Improved Present Doesn't Keep Nats From Thinking About Future

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

Every day during the early part of this baseball season, Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden will do two things. He might miss lunch. He might not sleep. But without fail, he will talk to someone on the phone about the possibility of a trade, and he will talk to somebody else on the phone  any one of dozens of people  about the MLB draft.

Sure, the draft isn't until June 7, and baseball doesn't have a Mel Kiper Jr. to talk about it constantly between now and then. There will be no large men clad in five-button suits strutting across stage at Madison Square Garden to shake Commissioner Bud Selig's hand. Low-key? Maybe. But the Nationals have the fourth pick this spring, and over the next six weeks, Bowden and every single member of the front office will spend countless hours figuring out exactly who the Nationals should take.

"Baseball operations' biggest personnel decision this year will be the first-round draft pick," Bowden said. "It's not even close. It is the highest priority of all of our evaluators to make sure that we do the best and most thorough job possible to make sure we pick the right player for this franchise. "

Think about it: This is going to be the first Washington National-scouted, developed, home-bred player, and we want to make sure we get the best all-around player with the best all-around makeup to end up with the best result for this franchise. It's the most important decision of the 2005 season for this club long-term."

The one problem: Fourth might not be high enough. Scouts and other front-office members believe that two players  shortstop-outfielder Justin Upton from Chesapeake, Va., and left-handed hitting third baseman Alex Gordon of the University of Nebraska  have separated themselves from the rest of the draft. The Arizona Diamondbacks are expected to select Upton with the first pick, and the Kansas City Royals will almost certainly take Gordon with the next pick. After that?

"There's kind of a group all lumped together," one baseball executive said. But don't get any ideas of the Nationals trading up. Baseball's rules don't allow that. "I've always thought we should change that," Nationals President Tony Tavares said. "It would add some sizzle, make it more of an event."

So the Nationals will choose fourth. With the club's farm system all but bereft of talent, there is no specific need that forces the team to go in one direction. Bowden, who never had a pick this high in his 1061/27 years as the general manager in Cincinnati, said he would like to take a pitcher  under certain conditions.

"If it's a number one starter that's going to come to the big leagues, that's a Mark Prior-caliber guy, that's what we would take," Bowden said. "If that's not there, we're not going to take a third starter with that first pick. We'd go try to get a position player who, in an ideal world, would hit 30 [homers] and drive in 100 [runs] for 10 years."

One of the top pitchers in the draft, Tennessee right-hander Luke Hochevar, is represented by uber-agent Scott Boras, who has a history of having his clients hold out for big money. The Nationals, when they were the Montreal Expos, often were forced to take players they knew they could sign, rather than the best player available. While those restrictions aren't as severe this year, the Boras factor is still very real.

"You wish it didn't matter," Tavares said, "but it does." Scouting for the draft is as much a matter of logistics as it is knowledge. The Nationals have 13 full-time area scouts, which includes one in Canada and one in Puerto Rico; the major league average is 16 or 17. The club has three regional cross-checkers; most teams have four.

"There's a lot of driving," Nationals scouting director Dana Brown said. "There's a lot of flying. There's a lot of phone calls. There's a lot of preparation. But when you're picking where we're picking  at number four  you can't afford to make a mistake. You get a better feel for who's going to be available, so we'll see all the guys we think will be there multiple times."

The group that will eye those top prospects includes Brown, Bowden, special assistant to the general manager Bob Boone, area scouts, cross-checkers, the club's professional scouts  who spend most of their time scouting major and minor league clubs  as well as farm director Adam Wogan, director of baseball administration Lee MacPhail IV and assistant scouting director Brian Parker.

"It's more important than your job, than whatever else you're doing," Bowden said. "It's the most important decision we have, so it's absolutely going to be done in the most thorough way possible."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company