Nationals Seek Youth In Top Picks

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Using a draft philosophy crafted in part by the team's new ownership, the Washington Nationals yesterday broke from recent tradition by selecting high school players with each of their top six picks in baseball's first-year player draft -- including four within the top 70 overall picks -- an approach that signals the organization's transition toward a long-term rebuilding process.

"We philosophically made the decision to make the best picks we could for the long-term benefit of the Nationals," General Manager Jim Bowden said, "rather than the short-term benefit of the Nationals."

With their top pick, at No. 15 overall, the Nationals took 17-year-old power hitter Chris Marrero, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound third baseman from Monsignor Edward Pace High outside of Miami, and immediately announced their intention to move him to the outfield -- an acknowledgment that Marrero's path to the majors as a third baseman is blocked by rookie standout Ryan Zimmerman.

"We talked to Chris before we drafted him," Bowden said, "and we told him that our plan was for Zimmerman to play third base here for the next decade, and [asked] would he be willing to play the outfield. He said he'd be willing to play any position as long as he can help us win a world championship."

"I played the outfield before in middle school and some in high school," Marrero said. "I think I'll be fine playing the outfield."

Scouting director Dana Brown described Marrero as a "30-homer, 100-RBI-type player," and various members of the Nationals' front office compared him to Miguel Cabrera, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Lee.

With an additional first-round pick, at No. 22 overall, the Nationals took right-handed pitcher Colton Willems of John Carroll Catholic High in Fort Pierce, Fla. -- a power arm with a fastball clocked as high as 97 mph who Brown said projects as a "number three starter type" in the majors.

With their subsequent picks, the Nationals took right-handed pitcher Sean Black (59th overall) of Lenape (N.J.) High, infielder Stephen Englund (70th overall) of Bellevue (Wash.) High and shortstop Stephen King (91st overall) of Winter Park (Fla.) High.

The first 18 rounds of the draft took place yesterday, with an additional 32 rounds today.

The top pick among local players was former Wilson High standout Emmanuel Burriss, a shortstop who went to the San Francisco Giants with the 33rd overall pick out of Kent State. Burriss, who is believed to be the first player drafted from a D.C. public school since 1989, said he was surprised because the Giants had not expressed the same level of interest as other teams, including the Nationals and Boston Red Sox.

"I didn't see that coming," Burriss said.

Although Burriss still has one season of eligibility remaining at Kent State, he almost certainly will sign a pro contract and begin playing in the minor leagues. He said his adviser, Nez Balelo, hopes to begin negotiations with the Giants later this week.

"I want them to start today, so I can go play," Burriss said. "I'm ready to go play. Hopefully I can take care of [a contract] as soon as possible. It's a drag sitting around and not being able to play. It's what I love to do."

The Baltimore Orioles also used their top pick on a high school infielder, selecting New Jersey high school shortstop Billy Rowell at No. 9 overall. Rowell, a 6-5 infielder, will play third base in the minor leagues. Baltimore had scouted Rowell, 17, for several months and he worked out at Oriole Park at Camden Yards last week.

"He's a young man thrilled to be playing for his favorite team," said Gregg Clifton, Rowell's agent.

Rowell had both a playoff game and his high school graduation yesterday, and according to Clifton, he was informed of his draft selection during the former, when his mother slipped him note.

The Orioles have not yet begun negotiating with Clifton, but both the agent and Baltimore believe Rowell will sign quickly. Rowell likely will get a bonus in the $2 million range.

With the No. 32 overall pick, the Orioles selected right-handed pitcher Pedro Beato from St. Petersburg (Fla.) Community College, who was the 13th-ranked prospect in the nation by Baseball America. The New York Mets had drafted him in the supplemental round last year, but could not sign him. Beato was 6-3 with a 2.75 ERA in 78 2/3 innings.

For the Nationals, the draft provided the most visible imprint yet of the new owners' player-development philosophy, even though the official takeover by the group, headed by real estate magnate Theodore Lerner and his son, Mark, will not occur for at least several more weeks.

In each of the last three years while under MLB's stewardship, the Nationals took college players -- who generally reach the major leagues sooner -- with their top picks. Although the philosophy has served the team well -- closer Chad Cordero (the top pick in 2003), left-handed pitcher Bill Bray (2004) and Zimmerman (2005) all are in the majors -- the picks were made with the goal of having the quickest impact.

This year, however, incoming team president Stan Kasten has advocated a slow rebuilding of the organization, beginning with its farm system, and Bowden acknowledged that philosophy to a large degree informed the team's draft strategy.

"The input for the future and the picks that we made certainly were influenced by Stan Kasten, with the support of the Lerner family," Bowden said. "College players, when you draft them, are pretty close to what they're going to be. High school players have chance to get a lot better."

Although Bowden did not reveal the team's budget for signing its draftees, he expressed little concern over the signability issues that the franchise has been forced to consider in the past. Several of the team's top picks have signed letters-of-intent to major colleges -- including Marrero (Miami) and Willems (Florida) -- which might have scared the Nationals away in previous years.

"This was a very different experience for a lot of us in that [draft] room, because we haven't been a big-market team before," Bowden said. "And philosophically, this was the first time we were able to take the best player on the board, regardless [of other concerns]. And we did that."

Staff writers Jorge Arangure Jr. and Josh Barr contributed to this report.

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