Nationals' Simple Plan: Draft the Best Player

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

In June 2005, right in time for the logic to click just so, a void met a perfect solution.

Washington Nationals fans had spent the first months of that season watching Vinny Castilla play third base. Castilla was 37, in the first year of a two-year, $6.2 million contract.

Nationals scouts, meanwhile, had spent months watching -- and interviewing -- another third baseman, Ryan Zimmerman, 20 at the time, and playing at the University of Virginia. General Manager Jim Bowden saw in Zimmerman talent comparable to Brooks Robinson or Mike Schmidt. Zimmerman's potential, along with Castilla's declining ability, conjoined like lines in a rhyme.

With their first draft pick in franchise history, the Nationals picked Zimmerman. After four games with Class A Savannah, the team promoted him. After 63 games with Class AA Harrisburg, the team promoted him again. And then, after a one-month trial in the big leagues for Zimmerman, the team traded Castilla to San Diego, the final step of a swap-and-improve.

"It was a perfect situation for me to get drafted into," Zimmerman said this week. "It all kind of makes sense, now that you look at it."

Zimmerman advanced through the minors on such an accelerated track, and arrived in the majors with such straightforward purpose, that his rise requires a caveat. Sure, team officials now say, Zimmerman is a model third baseman. But he's not a model for replication. He's an anomaly.

With the 2008 draft just three days away, those in the Nationals' front office insist that a first-round pick cannot be used to fill a need at the major league level. It's foolish, and tempts too many pitfalls.

Many first-rounders never develop. Some need years to reach the majors. Some switch positions while trying. Some major league positions, on account of free agency or trades or player development, reverse from weaknesses to strengths while a first-rounder is making his climb.

"We do best player," Bowden said. "That's what we've done since I've gotten here. That's all we're going to do: best player on the board. High school, college, junior college, it doesn't matter."

"The dynamics do not change if you draft first or 10th or 26th," said assistant general manager Mike Rizzo, who joined the organization in 2006 from Arizona. "You take the player that gives you the best chance to have an impact. We never draft for need on the major league level."

This year, the Nationals have the ninth overall pick in the draft. A glance at the organization's position-by-position talent suggests that the team needs, more than anything, a strong-hitting middle infielder, especially with Cristian Guzmán eligible for free agency at season's end. Then again, things can change quickly: Even during Zimmerman's brief tenure in the minors, the team debated switching him to shortstop, influenced by Guzmán's hitting struggles at the time.

The Nationals' steadfast best-player-available mantra jibes with a certain front office bravado, a mindset buttressed by a 2007 draft that Baseball America called the best in the sport. The team used a bounty of early-round selections, including five in the first two rounds, to select, among others, pitchers Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann and outfielder Michael Burgess.

All have made resonant first impressions.

For many in Washington's front office, that draft showed the early returns on a scouting department that's now rich in manpower and backed by deep pockets. Bowden calls Rizzo and fellow draft expert Dana Brown "the best two scouting directors in baseball." He says of the draft, "We're obsessed with it. We look at it as the most important decision we make all year."

This year, the team has just two picks in the first two rounds. When the draft begins at 2 p.m. Thursday, the Nationals will have a list of their top nine players. The eight preceding picks will help determine their direction. According to Baseball America, two of the top six ranked prospects are shortstops, both named Beckham. One is Tim Beckham, an 18-year-old high school shortstop from Georgia who could go first overall. The other is Gordon Beckham, 21, who plays at the University of Georgia.

"The eight teams in front of us are going to help make the decision for us," Bowden said. "But at the end of the day, we're still going to have to make a tough choice."

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