- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 7, 2009

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. | In a spring full of changes for the Washington Nationals - new numbers and new haircuts, new faces and new names - there are few transformations more striking than Chris Marrero‘s.

Gone is the baby fat that the Nationals’ 2006 first-round pick has carried around for the better part of two seasons, as well as the occasional acne that served notice the team’s first baseman of the future was still a teenager.

The 20-year-old now sports a chiseled torso, trimmed into shape by an offseason of weightlifting and “eating stuff I didn’t want to eat, but you have to eat to be healthy.” A wispy soul patch bisects his chin, and his relaxed expression gives the impression that he is not the least bit in awe of the major leaguers surrounding him.

“I found out how to get Chris to do what you want him to do: You just tell his dad,” said bullpen coach Randy Knorr, Marrero’s manager for the last year and a half at Class A Potomac. “We told his dad, ‘Make sure he comes in good shape.’ It looks like he worked pretty hard.”

It’s questionable how much parental prodding was necessary. Marrero’s motivation to make an impression this spring was cemented late last June when a freak play at home plate ended his season just as he was breaking out of an early season slump.

He broke his right fibula, had two screws inserted into his right ankle and spent the first few weeks after surgery laying on a couch, watching the Nationals and wishing he were playing somewhere. That alone provided the spark Marrero needed to make his recovery noticed.

“Being hurt, I lost good time,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let a broken ankle keep me down.”

Marrero might eventually look back on the injury as the point that sped up his path to the major leagues. He’s in big league camp for the first time, turning heads both with his improved physique and his renewed commitment to rounding out his game, particularly on defense.

“I think he’s moving better and learning the position better every day,” acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. “And I think he’s on track to be the type of performer that we think he’s going to be.”

The path for Marrero has always been fairly well-defined, but there have been moments where the Nationals’ minor league staff had to cure his teenage tendencies.

He was moved from third base to the outfield and then to first base after the Nationals drafted him, and Knorr needled him more than once about how embarrassing it would be to need a seventh-inning defensive replacement every night in the big leagues. Knorr had always spoken frankly to the prospect, pushing Marrero to be a more complete player than the one who’s received numerous accolades purely for his silky right-handed power stroke.

One night last June, a shallow fly ball changed the dynamics for both of them.

Marrero was on third base and Knorr in the coach’s box a few feet behind him. Knorr watched the ball drift into foul territory and waved Marrero home when the ball was caught. But when the throw came home more quickly than Marrero expected, he slid at the last second and got his spike caught in the dirt.

Knorr assumed everything was fine when Marrero walked off the field, only to find out two days later that Marrero’s season was over.

Both were slightly unnerved; Marrero had never had surgery, while Knorr was angry at himself for sending the first baseman.

But Marrero came back in time for an impressive fall season in the Nationals’ instructional league, continued a training program of weights, running and agility drills through the winter and increased the number of ground balls he took each day. He is now moving so well, manager Manny Acta can barely tell Marrero was ever hurt.

“He’s fine. He’s in tremendous shape,” Acta said. “When you’re that young and you care about your body and show up to camp [in shape], that says a lot.”

If Marrero doesn’t start the year at Class AA Harrisburg, it’s conceivable he’ll be there before long. Excelling at Harrisburg would mean his big league debut would start to come into view.

And if all that happens, he’ll have a serendipitous ankle injury to thank.

“Hopefully, whether he’s ready this year or next year, this is a start,” Acta said. “He’s going to have to be in our big league camp from now on.”

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