still managed a .382 on-base percentage. This year, he raised that mark to .431 and drove in 31 runs.

“He was able to be healthy this year. He came in shape and worked really hard, and we’re excited about him,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “He’ll skip [short-season] Vermont and go right to [Class A] Hagerstown. Eighteen years old, it’s pretty exciting. We’re very proud of him, and we’re proud of that team.”

The Nationals won the GCL’s Eastern Division with a record of 33-22, 2 1/2 games better than the GCL Marlins.They beat the GCL Twins 10-5 in the one-game first round of the league playoffs Thursday afternoon and will face the GCL Phillies in the best-of-three championship series, which begins today.

Josh Smoker and Jack McGeary, a pair of left-handers the Nationals took in the 2007 draft, will start Game 1 and Game 2, respectively.

Call-ups coming soon

With major league rosters expanding to 40 on Monday, the Nationals should see a number of hitters arrive from Class AAA Columbus and Class AA Harrisburg. Columbus hitting coach Rick Eckstein, who arrived in Washington on Wednesday and will join the Nationals’ coaching staff Monday, has worked with many of the players expected to be called up.

Eckstein reserved praise for Kory Casto, who likely will return to the major leagues next week. Casto has hit .193 in 49 games with the Nationals this season but batted .311 in 30 games with the Clippers.

“When he was down in Columbus, I really liked what I saw,” Eckstein said. “It’s just a matter of trying to get more consistent, come up here and show the major leagues what he can do. I think Kory has a chance to be special.”

Outfielder Roger Bernadina, who is hitting .355 in 43 games with Columbus and played 10 games with the Nationals this season, also is likely to return.

Washington also might see catcher Luke Montz, whose offensive numbers have dropped since he was moved from Harrisburg to Columbus. He has hit .250 with two home runs in 44 games at Class AAA, compared with a .282 average and 14 homers at Harrisburg.

“He was getting adjusted to the league, but boy, he shows some extreme power,” Eckstein said. “He’s a strong young man. He shows the ability to handle a pitching staff and also can catch and throw a little bit.”

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