By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
The Washington Nationals came to terms with their top draft choice, high school outfielder Chris Marrero of Miami, last night, an agreement that means the team's two first-round picks from the draft this month both eschewed college scholarship offers in favor of beginning their professional careers -- the first step in new ownership's stated goal of restocking the farm system.
"I'm excited about everything," Marrero said last night. "I just want to get out there and start my career."
Marrero, who will turn 18 on Sunday, agreed to a signing bonus of $1.625 million after the Nationals selected him with the 15th pick in the draft. Last Friday, the Nationals gave a $1.425 million bonus to right-handed pitcher Colton Willems, another Florida high school prospect.
Marrero is due to sign his contract Saturday at RFK Stadium, when the Nationals host the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Marrero will report to the team's rookie ball affiliate in the Gulf Coast League in Viera, Fla., shortly thereafter. The 6-foot-3 Marrero was regarded as one of the top high school hitters in what was generally considered to be a weak draft.
The Nationals approached the negotiations with both Marrero and Willems aggressively at least in part because incoming president Stan Kasten said his first baseball priority is to rebuild the minor league system. Washington used its first six picks in the draft to take high school players, the only major league club to do so.
When the club signed Willems -- a hard thrower from Fort Pierce, Fla. -- and sent him to Viera, General Manager Jim Bowden said he believes it's best for all highly regarded high school prospects to sign and get into the minor league system quickly.
"It's like taking a lottery ticket and lighting it on fire," Bowden said of players who hold out or decide to go to college. "You're talking seven years away from the big leagues if you don't sign."
Or, as Bob Boone, the team's director of player personnel, said yesterday: "If you're going to play in the big leagues, this half a season can be huge. It can get you to the big leagues a year earlier. To me, though, more important is it adds on to whatever the length of your career is going to be."
In signing with the Nationals, Marrero gave up a scholarship to the University of Miami. But shortly after the draft, it was clear he intended to play for the Nationals. He agreed to move from third base, where he played for Monsignor Edward Pace High in Miami, to the outfield because the Nationals have 21-year-old rookie Ryan Zimmerman entrenched at third for the foreseeable future. Marrero said he believes he will play either left or right field after reporting to Viera.
"It's going to be something new," he said. "I can't expect to know how it'll go. I'm going to try to do the best I can, and get used to the pitching. Once I get used to it, I think I'll start hitting, and everything will be fine."
Negotiations with Marrero continued all weekend, and both sides felt good about the prospect of an agreement yesterday afternoon.
"We've been in constant contact," said Marrero's advisor, Michael Maulini. "Chris loves the game, and he wants to play."
A month after his final season at Monsignor Pace ended, Marrero will finally play against professional competition. He had already undertaken an intense personal workout program that involved rising at 8, eating breakfast, working out, drinking a protein shake, hitting in a batting cage, eating lunch, taking live batting practice and shagging fly balls. He said he had gained 10 pounds and is up to 225.
Marrero is the son of Cuban immigrants, and his father, Bladimir, started an automotive paint and body shop 26 years ago in Miami. It's still in business today, still run by Bladimir, who would race home from work at 6 or 7 p.m. and pitch to Chris and his older brother, Christian, when the two were growing up, using a batting cage in the family's back yard.
Christian, an outfielder who turned down a scholarship from Clemson, went to junior college and was drafted by the Chicago White Sox. He's now playing in Class A in Great Falls, Mont. Bladimir Marrero's two boys talk every day.
"If we're struggling or something, we have to talk to each other," Chris Marrero said. "I owe everything to him. He taught me a lot, and I have to talk to him every day, if things are good or bad or whatever."
Prior to his season at Monsignor Pace -- in which he hit .379 with 13 homers and 35 RBI on a team that won a state championship -- Marrero was listed as a sure-fire first-rounder, and when Boone first saw him, he had one thought: "We have no chance."
"I never thought he'd get to us," Boone said.
But Marrero came down with a slight hamstring problem in the middle of the season, and the Nationals actually had internal debate over whether he was worth taking with the 15th selection. Scouts and executives who saw Marrero before or after he had the hamstring injury thought it was a no-brainer. Those who saw him during what Boone calls "a little funk" thought he might not be worth it.
When Marrero got his legs back, he started hitting again. "It hasn't been bothering me too much," he said yesterday."
Marrero and Willems have played together on all-star teams.
"I hope we're roommates up there," Marrero said. The Nationals, though, would settle for the pair to be teammates -- now and into the future.