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Washington NationalsThe Nationals finally found some stability in their second season in Washington, as a new ownership group led by developer Ted Lerner took the over the reins of the franchise from Major League Baseball in late July. Former Braves executive Stan Kasten became team president, and general manager Jim Bowden and his staff were given the security of knowing their jobs were no longer in limbo.Bowden?s major offseason acquisition, Alfonso Soriano, joined Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez as the only members of the 40-40 club. Though Bowden knew there was a high risk Soriano would leave as a free agent after the season, he held on to his all-star left fielder at the trading deadline. When Soriano signed a $136 million contract with the Cubs, Washington was left with two draft picks in return.Soriano's big season and Ryan Zimmerman's 110-RBI rookie year didn't pay off in the standings, however. The Nationals finished in last place in the National League East at 71-91, 10 games worse than in 2005. Washington let manager Frank Robinson go after the season, replacing him with Mets third-base coach Manny Acta.But the Nationals are about the future, not the present. With a new ballpark set to open in 2007, they spent 2006 trying to build a long-term foundation by acquiring as many young players as they could through trades, the draft and the international market.Though he didn't spin off Soriano, Bowden did make some slick trades during the summer. He acquired big leaguers Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez from the Reds and pitching prospects Luis Atilano (Braves), Matt Chico and Garrett Mock (Diamondbacks), Shairon Martis (Giants) and Jhonny Nunez (Dodgers) without giving up anyone in Washington's long-term plans. Bowden made another nice move in December, dispatching declining veteran Jose Vidro and $12 million in salary obligations to the Mariners for outfielder Chris Snelling and righthander Emiliano Fruto.For the first time in five years, the Nationals could spend freely in the draft. Though they had two first-round picks and two second-rounders, they didn?t have to worry about signability like they had in the past. Though they didn't sign second-round righthander Sean Black, they landed two legitimate first-rounders in outfielder Chris Marrero and righthander Colten Willems and went over slot money to sign shortstop Stephen King (third round), lefthander Glenn Gibson (fourth) and righty Hassan Pena (13th).All told, Washington spent $5.3 million on the draft, the 10th-highest amount in baseball. The Nationals also signed16-year-old Dominican shortstop Esmailyn Gonzalez for $1.4 million. They trumpeted that bonus in their official press release, making a statement that they will be major players in Latin America for years to come.The end result of all the moves is that Washington has vastly improved the depth in its farm system, though it will take some time for the talent to progress to the upper levels. The Nationals hope to build their club with homegrown talent, much like the Braves did under Kasten.To that end, the Nationals hired Diamondbacks scouting director Mike Rizzo as assistant GM and vice president of baseball operations. Washington added 10 scouts, including former Devil Rays GM Chuck LaMar, in November to augment a scouting staff that had been ravaged during MLB?s ownership. Even with a skeleton staff, scouting director Dana Brown has proven resourceful with help from scouts like Tony Arango, who signed the first three prospects on this Top 10 list.1. Collin Balester, rhp Born: June 6, 1986 ? B-T: R-R ? Ht: 6-5 ? Wt: 190 Drafted: HS--Huntington Beach, Calif., 2004 (4th round) ? Signed by: Tony ArangoCollin BalesterBackground: Going into his freshman year at Huntington Beach (Calif.) High, Balester spent much more time surfing than pitching. He admits that he knew about major league baseball but had no idea farm systems existed until his junior year of high school. His father Tom, who has spent 25 years shaving surfboards, worried about Balester falling in with the hard-partying surfer crowd, so he made him focus on baseball. It turned out the younger Balester had quite a knack for pitching, but he lacked the grades for college and signed for $290,000 as a fourth-round pick in 2004. He developed faster than the Nationals anticipated over his first two pro seasons, pushing his way to high Class A Potomac as a 19-year-old to start 2006. Early in the year, Washington wanted him to work on staying taller in his delivery to maximize leverage in his lanky frame, and he struggled with the adjustment, going 1-3, 6.91 over his first nine starts. His fastball velocity dropped to 88-90 mph and his command was very erratic. When Balester decided to return to his drop-and-drive roots, and his stuff and control came back. He rebounded to earn three late-season starts at Double-A Harrisburg.Strengths: When Balester's is on, he has two above-average pitches and a chance for a third. Once he went back to pushing off the rubber with his back foot, he regained the life and velocity on his 91-94 fastball and had much more success busting hitters inside and breaking bats. With a durable frame and an electric arm, he holds his velocity deep into games and still projects to add a little more zip to his fastball as he fills out. Balester's out pitch is a power 76-78 mph curveball with sharp downward bite. His command of his curve came on in the second half of 2006, when he had success throwing it for strikes or as a chase pitch. He has good feel for his 80-84 mph changeup, which the Nationals forced him to begin throwing late in 2005. The changeup is becoming an effective weapon against lefthanders, thanks to its good fade. Balester doesn't rack up huge strikeout totals, but that's in part because he tries to be efficient and keep his pitch counts down.Weaknesses: Balester still needs to learn to trust his changeup and develop a better feel for how much to put on or take off the pitch. It shows signs of being at least an average offering, and he'll need it to become more consistent in order to succeed as a starter in the big leagues. Though he tries to pitch to contact, he's still been too hittable because his location is still a work in progress. He has come a long way with the command of his fastball, but isn't as far along with his curve. While Balester has a gregarious, easygoing personality, he can get too emotional on the mound and lets his frustration with umpires get the better of him. Early in 2006, he struggled not just with mechanics but also with expectations, and he needs to be careful not to try to do too much.The Future: At 20, Balester will be one of the youngest pitchers to open 2007 in Double-A. The Nationals have plenty of uncertainty in their starting rotation, and it's possible Balester could see the big leagues late in the year, but another full season in the minors would be good for his development. He has the stuff and the moxie to be Washington's No. 1 starter in a few years.Code: [Select]2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVGPotomac (Hi A) 4 5 5.20 23 22 0 0 118 126 12 53 87 .280Harrisburg (AA) 1 0 1.83 3 3 0 0 20 15 0 6 10 .2312. Chris Marrero, of Born: July 2, 1988 ? B-T: R-R ? Ht: 6-3 ? Wt: 210 Drafted: HS--Opa Locka, Fla., 2006 (1st round) ? Signed by: Tony ArangoChris MarreroBackground: Marrero was the nation's top prep prospect entering 2006, but he slumped during the spring. But after joking around with Nationals GM Jim Bowden at a workout in RFK Stadium, he crushed one mammoth homer after another, and onlooking Ryan Zimmerman couldn't believe Marrero was a high schooler. After he went 15th overall and signed for $1.625 million, Marrero had a solid pro debut until it was cut shot by viral meningitis in early August.Strengths: Marrero's best tool is his plus-plus raw power from foul pole to foul pole. He has decent plate discipline and pitch recognition, and he gets his hands ready early in his smooth, quiet swing. With a big, athletic frame and fringe-average speed, he played a solid left field after spending his high school career at third base. He has an above-average arm.Weaknesses: Marrero hurt his hamstring this spring and developed bad habits to compensate, stepping in the bucket and pulling off pitches on the outer half. He seemed to correct the problem this summer, but he still needs to show he can make consistent hard contact.The Future: Marrero has regained the weight he lost when he came down with meningitis, and he should be ready to push for an everyday job at Washington's new low Class A Hagerstown affiliate in 2007. He could be the Nationals' cleanup hitter of the future.Code: [Select] 2006 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SBGCL Nationals (R) .309 .374 .420 81 10 25 9 0 0 16 8 19 0 3. Colton Willems, rhp Born: July 30, 1988 ? B-T: R-R ? Ht: 6-3 ? Wt: 175 Drafted: HS--Fort Pierce, Fla., 2006 (1st round) ? Signed by: Tony ArangoColton WillemsBackground: Willems surfaced as an elite arm in the summer of 2005, garnering most-valuable-pitcher honors at the Cape Cod Classic in July. He shut it down after the Aflac All-American game, and as a result had the freshest arm in Florida's deep high school pitching crop last spring. He went 22nd overall in June and signed for $1.425 million.Strengths: Willems has a lightning-quick arm and a clean, easy delivery from a high three-quarters slot. His velocity spiked in the spring, when he came out pitching at 92 mph and bumped 97 in a relief outing, and he pitched at 91-93 as a starter last summer. With a tall, projectable frame, he gets good downward angle on his pitches. He secured his first-round status after his high school pitching coach, former major leaguer David West, taught him a mid-80s slider to replace his curveball.Weaknesses: Though Willems locates his fastball well on both sides of the plate, he needs to command his slider better in order to make it a plus pitch. His changeup could become average, but it's in the very early stages of its development. The Nationals shut down Willems with mild elbow soreness in August, thought they say they were just being extra cautious and it's not a long-term concern.The Future: Willems has the stuff to become a No. 1 starter, but he'll need time and patience to reach his ceiling. He could start 2007 in low Class A.Code: [Select]2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVGGCL Nationals (R) 0 1 3.38 5 5 0 0 16 23 1 3 8 .338 4. Kory Casto, 3b/of Born: Dec. 8, 1981 ? B-T: L-R ? Ht: 6-1 ? Wt: 200 Drafted: Portland, 2003 (3rd round) ? Signed by: Doug McMillanKory CastoBackground: An outfielder in college, Casto moved to third base in his first full season in 2004 and gradually became a very solid defender there. But when Ryan Zimmerman seized the Nationals' hot-corner job, they decided to move Casto back to the outfield after the 2006 all-star break. He had another solid year with the bat and continued to hit in the Arizona Fall League, despite missing three weeks for his wedding and honeymoon.Strengths: A mature, disciplined hitter, Casto rarely chases pitches out of the zone and excels at working counts. He has average power and can use the whole field, and he's not afraid to jump on hanging breaking balls or high fastballs early in the count. He had no problem getting reacquainted with the outfield, where his arm is slightly above average.Weaknesses: Casto always been a streaky hitter because he'll fall into the trap of making too many adjustments at times. His speed and outfield range are fringy. He's an extremely hard worker, but sometimes his drive to succeed gets the better of him.The Future: With the departure of Alfonso Soriano via free agency, Casto should have an opportunity to earn the Nationals? left-field job. He should be a solid everyday player capable of hitting 20 homers per year.Code: [Select] 2006 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SBHarrisburg (AA) .272 .379 .468 489 84 133 24 6 20 80 81 104 6 5. Esmailyn Gonzalez, ss Born: Sept. 21, 1989 ? B-T: B-R ? Ht: 5-11 ? Wt: 175 Signed: Dominican Republic ? Signed by: Jose RijoBackground: Nationals special assistant Jose Rijo first discovered Gonzalez when the shortstop was 14, and he played at Rijo?s Dominican baseball academy for a year. Their close relationship--and a $1.4 million signing bonus--helped Washington beat out the Rangers, Red Sox, Twins and Yankees for his services last summer. He made a good first impression in Dominican instructional league during the fall.Strengths: A switch-hitter, Gonzalez has a short stroke with a good swing path, and he knows the strike zone very well for a player his age. Though he's just a fringe-average runner, he does have good range and a solid-average arm at shortstop, where his actions are quick and easy and his hands are special. He has amazing instincts and is exceptionally skilled. During warmups he'll occasionally flip the ball to first base behind his back or field a ball between his legs. A high-energy player whose enthusiasm for the game is contagious, he goes by the nickname ?Smily?.Weaknesses: Like most 17-year-olds, Gonzalez needs to add strength, and a conditioning program will do him good. He has a mature offensive approach for his age, but he still needs plenty of polish. Despite good bat speed, he has below-average power.The Future: Gonzalez will come to the United States for spring training and likely will make his pro debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in June. He has an outside shot to go to low Class A because the Nationals would like to keep him with 2006 draftees Chris Marrero, Colton Willems and Glenn Gibson. Code: [Select]2006 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SBDid Not Play--Signed 2007 Contract 6. Zech Zinicola, rhp Born: March 2, 1985 ? B-T: R-R ? Ht: 6-1 ? Wt: 220 Drafted: Arizona State, 2006 (6th round) ? Signed by: Mitch SokolZech ZinicolaBackground: A free spirit who lived in a mobile home while he attended Arizona State, Zinicola settled in as the Sun Devils? closer his junior season after playing both ways his first two years. He signing for $147,500 as a sixth-rounder in June, then was named Nationals minor league pitcher of the year after dominating at three levels and reaching Double-A.Strengths: Zinicola has a power repertoire perfect for the back of the bullpen. He runs his plus fastball up to 95 mph routinely, and he complements it with an above-average 82-85 mph slider with tight bite. In college he threw an average changeup with splitter action, but he rarely used the pitch during his pro debut. Zinicola has a bulldog mentality, a physical frame and a clean, repeatable delivery.Weaknesses: Zinicola needs to fine-tune his command, which lapsed late in the season as a heavy workload caught up to him. Scouts questioned Zinicola?s maturity at times in college, but it wasn't an issue in pro ball.The Future: Similar to former top Washington first-rounders Chad Cordero and Bill Bray, Zinicola is on the fast track. He could be a setup man in the big leagues as soon as 2007, and he could be in line to replace Cordero as the closer in the future. Code: [Select]2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVGVermont (SS) 0 0 0.00 8 0 0 4 9 6 0 1 10 .182Potomac (Hi A) 3 0 1.98 9 0 0 3 14 11 0 3 13 .229Harrisburg (AA) 1 1 2.70 10 0 0 5 10 11 0 11 8 .256 7. Glenn Gibson lhp Born: Sept. 21, 1987 ? B-T: L-L ? Ht: 6-4 ? Wt: 195 Drafted: HS--Center Moriches, N.Y., 2006 (4th round) ? Signed by: Guy MaderGlenn GibsonBackground: The son of former big league lefthander Paul Gibson, Glenn turned down a commitment to Central Florida for an above-slot $350,000 bonus in the fourth round. He signed late in the summer so he had a limited pro debut, but he did show off his polish with three scoreless outings at short-season Vermont.Strengths: It's evident that Gibson learned a lot from his father, because he really knows how to pitch. His best offering is an above-average 76-77 mph curveball with good downward bite that was a revelation this spring after his dad moved his arm slot from three-quarters to high three-quarters. He has always trusted his changeup, which already rates as an average pitch and could get better. Gibson projects to add velocity to his 86-88 mph fastball as he fills out his lanky frame, and he already ratchets it up to 91 on occasion. His delivery is clean and easy.Weaknesses: Despite hiring a personal trainer and adding 15 pounds as a high school, Gibson remains skinny and needs to get stronger. He commands his fastball well but will need to add more velocity to pitch toward the front of a big league rotation.The Future: Because he's so advanced, Gibson will push for a rotation spot in low Class A as a 19-year-old. He has a chance to be a No. 3 starter if he develops physically. Code: [Select]2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVGVermont (SS) 0 0 0.00 3 3 0 0 6 2 0 0 7 .100 8. Matt Chico, lhp Born: June 10, 1983 ? B-T: L-L ? Ht: 5-11 ? Wt: 200 Drafted: Palomar (Calif.) JC, 2003 (3rd round) ? Signed by: Mark Baca (Diamondbacks)Matt ChicoBackground: After turning down $700,000 as a Red Sox second-round pick out of high school, Chico flunked out of Southern California and a junior college, landing in a San Diego semipro league when the Diamondbacks drafted him in 2003. He showed flashes of promise in his first three seasons in the Arizona system before coming over to the Nationals along with Garrett Mock in an August deal for Livan Hernandez.Strengths: With a build reminiscent of Mike Hampton's and a tenacious mindset to match, Chico has a deceptive delivery and keeps hitters off balance with a four-pitch mix. He spots his fastball to all four quadrants of the strike zone, relying heavily on an 88-91 mph two-seamer and mixing in a four-seamer that he can run up to 93-94. He adds and subtracts from his average curveball and throws his average changeup for strikes any time he wants.Weaknesses: Chico?s isn't a soft-tosser, but he?s also far from overpowering. He gets into trouble when he tries to blow hitters away, though he has done a better job of setting them up since getting rocked in Double-A at the beginning of 2005.The Future: Chico could be a No. 4 starter in the big leagues as soon as 2007 for the pitching-starved Nationals. He'll probably open the year at Washington's new Triple-A Columbus affililate unless he's lights out in spring training. Code: [Select]2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVGLancaster (Hi A) 3 4 3.75 10 10 0 0 50 48 5 11 49 .239Tennessee (AA) 7 2 2.22 13 13 0 0 81 62 6 21 63 .211Harrisburg (AA) 2 0 3.27 4 4 0 0 22 28 3 8 13 .318 9. Stephen King, ss Born: Oct. 27, 1987 ? B-T: R-R ? Ht: 6-3 ? Wt: 193 Drafted: HS--Winter Park, Fla., 2006 (3rd round) ? Signed by: Tony ArangoStephen KingBackground: A preseason high school All-American, King had a mediocre senior season thanks in large part to nagging leg injuries. The Nationals saw enough physical ability to take him in the second round, and they bought him out of a commitment to Louisiana State with a $750,000 bonus. He signed too late to make his pro debut.Strengths: King has a tantalizing five-tool package that earns comparisons to Bobby Crosby and J.J. Hardy, and he has a chance to be a similar offensive-minded shortstop. With a strong, wiry frame and good bat speed, he projects to have at least average power, and he has a good enough feel for the zone to become an above-average hitter. Defensively, he has good actions up the middle, sure hands and plus arm strength. He's a solid-average runner.Weaknesses: King will have to make adjustments in his swing to improve his load and trigger. Good fastballs tend to tie him up. Some scouts are concerned he could outgrow shortstop, and he's not in the same defensive class as Esmailyn Gonzalez or Ian Desmond.The Future: King may compete with Esmailyn Gonzalez for the starting shortstop job in low Class A, but he's more likely to spend 2007 at Vermont. If he eventually moves off shortstop, King has enough bat and arm to play third base or the outfield. Code: [Select]2006 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SBDid Not Play--Signed 2007 Contract 10. Ian Desmond, ss Born: Sept. 20, 1985 ? B-T: R-R ? Ht: 6-2 ? Wt: 185 Drafted: HS--Sarasota, Fla., 2004 (3rd round) ? Signed by: Russ BoveIan DesmondBackground: Though Desmond entered 2006 with a .244 career batting average, the Nationals saw enough in his confident approach to believe he could handle a promotion to Double-A. He got off to a slow start after getting few at-bats in big league camp, and he never recovered. Washington realized it rushed him and demoted him to high Class A in May, when he also missed two weeks with a back injury.Strengths: Desmond still makes plenty of errors, but he has the tools to be an above-average defender at shortstop with plus-plus arm strength, plus range and soft hands. He started to make some needs offensive adjustments after his demotion, driving the ball the opposite way and learning to stay back on offspeed pitches. He has above-average speed. His best attributes might be his work ethic and leadership.Weaknesses: The Nationals want Desmond to let the ball travel a little farther before he swings, so they opened his stance to improve his vision. He has gotten bigger and stronger but still doesn't hit for much power. He needs to focus more on getting on base. In the field, he needs to concentrate more on making the routine plays and do a better job anticipating ground balls.The Future: He's no longer the clear choice as Washington?s shortstop of the future now that Esmailyn Gonzalez and Stephen King are in the system, but Desmond is just 21 and still has a chance to be an everyday player. He'll need a lot of at-bats to improve offensively, and he'll give Double-A another try in 2007.
2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVGPotomac (Hi A) 4 5 5.20 23 22 0 0 118 126 12 53 87 .280Harrisburg (AA) 1 0 1.83 3 3 0 0 20 15 0 6 10 .231
2006 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SBGCL Nationals (R) .309 .374 .420 81 10 25 9 0 0 16 8 19 0
2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVGGCL Nationals (R) 0 1 3.38 5 5 0 0 16 23 1 3 8 .338
2006 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SBHarrisburg (AA) .272 .379 .468 489 84 133 24 6 20 80 81 104 6
2006 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SBDid Not Play--Signed 2007 Contract
2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVGVermont (SS) 0 0 0.00 8 0 0 4 9 6 0 1 10 .182Potomac (Hi A) 3 0 1.98 9 0 0 3 14 11 0 3 13 .229Harrisburg (AA) 1 1 2.70 10 0 0 5 10 11 0 11 8 .256
2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVGVermont (SS) 0 0 0.00 3 3 0 0 6 2 0 0 7 .100
2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVGLancaster (Hi A) 3 4 3.75 10 10 0 0 50 48 5 11 49 .239Tennessee (AA) 7 2 2.22 13 13 0 0 81 62 6 21 63 .211Harrisburg (AA) 2 0 3.27 4 4 0 0 22 28 3 8 13 .318
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