Nats' Top Prospect Has Major Potential

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007

HIALEAH GARDENS, Fla. -- When the talent is this obvious, and the future is this limitless and the ball jumps off the bat like this -- with a sound that, swear to God, involves two syllables instead of one: "ska-POW!" -- you keep your thoughts to yourself. Because the kid still is only 18, remember, and anything still can happen, and plenty of folks who have seen more phenoms than you have been wrong about plenty of them. So you don't dare say what you're really thinking about Chris Marrero.

Unless you're the kid's father, in which case you say anything you want.

"For me," begins Bladimir Marrero, the father of the Washington Nationals' top hitting prospect, sitting in the dining room of his home outside Miami, "in the future, if he works hard, I think he can be like Alex Rodriguez. I don't want to tell you he will be better, because [Rodriguez] is a very good player, but he can be the same."

The father glances across the table at Chris, perhaps expecting to see a sheepish, knock-it-off-Dad expression, but there is none. Chris slouches in the formal wooden chair, the way 18-year-olds do, and shrugs. Doesn't it make him embarrassed, or at least a little uncomfortable? "No," he says. "It's just a nice compliment."

Chris Marrero has been hearing such things nearly his entire life, from the time he first played organized baseball -- when he was the only kid who could hit the ball over the fence -- throughout a stellar high school career, and right on through the first 11 months of his professional career. The Nationals' top draft pick in 2006 already has been promoted twice, jumping earlier this month from low-Class A Hagerstown -- where he was hitting .293 with 14 home runs in only 222 at-bats -- to high-Class A Potomac.

The promotion to Potomac was welcomed because it carried Marrero one step closer to his dream of being a major leaguer, but it robbed him of a chance to represent Hagerstown in the South Atlantic League All-Star Game. And with the Carolina League also on its all-star break, he came to find himself this week sitting in the dining room of the house in which he grew up, using the three-day break to rest a sore hip, catch up with family and friends, and of course, spend a few hours each day in the backyard batting cage, filling the heavy subtropical air with that familiar sound -- "ska-POW!"

A Human Pitching Machine

This is a story about the kid, and we'll get back to him soon. But consider for a moment the father, Bladimir Marrero: Immigrated from Cuba in 1977. Opened an automobile body shop a few years later. Still works there, six days a week, 7 to 7. Built the batting cage in his back yard with his own hands -- concrete foundation, drainage system, stadium lights, everything -- for his sons, Christian and Chris, who were about 10 and 8 at the time.

"Took about one month," Bladimir says when asked about the batting cage, "working every day."

An automated pitching machine, a recent addition, squats in the center of the cage now, but for most of the last 10 years, Bladimir was the pitching machine -- heaving pitch after pitch to his boys deep into the night and, this being Florida, 12 months a year. Consider for a moment Bladimir's right arm, 54 years old and still limber. How many pitches do you think he threw to his kids over the years? A million?

"No," Bladimir and Chris say simultaneously, as if they have considered this question before. "More."

"Every day, two buckets like this," Bladimir says, holding his hand at thigh level to indicate he's talking about big buckets. "Two hundred, three hundred pitches a day."

Christian, almost two years older than Chris, was thin and wiry, slightly taller than average and always very talented. He now is in his second full season in the Chicago White Sox farm system, a speedy 6-foot-1, 185-pound outfielder.

But Chris . . . Chris was huge. Chris was special.

"I saw every day the difference between him and the other players," Bladimir says. "Everybody saw the difference. All the time that he played, anywhere, he hit the ball out of the park. Anywhere he goes."

And all the kid wanted to do was play baseball.

"I come home tired every day, and he waits outside for me. Every day. Every single day," Bladimir says. "I never pushed him to play. He pushed me."

Now, all these years later, Chris Marrero leans his 6-4, 210-pound frame -- yes, he has grown an inch since the end of last season -- against the batting cage his father built with his own hands.

"My father," Chris says, "he's done everything for me. He just taught me to be myself. Everything I do, I do it for him. He's the one who taught me to play."

Nice thing about this unexpected all-star break: Chris was able to rush to the airport after Potomac's game on Sunday, catch a flight home and burst through his parents' door at 11 p.m. -- one hour before the end of Father's Day.

The Next Pujols?

You don't want to say what you really think about Chris Marrero, because you know it's going to sound ridiculous. But it's rare that you're asked point-blank about the kid, asked to compare him to a current major leaguer. So you pause for a few seconds and consider whether you want to go there. But it's not ridiculous -- it's the truth. It's how you feel. So you decide to say it -- but you make sure you couch it first.

"I'm always reluctant to compare a young player to a proven major leaguer," says Tommy Herr, Hagerstown's manager. "But Chris has certain qualities, and the guy who comes to mind is Albert Pujols. They have a similar body type. Albert's a guy who has ability to hit for a high average, and also has power. He uses the whole field. Those are the kinds of things Chris does so well. To say he's the next Albert Pujols is not fair to either of them. But of all the major league hitters, he comes to mind because they have similar attributes."

There is another similarity, too, between the young Chris and the mighty Pujols: Their parallel searches for a defensive identity. Pujols came up through the St. Louis Cardinals farm system as a third baseman, but was shuttled from third to the outfield and finally to first base, where he has turned himself into an above-average defender.

Marrero, too, was a third baseman in high school. But last June, at 10:30 a.m. on the day of the draft, the phone rang at the Marrero house. It was Jim Bowden, general manager of the Nationals -- a team that, being blessed with Ryan Zimmerman, does not expect to need a third baseman for, oh, another 20 years.

"Would you be willing to move to the outfield," Bowden asked Marrero.

"Sure," Marrero said, and hours later the Nationals made him the 15th overall pick, signing him weeks later for a bonus of $1.625 million.

Defensively, Marrero remains a work in progress. On those frequent occasions when Bowden is asked what position the Nationals project Marrero to play, his standard answer is "Hitter."

Still, Bob Boone, the Nationals' vice president of player development, says the team is not ready to accept the notion that Marrero never will be better than mediocre as a defensive player.

"You get thrown into the outfield, and it may look simple. But it's about seeing the ball come off the bat and knowing how to read it," Boone says. "As far as catching it and throwing it, he's [above average]. But it's about reading the ball, getting good jumps and seeing the angles. I would not settle for his being a mediocre outfielder, at all."

For a time this winter, out of nowhere, the Nationals asked Marrero to take a crash course in learning to play first base. He worked tirelessly with former big league infielder Lenny Harris, a Miami resident and Nationals hitting guru who now is the team's interim hitting coach. But by spring training, the mission was aborted and Marrero was back in the outfield.

"We were looking at several options," Boone says. "We wanted to see if there was a fit at first base, and I think there could be. He might end up playing some first base down the road. You're just trying to give yourself some options. It's nothing deeper than that."

'That Swing, Man'

Another nice thing about the move to Potomac: It's closer to Washington -- not only in terms of minor league progression, but geographically as well. This matters to Chris Marrero.

In Hagerstown, the Suns had three off-days at home in the season's first two months, and here is how Marrero spent each of them: Gather up a teammate or two, make the 90-minute drive to RFK Stadium, call someone with the Nationals along the way to leave them some tickets, arrive early for batting practice, chat up some of the big league players he knows, then spend three hours analyzing everything that takes place on the field. Could I hit that pitch? What would I do in that situation? How soon until I get here?

"You picture yourself out there, wishing you could be there," Marrero says. "One time, a security guy [near the Nationals' dugout] knew who I was, so he let us sit in some seats in the front. That was the best."

One of the big league players Marrero always makes a point to talk to is Dmitri Young, the Nationals' veteran first baseman. This spring at the Nationals' minor league facility, Young, trying to make it back to the majors after a hellish year of personal and professional woes, spent hours with Marrero and the other youngsters, trading his knowledge for their energy -- a good deal for all involved.

"He had absolutely the most potent swing I've seen, outside of my brother's," Young says, referring to brother Delmon, an outfielder for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "He was happy to be there every day. He was wanting to learn every single day. He just listens, he takes it in. And that swing, man. Wow."

It's that swing, man. That's why you feel safe saying what you really think about Chris Marrero -- that you could see him succeeding at Potomac the rest of this season, starting next year at Class AA Harrisburg and maybe getting a call-up to the majors next September.

That swing, honed in the back yard by millions of pitches from Dad's right arm, able to impart sounds and trajectories upon a baseball like few others can do, does not lie. That swing cannot let you down.

Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

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