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Marrero, Hood Carry Different Expectations to Camp for Nats

"It's still kind of weird to think that I was in high school last year," said outfielder Destin Hood, 18, who turned down a football scholarship at Alabama to sign with the Nationals. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009; Page E01

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 24 -- Each just wanted to play baseball. Last year, both Chris Marrero and Destin Hood said this -- albeit in very different contexts. Marrero, Washington's 2006 first-round draft pick, missed the second half of last season with a fibula fracture, the first serious injury of his career. Hood, after being selected by the Nationals in the second round of the 2008 draft, still needed to pick between a pro baseball career and a college football scholarship before agreeing to terms.

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So, as Marrero missed his time and as Hood weighed his options, they both said roughly the same thing.

Marrero told anybody who would listen that he just wanted to get back on the field, and promised he'd come to spring training this year in top fitness.

Hood, meantime, called University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban -- who wanted Hood as a wide receiver -- and told him the decision: baseball.

With Nationals camp more than a week old, Marrero and Hood have reinforced their standing as the team's top offensive prospects. Their experiences here are intended for different purposes: Marrero is supposed to make big strides; Hood is supposed to simply get his feet wet.

Said Marrero, "I feel good coming into the season now."

Said Hood, "I feel like I have a long way to go."

Still, both are here, and for that alone the Nationals are thankful. Judging both from rankings compiled by industry publications and from the opinions of those within the game, Washington's minor league system is rich with pitching talent and lacking elsewhere. That's why Hood and Marrero stand out, and why the team is so heavily invested in each player's progress.

Marrero, a first baseman, endured a disappointing 2008. He started the year in Class A Potomac; he also started ice cold. But month by month he improved, batting .200 in April, .262 in May and .294 in June, but then in mid-June, just as Marrero was heating up, he broke his fibula while sliding into home plate and underwent surgery. He left behind an uneven picture: Progress, but not enough, and in the scouting world that counts as regression. Before the 2008 season, Baseball America had rated Marrero as the Nationals' top prospect. A year later, he has fallen to No. 3.

That's why the spring -- and the upcoming season -- is so critical for Marrero. During the offseason, while working out at home in Miami, Marrero lost 10 pounds. Manager Manny Acta noted this week that Marrero looks better than he's ever seen him.

"He's in the best shape I've seen him in the three years I've seen him here, and he's swinging the bat real good," Acta said. "It's a totally different body from what we saw last year in Potomac."

If Marrero, 20, impresses, he could start the year in Class AA Harrisburg. With Hood, 18, the Nationals are taking a more patient approach.

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