Monday, April 6, 2009

VIERA, Fla. - The Washington Nationals‘ much-discussed plan to build a contender almost solely through scouting and development always has come with a deadline.

The thinking went that by 2010 - the fourth full season since the Lerner family bought the team - the Nationals would have enough time to remake a barren minor-league system and stock it with players ready to win in the majors.

The problem with putting a deadline on development is that the process isn’t as clean as you might like.

The farm system could be supplying Washington a major-league lineup in a year, but it’s becoming clear just how far the Nationals’ top prospects have to go before they morph into everyday big leaguers.

Most of the team’s top draft picks will start the year no higher than Class AA Harrisburg, and the most prominent position players in the system - Chris Marrero and Michael Burgess - still are only 20.

After rising from 30th to 10th in Baseball America’s annual farm system rankings last year, the Nationals could see a slight drop when this year’s rankings come out next week.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Nationals’ best prospects are behind the curve, but it does illustrate just how much patience it requires to stake a future on teenagers.

“For fans, it probably is [tough to wait],” farm director Bobby Williams said. “In the minor leagues, our job is to develop players and get them to the next level as quick as we can, but not to rush them. If there’s pressure [to move the process along], it’s from the outside.”

There’s a quick way to alleviate some of whatever pressure exists.

That will arrive in two months, when the Nationals become the first team to have two picks among the top 10 of the MLB draft.

The player most expect Washington to take with the top pick, of course, is San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg, a pitching prospect so sublime that scouts have predicted he could be in the majors by September.

“He’s a terrific amateur pitcher,” acting general manager Mike Rizzo said last month. “He’s in a special category of amateur pitchers going into the draft.”

The Nationals come right back with the 10th pick, a compensatory selection given to them because they didn’t sign last year’s first-rounder, Aaron Crow, the ninth pick in the 2008 draft.

The reason for the extra first-rounder, however, illustrates what might be the biggest concern with the 2009 draft: being able to sign both players. Strasburg’s presumptive agent, Scott Boras, will likely come with a slew of hyperbolic demands, and it’s conceivable the Nationals could have to shell out well over $10 million of bonus money - along with accoutrements like guaranteed major-league contracts - to get the two players in their system.

For an organization that hasn’t had a first-round pick reach the majors since Ryan Zimmerman in 2005, this year’s draft could be a shot of adrenaline.

“We have a chance to get two impact players that can move through the system quickly,” Williams said. “And we pick first in every round after. This is another big draft.”

It won’t, however, lessen the importance of this season for prospects like Marrero and Burgess, who both still show all the promise and glaring holes of players less than two years removed from high school.

Marrero started the spring in major-league camp after recovering from a broken ankle and impressed many in the organization with his improved physique. He’ll start at Harrisburg, while Burgess should be at Class A Potomac, continuing to work on evening out his high-homer, high-strikeout swing.

“He’s still just a pup,” Williams said. “I don’t think [either of those guys] have to be in the big leagues this year. They both look good right now.”

And then there’s Ross Detwiler, the Missouri State left-hander the Nationals took with the sixth pick in 2007 amidst talk he could be on the fast track to the majors. Washington called him up at the end of the 2007 season, but he hasn’t been back, and his progress stalled at Class A Potomac last year while the team tinkered with his mechanics.

He was one of the first cuts out of big-league camp this spring, and Rizzo said the Nationals never expected him to jump through the system quickly.

“We knew when we drafted him he wasn’t a finished product,” Rizzo said. “He wasn’t a refined, quick-to-the-big-leagues-type of college pitcher that some other pitchers were. He was a stuff guy, [and] we had to refine his delivery.”

It’s still possible this season could be the defining year for some of the Nationals’ top picks, and 2010 may well find the team with a farm system capable of churning out big league-ready talent.

But right now, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

“We’re still talking about players drafted in ‘07 and ‘08,” Williams said. “It takes another year or two. You’ve got to be patient and let the young guys develop.”

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