The Nats' Bargain Basement Sale

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla., March 17 -- In the summer of 2003, Jerome Williams was 21 years old and untouchable, in more ways than one. On the mound, he was preternaturally brilliant, and one night in San Francisco in late June he became the youngest Giants pitcher in 28 years to throw a shutout. From the perspective of Giants management, Williams was off-limits in trade talks -- the team's future, its top prospect two years in a row. They wouldn't have traded him for Babe Ruth.

But Saturday afternoon, in an exhibition game a continent and a baseball lifetime away, Williams took the mound for the Washington Nationals -- his third organization in six months -- essentially pitching for his career. With the four open rotation spots at the start of spring now reduced by half, Williams stated his case for inclusion with four scoreless innings against the New York Mets, allowing just two hits and two walks, with two strikeouts.

"The first two [outings of spring] were pretty rough for me, not getting ahead [in the count], putting guys on base," Williams said. "I came out today trying to turn it around."

The Jerome Williams Story, from the sweet youthful summer of 2003 to the hardscrabble spring of 2007, is a familiar one: Elbow surgery in 2004 cost him the final two months of a promising season, and by May 2005 the Giants had sent him packing, launching him into a spiral of arm injuries and itinerancy that, for now, has landed him in Washington on a non-guaranteed contract that would pay him $500,000 if he makes the team.

Williams's story is especially familiar within the confines of the Nationals' clubhouse, because its basic outline is shared by many of his teammates.

The Nationals' roster, both on the big league side and at the minor league complex, is filled with former stud prospects from years ago who are now trying to salvage their careers -- from pitcher Jesus Colome, who in the Oakland farm system was once mentioned alongside Mark Mulder and Barry Zito; to Travis Lee, once the top-rated first base prospect in baseball, but who lately has been released in five straight years; to injury-plagued outfielder Alex Escobar, who was his organization's top prospect for four years running (twice for the Mets, twice for the Indians) but who has never played more than 46 games in the majors in a single year.

"Obviously, you'd have liked for things to turn out better," said prospective Nationals outfielder Michael Restovich, who was once rated just a notch below Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in the Minnesota Twins' system. "With the Twins, they were winning so much, there was nowhere to [advance]. That was probably the most frustrating thing.

"And once you start moving and going to other organizations, that's when it gets tough -- because you're not as well known. In the organization you came up with, if you get in a slump the first week of spring training, they know you can still hit. On a new team, you're just another name."

Many of these players can pinpoint the moment when their career trajectory shifted from an ascent to a descent, and it almost always involves an injury. For D'Angelo Jimenez, a former top New York Yankees prospect trying to win a utility job on the Nationals, the date was Jan. 24, 2000, when the car he was driving collided with a bus in his native Dominican Republic, fracturing a vertebra in his back and nearly costing him his life. The Yankees, who at one point saw him as Alfonso Soriano's equal as a prospect, gave up on him a year and a half later.

"For sure, that's where it went bad," Jimenez said. "But I can't really turn back and think about what might have been. I'm happy to just still be playing."

Nationals management is understandably reluctant to acknowledge the accumulation of former top prospects in the team's system, plugging holes both on the team's roster and at Class AAA Columbus, where many of these players are headed. It is not a model for which any organization strives, but rather is undertaken out of necessity by teams, such as the Nationals, whose farm systems are unable to produce a steady supply of major leaguers.

"You do it this way unless you're loaded at Triple-A," said General Manager Jim Bowden. "We're not loaded at Triple-A."

This summer, when injuries force the Nationals to call up a pitcher, it could be someone like 27-year-old right-hander Colby Lewis, whom the team sent down on Friday. But in summer 2008 or 2009, they hope to be in a position to call up a prospect of their own on the way up, perhaps Collin Balester, Jhonny Nuñez or Colton Willems. Similarly, the first outfielder called up in 2007 might be Restovich or Abraham Nuñez, but in a few years it could be Chris Marrero or Justin Maxwell.

"I think we're less than a year from that happening," team president Stan Kasten said of a self-sustaining talent-supply system.

But for the former top prospects now reduced to scavenging for job scraps, it is a good thing when there are teams like the Nationals out there, in need of cheap veterans to plug holes where cheap youngsters ideally should be.

"For a guy in my situation, if you get an opportunity and you make the best of it, you might get called up for the last three months of the season and get 15 starts," said Lewis, who four years ago was the Texas Rangers' top pitching prospect. "And if you go 8-6, at the end of the year they'll say, 'You're going to be one of our guys next year,' and at least you get a one-year deal or something next year.

"But you have to prove yourself every time out there. You're not that 21-year-old kid anymore that everybody wants."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company