VIERA, Fla., Feb. 27 -- At 9:45 a.m. Tuesday, the Washington Nationals were assembled on the field at Space Coast Stadium, taking batting practice and throwing a bit as they prepared for an intrasquad scrimmage, their first competition of the spring. Less than a half-mile down the road, the call went out: "Have a good day at work!"
At that moment, Chris Marrero -- a professional working man for all of eight months -- picked up his glove and all but sprinted across one of the diamonds at the Nationals' minor league complex. As the important work for the 2007 club began at the big league stadium, the important work for the players the Nationals are touting as their true future began in obscurity, nary a fan in sight.
The Nationals are in such a state of rebuilding that General Manager Jim Bowden spends as much time talking about the upcoming June draft -- in which the club has five of the first 70 picks -- and the team's "accelerated" program involving the top minor leaguers as he does discussing the major league club. "They're the future," he said earlier this week.
The future is personified by kids such as Marrero, a power-hitting prospect, and Colton Willems, a right-handed starter. Both are 18. Last year at this time, they were high school seniors from Florida. Now, they are the Nationals' most recent first-round draft picks; Marrero was selected 15th overall, Willems 22nd. They have been paid more than $3 million in bonuses between them. And though the baseball draft is an endeavor in which there is no sure thing, the Nationals expect them to be anchors in what they say will be a renaissance for their farm system.
"There probably is a little pressure," Marrero said Tuesday after an impressive batting practice session in which he launched several balls out of the yard. "They want to work with you as much as they can. But if you went that high [in the draft], you were taken for a reason, so you just got to deal with it and just do your job."
Marrero did his job last season, hitting .309 with a nine doubles and 16 RBI in 22 games in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Willems made five starts at the same level, throwing just 16 innings and posting a 3.38 ERA. There is very little that can be extrapolated from such performances, very little that means much to the people who are running major league camp.
"They're so far away," Manager Manny Acta said. "It's tough to make that type of prediction on high school kids."
Yet that is exactly the type of prediction the Nationals will try to make again this spring, when they head into a draft that is heavy on high school pitching. The Nationals have overhauled and fortified their scouting department -- assembling what Bowden called "an all-star team of scouts" -- in an effort to be better equipped to make the right selections. But ultimately, it amounts to grown men looking at teenagers and being able to extrapolate their talents over the next six or eight years.
"It's really hard, but that's what we do," said Bob Boone, the club's director of player development. "That's what you have to do. It is the job. You can't make a lot of mistakes. Ultimately, you decide: one, are we going to pick him? And two, are we going to pay him? And when you're talking about paying him, the people who are whipping out the wallet like you to be right."
Right now, eight months into their pro careers, the Nationals feel like they will be right about both Marrero, who signed for a $1.625 million bonus, and Willems, whose bonus was $1.425 million. Other prospects at the accelerated camp -- notably right-handers Collin Balester, Zech Zinicola and Clint Everts -- are more advanced. But the club is clearly excited about the two first-rounders, even though Marrero still has the pimples of a teenager, even though Willems still drives home to Fort Pierce, Fla., to have his mother do his laundry.
Willems missed Tuesday's workout while he went to an eye exam. But he said early Tuesday morning that he felt comfortable, even as the organization has temporarily stopped him from throwing his slider and is having him work on a curveball. That is part of the organization's plan to have all young pitchers master the four-seam fastball, the change-up and the curveball because, as minor league pitching coordinator Spin Williams said, "That teaches you feel."
"I don't really think of myself as a first-round pick or a prospect," Willems said. "I'm just here to play."
But the reality is the other kids in the accelerated program know who are the first-rounders, who are projected as surefire major leaguers.
"The kids might give them a rash of crap and all that," said Williams, the pitching coordinator. "But you know what? The bottom line is you got to have thick skin to play this game, and you got to be mentally tough."
Marrero says he is. He was a third baseman in high school but was told he would move to left field when he was drafted. He came here as a first baseman, but is working in the outfield as well. "I want him to have options," Boone said. "I want him to play 'bat.' "
Marrero is fine with that. He just doesn't want to be on an out-of-the-way field with no fans around years from now.
"Wherever they want to put me, I'll play," Marrero said. "But wherever it is, I'm going to work hard, because I won't be done until I make it to the major leagues."