- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2009

In less than a month, the Washington Nationals will occupy the highest profile in the MLB draft, certainly in this year’s proceedings but maybe in several years, thanks to the twin dubious achievements of having the worst record in baseball last year and being unable to sign last year’s first-round pick, Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow.

That puts the Nationals in position to be the only team with an unfiltered right to pick (and pay) San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg, but it also sets them up with the 10th overall selection as compensation for not signing Crow last year. Washington is the first team ever to have two picks in the top 10. On top of all that, they will have the first pick in every round thereafter.

It’s a bounty that could quickly turn around any team’s fortunes. And for the Nationals to be relevant anytime soon, it might have to.

While the team has been praised for finding major league talent in later rounds, its track record in the first round since the start of the decade (and especially since moving to the District) is spotty at best. Of the players taken in the first round or the “sandwich round” between the first and second round, only Ryan Zimmerman and Chad Cordero have played consistently in the major leagues. The rest are either abject failures (Justin Wayne, Josh Karp, Clint Everts and Bill Bray), are too young to be evaluated properly (Colton Willems, Chris Marrero and Michael Burgess) or are waffling between the second category and the first (Josh Smoker and Ross Detwiler).

Of the team’s most recent top picks, Willems and Detwiler still have the most power to turn the Nationals’ first-round track record around. Detwiler, the 2007 first-rounder, is set to make his first big league start Monday night. But it’s not with a sense of inevitability but instead as a surprise call-up as a spot starter after the lefty went through a lengthy mechanical overhaul that the Nationals now say was necessary all along after they took him with the sixth pick.

He has posted a 3.00 ERA and struck out 28 in 27 1/3 innings at Class AA Harrisburg but was cut from big league camp early this spring and struggled most of last year at Class A Potomac. If the spot start doesn’t lead to more consistent signs of a big league pedigree by the end of the year, it’s safe to start floating the bust label on Detwiler.

As for Willems, he acquitted himself nicely in his first full season of pro ball last year, going 5-9 with a 3.70 ERA at Class A Hagerstown, and has a complete game among his first three starts at Potomac. He’s only 20 and could reasonably make his big league debut in 2011 at age 22.

But Smoker found himself back in rookie ball last year and hasn’t pitched anywhere in 2009; Burgess is still struggling to accentuate his considerable power with fewer strikeouts; and Marrero, who appears to be on the right track at Potomac, probably won’t be ready for the big leagues until late next year at the earliest.

The Nationals’ decision under former general manager Jim Bowden to draft based on upside isn’t a bad one, but a big part of the reason they fell from ninth to 21st this year in Baseball America’s farm system rankings is because their top picks didn’t make much appreciable progress last year.

They can bring a partial remedy to the situation next month. But there’s plenty riding on everything about the two first-rounders, from the selection to the signing process, and that’s because of the team’s blemished history at the top of the draft.

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