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January 4, 2007

Future Shock

Washington Nationals Top Ten Prospects

by Kevin Goldstein

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image 1

Excellent Prospects
None
Very Good Prospects
1. Chris Marrero, lf
Good Prospects
2. Collin Balester, rhp
3. Kory Casto, lf
4. Jesus Flores, c
Average Prospects
5. Colton Willems, rhp
6. Shairon Martis, rhp
7. Esmailyn Gonzalez, ss
8. Zech Zinicola, rhp
9. Matt Chico, lhp
10. Stephen King, ss

1. Chris Marrero, lf
DOB: 7/2/88
Height/Weight: 6-3/210
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 1st round, 2006, Florida HS
What he did in 2006: .309/.374/.420 at Rookie level (91 PA)
The Good: Considered the best high school bat in the draft entering the season, Marrero had a bit of a case of draft-itis during the spring that dropped him into the middle of the first round. Plus-plus raw power thanks to excellent bat speed, with power coming from much-desired natural loft as opposed to any sort of pronounced uppercut. Plus arm and excellent makeup.
The Bad: A third baseman in high school, Marrero was immediately moved to left field, where he remains raw, but has the athleticism to become decent. Average runner at best now, and will lose a step or two as body matures. Like most power hitters, he's prone to strikeouts, and needs to improve his approach against pro lefties.
The Irrelevant: Marrero's partner on the left side of the infield at Monsignor Pace was Adrian Cardenas, who was a first round pick by the Phillies who made their Top 10.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A left fielder who hits third, fourth or fifth.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Very high. Like any high school draftee with less than 100 pro plate appearances, there is much work to be done. Marrero will begin the year at Low Class A.

2. Collin Balester, rhp
DOB: 6/6/86
Height/Weight: 6-5/190
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 4th round, 2004, California HS
What he did in 2006: 5.20 ERA at High A (117.2-126-53-87); 1.83 ERA at AA (19.2-15-6-10)
The Good: Despite pitching well at Double-A in late-season look, the tall, skinny righty still offers plenty of projection and is just 20 years old. 90-94 mph fastball has good movement and hard curveball can be a plus pitch at times.
The Bad: Balester is still in need of a third pitch, and while his change-up has nice arm action, it will only improve if he throws it more, which he's reluctant to do in game situations. The organization blames his early struggles on mechanical issues, which they claim have been straightened out.
The Irrelevant: Balester walked just nine of 144 leadoff batters in 2006 (6.3%), but 50 of 383 (13.1%) in all other situations.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Balester will return to Double-A in 2007 and still be young for the level. Washington thinks he's very close to taking off.

3. Kory Casto, lf
DOB: 12/8/81
Height/Weight: 6-1/200
Bats/Throws: L/R
Drafted: 3rd round, 2003, University of Portland
What he did in 2006: .272/.379/.468 at AA (590 PA)
The Good: Professional hitter who can help win games in many ways. Solid hitting skills, power and patience add up to nice all-around talent. Moved back to left field this year in deference to Ryan Zimmerman, and looked good there, as it was his position in college.
The Bad: A late-season slump brought Casto's overall numbers down, as he suffered from some fatigue. Lacks any sort of plus-plus tool. Not enough arm for right field, and a below average runner.
The Irrelevant: During a very brief Arizona Fall League stint, Casto had a bizarre .125/.417/.125 line against lefties by going 2-for-16 with eight walks.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A middle-of-the-pack starting left fielder.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low - Casto will go into spring training as the favorite to win the left field battle over Ryan Church. A platoon situation with the two is not in the cards, as they both have their problems with southpaws.

4. Jesus Flores, c
DOB: 10/26/84
Height/Weight: 6-1/180
Bats/Throws: R/R
Signed: 2002, Venezuela (Mets)
What he did in 2006: .266/.335/.487 at High A (480 PA).
The Good: Best prospect in the Rule Five draft has power approach that led to tying for Florida State League home run title and finishing third in slugging. Generates plenty of leverage from lower half and slight uppercut sends balls flying into the gaps. Effectively controls running game with above-average arm.
The Bad: A free swinger, Flores had a miserable 127/28 K/BB ratio in 429 at-bats and needs to improve his pitch recognition. His receiving skills are currently sloppy, though he has the tools to be at least average behind the plate.
The Irrelevant: In the five full months of the 2006 minor league season, Flores has two months in which he hit over .320 and two in which he was below the Mendoza line.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: The rare big league catcher who doubles as a true power threat.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High - The million dollar question is how much does a year in the big leagues with very little playing time affect a player's development. The Nationals are in a unique position to carry a third catcher, and they have every intent of keeping Flores in their system.

5. Colton Willems, rhp
DOB: 7/30/88
Height/Weight: 6-4/175
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 1st round, 2006, Florida HS
What he did in 2006: 3.38 ERA at Rookie level (16-23-3-8)
The Good: One of the better pure arms among 2006 prep players, Willems sits at 91-94 mph and has touched 97 in the past. Above-average command and understands how to spin a breaking ball and get fade on a changeup.
The Bad: While he has secondary pitches, they're still a long ways from being plus offerings. The Nationals would like Willems to focus on one breaking pitch, but they're still deciding if the curve or slider has more potential.
The Irrelevant: Willems' home town of Ft. Pierce, Florida also contains the residence of disgraced Congressman Mark Foley.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: Hard to say for somebody so young, but his upside is higher than anyone in the system.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Very High - as it is for any pitcher so young. The Nationals think Willems is ready for a full-season league, but his workload will be monitored closely and limited to 120 or so innings.

6. Shairon Martis, rhp
DOB: 3/30/87
Height/Weight: 6-1/175
Bats/Throws: R/R
Signed: 2004, Curacao (Giants)
What he did in 2006: 3.64 ERA at Low A (Giants - 76.2-76-21-66); 3.80 ERA at Low A (21.1-23-4-14); 3.00 ERA at High A (12-9-3-7); 12.60 ERA at AA (5-8-3-1)
The Good: Stolen from the Giants in a trade deadline deal for Mike Stanton, Martis succeeded in full-season leagues as a teenager thanks to two plus pitches - a 91-93 mph fastball and hard, tumbling curve.
The Bad: Martis has been slow to develop a change-up. He tends to work in the upper half of the strike zone, which leads to a troubling fly ball tendency. His body is mature, which limits projection.
The Irrelevant: Martis threw a seven-inning no-hitter in March's World Baseball Classic, strangely striking out zero in a 10-0 Dutch win over Panama.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A No. 3-4 starter or middle reliever.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High - An excellent pickup for a short-term rental of a situational reliever, Martis will begin the year at High Class A Potomac but could reach Double-A before his 21st birthday.

7. Esmailyn Gonzalez, ss
DOB: 9/21/89
Height/Weight: 5-11/175
Bats/Throws: S/R
Signed: 2006, Dominican Republic
What he did in 2006: Signed for a $1.4 million bonus.
The Good: One of the top infielders on the international market, Gonzalez is a toolsy, wiry athlete with outstanding defensive skills including plus instincts, range, hands and arm strength to go along with silky-smooth actions. Solid contact skills from both sides of the plate and a plus runner once he gets on base.
The Bad: Power potential is limited due to size and swing designed for contact. Needs to fill out and bulk up to handle the grind of a full season.
The Irrelevant: The effervescent Gonzalez has been nicknamed "Smiley" by the Nationals front office. Not exactly intimidating.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: One of those old school shortstops that fields well, hits for average and runs.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Very High - Few saw Gonzalez as a $1.4 million talent, but many saw a chunk of his bonus as a sunk cost for the Nationals to put their flag down in the Latin American talent market. They'll take it slow with him and let him get acclimated to professional baseball in extended spring training before he makes his debut in the Gulf Coast League.

8. Zech Zinicola, rhp
DOB: 3/2/85
Height/Weight: 6-1/220
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 6th round, 2006, Arizona State
What he did in 2006: 0.00 ERA at Short season (9-6-1-10); 1.98 ERA at High A (13.2-11-3-13); 2.70 ERA at AA (10-11-11-8)
The Good: Big-bodied reliever moved from New York-Penn League to Double-A in pro debut, handling himself well at every level. 92-94 mph fastball has hard sinking action and low 80s slider has excellent late action and is major league quality. Aggressive pitcher has closer mentality and is unfazed by pressure situations.
The Bad: Body is a little thick. Ceiling likely falls just short of closer. Seen as a bit of a goofball by some, but Nationals love his makeup and see it as a plus in his approach to the game.
The Irrelevant: Zech's first name is actually Zechry, and there has never been a playing with the initials Z.Z. in big league history.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A set-up man for Chad Cordero.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low - The Nationals think they got a sixth-round steal in Zinicola, and scouts are coming around to that as well. While there are a number of pitchers in the Washington system will get a shot in the big leagues this year, Zinicola is moving quickly. He could leapfrog many of them and earn a big league shot by mid-season.

9. Matt Chico, lhp
DOB: 6/10/83
Height/Weight: 5-11/190
Bats/Throws: L/L
Drafted: 3rd round, 2003, Palomar (California) JUCO -- Diamondbacks
What he did in 2006: 3.75 ERA at High A (Diamondbacks - 50.1-48-11-49); 2.22 ERA at AA (Diamondbacks (81-62-21-63); 3.27 ERA at AA (22-28-8-13)
The Good: Solid lefthander mixes three-pitch repertoire than includes low-90s fastball, as well as a curve and change-up that both grade out as average. Solid command and control.
The Bad: Undersized, Chico is a finished product and his stuff isn't going to get much better. Fastball can be a little too true, and he has a tendency to elevate it.
The Irrelevant: Chico turned down big money from the Red Sox as a second-round pick, only to drop out of the University of South California and find himself pitching in a San Diego beer league before Arizona selected him two years later.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A back-of-the-rotation starter.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low - John Patterson is the only starter with a guaranteed rotation slot at this time, so while Chico has an outside chance of breaking camp with the big league club, some preparation starts in Triple-A is the more likely scenario.

10. Stephen King, ss
DOB: 10/2/87
Height/Weight: 6-2/195
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 3rd round, 2006, Florida HS
What he did in 2006: Signed 2007 contract.
The Good: First-round tools fell into Washington's lap when leg injury limited performance as well as scout's ability to get multiple views. Excellent athlete who should be able to stay at shortstop because of solid range, good fundamentals and a plus arm. Developing power should end up as above-average for the position in the end.
The Bad: Long swing leaves him behind good fastball, but issues are related to swing mechanics as opposed to bat speed. Power currently only of the pull variety.
The Irrelevant: King went to high school in Winter Park, Florida - the first centrally planned community in the state, founded by rich New Englanders as Florida's first resort area.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A multi-faceted starting shortstop.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Very high - King signed too late to play in 2006, and will likely not make his pro debut until the short-season leagues begin in June.

The Sleeper

The Nats were shocked with how quickly fourth-round pick Glenn Gibson succeeded as a pro. A 6-foot-4, skinny lefthander with plenty of projection, Gibson has a decent fastball, very good curve and tons of polish - which isn't surprising considering that he's the son of former big leaguer Paul Gibson.

The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies 25 Years Old Or Younger (As Of Opening Day 2007)

1. Ryan Zimmerman, 3b
2. Chad Cordero, rhp
3. Chris Snelling, of
4. Chris Marrero, lf
5. Collin Balester, rhp
6. Kory Casto, lf
7. Jesus Flores, c
8. Colton Willems, rhp
9. Shairon Martis, rhp
10. Esmailyn Gonzalez, ss

So there is some young talent in the system. Zimmerman had a very good rookie season, and should get better from here with his 47 doubles/20 home runs in 2006 slowly moving to a more balanced total as Zimmerman grows into his power. Cordero had roughly the same ratios in 2006 as he did in 2005, when he finished fifth in the Cy Young voting thanks to a bloated save total. Acquired from the Mariners in the Jose Vidro deal, everyone knows Snelling's story - when you can put him in the lineup, he can hit.

The Nationals system is a very bad one, but the organization thinks the 2006 draft class could play a major role in beginning the turnaround, and with good reason. With a new focus on international talent and another bounty of picks this June, a quick turnaround from the doldrums is quite possible.

Next: Moving onto the American League and the Baltimore Orioles.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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