Monday, June 5, 2006

It’s one thing for major league general managers to say they are committed to building a successful franchise through the amateur draft. It’s another for them to go out and actually practice what they preach.

Too often, GMs tout the importance of the draft — the only proven, slow-and-steady way to build a pennant contender — but get trapped into sacrificing the plan in an attempt to go for the quick fix through free agency and trades.

Such is the dilemma facing the Washington Nationals this week. GM Jim Bowden and his scouting department have a chance to begin the true rebuilding of this franchise in the preferred manner of their new owners: by restocking the minor league system with homegrown talent.

Thanks to last winter’s losses of pitchers Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco to free agency, the Nationals are in the enviable position of having four of the first 70 picks in tomorrow’s draft. They don’t have a slot as high as they did a year ago when they drafted Ryan Zimmerman fourth overall, but they do have an opportunity to grab some top talent.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Unlike the NFL and NBA drafts, where the success rate for first-round picks is high, the baseball draft is more of a crapshoot. For every Zimmerman and Chad Cordero, there are dozens of Josh Karps and Clint Everts still languishing in the minor leagues.

But there are ways to ensure a team maximizes its chances of drafting future big league stars and passing over the duds. It takes time, money and plenty of scouts with a keen eye for talent, but it can be done. Just ask the Atlanta Braves.

Perhaps the best model for baseball success (aside from the lack of World Series titles), the Braves have won 14 straight division titles in large part because of their ability to draft and develop their own players.

Consider: Of the 25 active players on Atlanta’s roster, 12 were either original draftees of the club or were undrafted signees who have never played for another organization. Add three more players who are on the disabled list, and that’s 15 homegrown players, a list that includes Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Marcus Giles, Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann.

So, how do the Nationals stack up to their NL East rivals? Not well. Only seven of the 37 players active or on the DL were original draft picks: Zimmerman, Cordero, Bill Bray, Mike O’Connor, Shawn Hill, Brian Schneider and Jose Vidro, a sixth-round pick way back in 1992.

The Nationals have done well with first-round picks the last three years, snagging Cordero, Bray and Zimmerman. But a major league team can’t be built exclusively with first-rounders. Organizations have to be able to find some diamonds in the rough.

And franchises must have an organizational philosophy that stretches from rookie ball through to the majors. What kind of players do the Nationals want to try to develop? Big, hard-throwing right-handers? Speedy outfielders? Five-tool shortstops?

This is what incoming president Stan Kasten, his GM (Bowden or someone else) and his scouting director (currently Dana Brown) have to decide.

The Nationals have an opportunity to dramatically reshape this organization from the bottom up, and there’s no better place to start than this week’s draft.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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