By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 14, 2009
VIERA, Fla., March 13 -- It is highly unusual for a major league team to gather the assembled media at spring training to chat with a pitcher who has made all of 14 professional starts, none at a level higher than short-season Class A. But Jack McGeary is a highly unusual prospect, and his standing in the Washington Nationals organization is unique. So Friday, after his first workout with the Nationals' other minor leaguers, McGeary appeared before tape recorders and notebooks to declare: "I'm just ready to be a full-time player."
The refresher course goes something like this: The Nationals selected McGeary in the sixth round of the 2007 draft, even though the promising left-hander from Newton, Mass., had a firm commitment to attend, and play for, Stanford. The Nationals believed McGeary's talent belonged in the first round, and they figured taking the risk of completely wasting their sixth-round pick was worth it.
But the Nationals, behind then-general manager Jim Bowden, came up with a creative deal that McGeary accepted: A $1.8 million signing bonus, which equaled first-round money, and permission for McGeary to attend Stanford in the winter, an endeavor for which the club would pay. McGeary would then pitch for the Nationals in the summer.
The Nationals badly wanted the deal to be a signal that they were committed to player development, both in word and deed. To this day, it stands out as the one time the Lerner family, which took ownership of the team in the summer of 2006, has both shown the willingness to pay a premium price for talent and then completed the deal.
"We're very happy with how it went," McGeary's father, Pat, said by phone Friday.
Yet something happened along the way that may benefit the Nationals. Last spring, McGeary came to spring training in between academic quarters at Stanford, practiced with the players who would later become his teammates and then went back for spring quarter. He worked out back in California, but it was a singular pursuit; even though he rooms with Stanford baseball players, he can't practice with the team. And he didn't return to the Nationals until mid-June.
"I think that was frustrating for him to just show up like that," Pat McGeary said. "He felt like it put him at a disadvantage -- not so much for his development, but in the perception of how his development was going. That was frustrating for him."
So now, the Nationals and McGeary are on to the second phase of an unorthodox process. McGeary arrived here this week still needing to complete two finals and write two papers to finish winter quarter (try "Gender and Power in Ancient Rome" and "Multi-Lateral Trade Systems"). He will then skip spring quarter, pitch for the Nationals all summer, and return to Stanford in the fall, able to take classes in fall and winter quarters without missing any baseball. He is not, he stressed, dropping out -- "The number one goal is still to graduate," he said -- and indeed he is already more than halfway to his degree in Classics because he loaded up on courses during his first two years of college.
"I think it's gone well," McGeary said. "I've definitely improved a lot, especially toward the last couple months of last season. I kind of got in a rhythm of coming to the park every day. And again, that's one of the reasons I'm making this decision: I feel like being a professional is playing the whole season and doing what everyone else is doing."
So that is what McGeary, who turns 20 next week, will do this season. Last year, after his return to baseball, he made 12 starts in the rookie level Gulf Coast League, going 2-2 with a 4.07 ERA, striking out 64 hitters in his 59 2/3 innings. He then made one start for Class A Vermont before heading back to college.
"The one concern is that it's a lot of work for Jack," Pat McGeary said. "He's really busted his hump academically. With all those courses, I think he's really looking forward to being out of school for a while and concentrating on baseball."
The Nationals believe that will help his progression as well. Instead of making a dozen starts this summer, he should make perhaps 25, and if all goes well this spring, he would start at low-Class A Hagerstown, with the opportunity to move up as his performance dictates.
"I think now is the time for him to go," Bob Boone, the Nationals' assistant general manager who is in charge of player development, said earlier this week. "I think he felt it last year, like: 'I need a full season. Let's get on with my career here.'
"A full season is going to accelerate it a little bit. That's in my estimation. I think he felt that itch. He sees guys going out and excelling, guys he knows he can play with, and he thinks: 'I don't want to go back to the Gulf Coast League. I want to move.' "
McGeary's movements over the summer might be from league to league rather than from coast to coast, the first normal development in an unusual pro career that is just starting.
"He sees the attitude of his teammates and his peer group," acting general manager Mike Rizzo said, "and I think he wants to be a big part of the franchise for years to come."