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Going into his freshman year at Huntington Beach (Calif.) High, Balester spent much more time surfing than pitching. He admits that he knew about major league baseball but had no idea farm systems existed until his junior year of high school. His father Tom, who has spent 25 years shaving surfboards, worried about Balester falling in with the hard-partying surfer crowd, so he made him focus on baseball. It turned out the younger Balester had quite a knack for pitching, but he lacked the grades for college and signed for $290,000 as a fourth-round pick in 2004. He developed faster than the Nationals anticipated over his first two pro seasons, pushing his way to high Class A Potomac as a 19-year-old to start 2006. Early in the year, Washington wanted him to work on staying taller in his delivery to maximize leverage in his lanky frame, and he struggled with the adjustment, going 1-3, 6.91 over his first nine starts. His fastball velocity dropped to 88-90 mph and his command was very erratic. When Balester decided to return to his drop-and-drive roots, his stuff and control came back. He rebounded to earn three late-season starts at Double-A Harrisburg. When Balester is on, he has two above-average pitches and a chance for a third. Once he went back to pushing off the rubber with his back foot, he regained the life and velocity on his 91-94 fastball and had much more success busting hitters inside and breaking bats. With a durable frame and an electric arm, he holds his velocity deep into games and still projects to add a little more zip to his fastball as he fills out. Balester's out pitch is a power 76-78 mph curveball with sharp downward bite. His command of his curve came on in the second half of 2006, when he had success throwing it for strikes or as a chase pitch. He has good feel for his 80-84 mph changeup, which the Nationals forced him to begin throwing late in 2005. The changeup is becoming an effective weapon against lefthanders, thanks to its good fade. Balester doesn't rack up huge strikeout totals, but that's in part because he tries to be efficient and keep his pitch counts down. Balester still needs to learn to trust his changeup and develop a better feel for how much to put on or take off the pitch. It shows signs of being at least an average offering, and he'll need it to become more consistent in order to succeed as a starter in the big leagues. Though he tries to pitch to contact, he's still been too hittable because his location remains a work in progress. He has come a long way with the command of his fastball, but isn't as far along with his curve. While Balester has a gregarious, easygoing personality, he can get too emotional on the mound and lets his frustration with umpires get the better of him. Early in 2006, he struggled not just with mechanics but also with expectations, and he needs to be careful not to try to do too much. At 20, Balester will be one of the youngest pitchers to open 2007 in Double-A. The Nationals have plenty of uncertainty in their starting rotation, and it's possible Balester could see the big leagues late in the year, but another full season in the minors would be good for his development. He has the stuff and the moxie to be Washington's No. 1 starter in a few years.
Marrero was the nation's top prep position player entering 2006, but he slumped during the spring. But after joking around with Nationals GM Jim Bowden at a workout in RFK Stadium, he crushed one mammoth homer after another, and onlooking Ryan Zimmerman couldn't believe Marrero was a high schooler. After he went 15th overall and signed for $1.625 million, Marrero had a solid pro debut until it was cut shot by viral meningitis in early August. Marrero's best tool is his plus-plus raw power from foul pole to foul pole. He has decent plate discipline and pitch recognition, and he gets his hands ready early in his smooth, quiet swing. With a big, athletic frame and fringe-average speed, he played a solid left field after spending his high school career at third base. He has an above-average arm. Marrero re-injured his hamstring last spring and developed bad habits to compensate, stepping in the bucket and pulling off pitches on the outer half. He seemed to correct the problem last summer, but he still needs to show he can make consistent hard contact. Marrero should be ready to push for an everyday job at Washington's new low Class A Hagerstown affiliate in 2007. He could be the Nationals' cleanup hitter of the future.
Willems surfaced as an elite arm in the summer of 2005, garnering mostvaluable- pitcher honors at the Cape Cod Classic in July. He shut it down after the Aflac All-American game, and as a result had the freshest arm in Florida's deep high school pitching crop last spring. He went 22nd overall in June and signed for $1.425 million. Willems has a lightning-quick arm and a clean, easy delivery from a high three-quarters slot. His velocity spiked in the spring, when he came out pitching at 92 mph and bumped 97 in a relief outing, and he pitched at 91-93 as a starter last summer. With a tall, projectable frame, he gets good downward angle on his pitches. He secured his first-round status after his high school pitching coach, former major leaguer David West, taught him a mid-80s slider to replace his curveball. Though Willems locates his fastball well on both sides of the plate, he needs to command his slider better in order to make it a plus pitch. His changeup could become average, but it's in the very early stages of its development. The Nationals shut down Willems with mild elbow soreness in August, though they say they were just being extra cautious and it's not a long-term concern. Willems has the stuff to become a No. 1 starter, but he'll need time and patience to reach his ceiling. He could start 2007 in low Class A.
An outfielder in college, Casto moved to third base in 2004 and gradually became a very solid defender there. But when Ryan Zimmerman seized the Nationals' hot-corner job, they decided to move Casto back to the outfield after the 2006 all-star break. He had another solid year with the bat and continued to hit in the Arizona Fall League, despite missing three weeks for his wedding and honeymoon. A mature, disciplined hitter, Casto rarely chases pitches out of the zone and excels at working counts. He has average power and can use the whole field, and he's not afraid to jump on hanging breaking balls or high fastballs early in the count. He had no problem getting reacquainted with the outfield, where his arm is slightly above-average and his range is fringy. Casto has always been a streaky hitter because he'll fall into the trap of making too many adjustments at times. He's an extremely hard worker, but sometimes his drive to succeed gets the better of him. With the departure of Alfonso Soriano via free agency, Casto should have a chance to earn Washington's left-field job. He should be a solid everyday player capable of hitting 20 homers per year.
Nationals special assistant Jose Rijo first discovered Gonzalez when the shortstop was 14, and he played at Rijo's Dominican baseball academy for a year. Their close relationship--and a $1.4 million signing bonus--helped Washington beat out four teams for his services last summer. He impressed in Dominican instructional league during the fall. A switch-hitter, Gonzalez has a short stroke with a good swing path, and he knows the strike zone very well for his age. Though he's just a fringe-average runner, he has good range and a solid-average arm at shortstop, where his actions are quick and easy and his hands are special. He has amazing instincts and is exceptionally skilled. During warmups he'll occasionally perform tricks like flipping the ball to first base behind his back. A high-energy player whose enthusiasm for the game is contagious, he goes by the nickname "Smiley." Like most 17-year-olds, Gonzalez needs to add strength, and a conditioning program will help. He has a mature offensive approach for his age, but he still needs plenty of polish. Despite good bat speed, he has below-average power. Gonzalez will come to the United States for spring training and likely will make his pro debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, though he has a shot to go to low Class A.
A free spirit who lived in a mobile home while he attended Arizona State, Zinicola settled in as the Sun Devils' closer his junior season after playing both ways his first two years. He signed for $147,500 as a sixth-rounder in June, then was named Nationals minor league pitcher of the year after dominating at three levels and finishing at Double-A. Zinicola has a power repertoire perfect for the back of the bullpen. He runs his plus fastball up to 95 mph routinely, and he complements it with an above-average 82-85 mph slider with tight bite. In college he threw an average changeup with splitter action, but he rarely used the pitch during his pro debut. Zinicola has a bulldog mentality, a physical frame and a clean, repeatable delivery. He needs to fine-tune his command, which lapsed late in the season as a heavy workload took its toll. Scouts questioned Zinicola's maturity at times in college, but it wasn't an issue in pro ball. Similar to former top Washington first-rounders Chad Cordero and Bill Bray, Zinicola is on the fast track. He could be a set-up man in the big leagues as soon as 2007, and he could be in line to replace Cordero as the closer in the future.
The son of former big league lefthander Paul Gibson, Glenn turned down a commitment to Central Florida for an above-slot $350,000 bonus in the fourth round. He signed late in the summer so he had a limited pro debut, but he did show off his polish with three scoreless outings at short-season Vermont. It's evident that Gibson learned a lot from his father, because he really knows how to pitch. His best offering is an above-average 76-77 mph curveball with good downward bite that was a revelation this spring after his dad moved his arm slot from three-quarters to high three-quarters. He has always trusted his changeup, which already rates as an average pitch and could get better. Gibson projects to add velocity to his 86-88 mph fastball as he fills out his lanky frame, and he already ratchets it up to 91 on occasion. His delivery is clean and easy. Despite hiring a personal trainer and adding 15 pounds as a high school senior, Gibson remains skinny and needs to get stronger. He commands his fastball well but needs to add velocity to pitch toward the front of a big league rotation. Because he's so advanced, Gibson will push for a rotation spot in low Class A as a 19-year-old. He could become a No. 3 starter if he develops physically.
After turning down $700,000 as a Red Sox second-round pick out of high school, Chico flunked out of Southern California and a junior college, landing in a San Diego semipro league when the Diamondbacks drafted him in 2003. He showed flashes of promise in his first three seasons in the Arizona system before coming over to the Nationals along with Garrett Mock in an August deal for Livan Hernandez. With a build reminiscent of Mike Hampton's and a tenacious mindset to match, Chico has a deceptive delivery and keeps hitters off balance with a four-pitch mix. He spots his fastball to all four quadrants of the strike zone, relying heavily on an 88-91 mph two-seamer and mixing in a four-seamer that he can run up to 93-94. He adds and subtracts from his average curveball and throws his average changeup for strikes any time he wants. Chico isn't a soft-tosser, but he's also far from overpowering. He gets into trouble when he tries to blow hitters away, though he has done a better job of setting them up since getting rocked in Double-A at the beginning of 2005. Chico could be a No. 4 starter in the big leagues as soon as 2007 for the pitching-starved Nationals. He'll probably open the year at Washington's new Triple- A Columbus affililate unless he's lights out in spring training.
A preseason high school All-American, King had a mediocre senior season thanks in large part to nagging leg injuries. The Nationals saw enough physical ability to take him in the second round, and they bought him out of a commitment to Louisiana State with a $750,000 bonus. He signed too late to make his pro debut. King has a tantalizing five-tool package that earns comparisons to Bobby Crosby and J.J. Hardy, and he has a chance to be a similar offensive-minded shortstop. With a strong, wiry frame and good bat speed, he projects to have at least average power, and he has a good enough feel for the zone to become an above-average hitter. Defensively, he has good actions up the middle, sure hands and plus arm strength. He's a solid-average runner. King will have to make adjustments in his swing to improve his load and trigger. Good fastballs tend to tie him up. Some scouts are concerned he could outgrow shortstop, and he's not in the same defensive class as Esmailyn Gonzalez or Ian Desmond. King may compete with Gonzalez for the starting shortstop job in low Class A, but he's more likely to spend 2007 at short-season Vermont. If he eventually moves off shortstop, King has enough bat and arm to play third base or the outfield.
Though Desmond entered 2006 with a .244 career batting average, the Nationals saw enough in his confident approach to believe he could handle a promotion to Double-A. He got off to a slow start after getting few atbats in big league camp, and he never recovered. Washington realized it rushed him and demoted him to high Class A in May, when he also missed two weeks with a back injury. Desmond still makes plenty of errors, but he has the tools to be an above-average defender at shortstop with plus-plus arm strength, plus range and soft hands. He started to make some offensive adjustments after his demotion, driving the ball the opposite way and learning to stay back on off-speed pitches. He has above-average speed. His best attributes might be his work ethic and leadership. The Nationals want Desmond to let the ball travel a little farther before he swings, so they opened his stance to improve his vision. He has gotten bigger but still doesn't hit for much power. He needs to focus more on getting on base. In the field, he needs to concentrate more on making the routine plays and do a better job anticipating ground balls. He's no longer the clear choice as Washington's shortstop of the future with Esmailyn Gonzalez and Stephen King now in the system, but Desmond is just 21 and still has a chance to be an everyday player. He'll need a lot of at-bats to improve offensively. He'll give Double-A another try in 2007.
After floundering in a 2005 season marred by a broken thumb, Flores rebounded to show why the Mets were so high on him after his breakout 2004. He tied for the high Class A Florida State League lead in home runs while finishing fourth in extra-base hits and slugging. The Nationals grabbed him in December in the major league Rule 5 draft. Flores is the rare power-hitting catcher who is also an asset defensively. He has a pull approach, so most of his power is to left field, though he will drive some balls to center. His arm is above-average and it plays up because of his quick release. With pop times consistently in the 1.85-1.95-second range, Flores can control the running game, and he threw out 39 percent of basestealers last season. He has an athletic frame and good lateral range that helps him block balls in the dirt. Because of his pull approach, Flores sometimes opens up his front side too early, which makes him susceptible to sliders away, and he needs better plate discipline. In the past he has been hard on himself when he was not hitting and let it affect his defense, but he has gotten better at channeling his emotions. He can get lazy behind the plate and is a slow runner. Catchers with his blend of power and defense are tough to find, but he's not ready to jump from Class A to the majors. If the Nationals can't work out a trade with the Mets, they can't send him to the minors without putting him through waivers and then offering him back to New York for half his $50,000 draft price. A year on Washington's big league bench would hurt his development.
In his first full season in 2005, Mock led the high Class A California League in wins and strikeouts despite pitching in Lancaster, one of baseball's best hitter havens. He came to big league camp the following spring and nearly earned a job on Arizona's Opening Day roster before heading to Double-A. He struggled all season with a slight tear under the meniscus in his left knee, and he was shelled after coming to the Nationals along with Matt Chico in an August trade for Livan Hernandez. A big, strong Texan with a fierce competitive streak, Mock did not let on that he was hurt, but it was obvious something was wrong when his fastball sat at 89-90 mph and topped out at 92. In years past he pitched at 92 and topped out at 95 with a heavy, boring fastball. When he's right, Mock's hard, short-breaking slider is an out pitch, and his changeup and overhand curveball are at least average. He got into bad mechanical habits because he couldn't extend on his landing leg, so he was searching for a comfortable arm slot. He had surgery to repair his knee and should be healthy by spring training, and the Nationals hope he will trust his stuff when he's back to 100 percent. He should push for a job in Triple-A in 2007, and he could be a middle-of-the-rotation workhorse by 2008.
Though Fruto made his big league debut in 2006, he remained an enigma. No Mariners farmhand had as many different quality pitches, yet his ceiling probably is no more than a setup man. While he has progressed from the days when Seattle's minor league managers didn't want to use him with games on the line, the M's parted with him and outfielder Chris Snelling in a December trade for Jose Vidro. Fruto's best offering is a changeup that at times has screwball action and grades as a plus-plus pitch. He throws it with the same arm speed he uses for his lively 92-96 mph fastball. He also has one of the best curveballs in the system and a slider that has its moments. That's more than enough stuff to start, but Fruto lacks the control and focus to handle that role. He's still searching for command and a consistent plan. He'll fall in love with his offspeed stuff and not trust his fastball, and he'll throw his slider more than his curve, which is his superior breaking pitch. Though he's athletic for a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder, he doesn't do a good job of repeating his delivery and arm action. Fruto took a huge step forward in 2005, only to show up overweight in spring training. Washington hopes he learned his lesson and will be more reliable in 2007, when he'll get a chance to further establish himself in the majors.
In his domestic debut in the Dodgers system last summer, Nunez led the Gulf Coast League in wins and innings and finished second in strikeouts and ERA. He got better as the season went on, culminating in six shutout innings against the Red Sox in the first game of the GCL championship series. Nunez caught the attention of GCL Nationals manager Bobby Henley, who pushed for his acquisition in the Marlon Anderson trade. Nunez is a long way from the big leagues, but he has a live arm and a pair of potential plus pitches. He works at 89-92 mph with his fastball, touching 94, and he could add velocity as he fills out his wiry frame. He also throws a slider that can be hard with late snap, but it gets slurvy and the Nationals want him to add power to it. Nunez has a smooth arm action, but he needs to repeat his delivery more consistently. Sometimes he overthrows, missing up in the zone. Nunez also needs to develop a changeup to stick as a starter. He showed quality stuff and moxie in dominating the GCL, giving him a chance to be a No. 2 or 3 starter if it all comes together. He'll get a crack at the low Class A South Atlantic League in 2007.
Martis made a name for himself in the World Baseball Classic last March by throwing a no-hitter for the Netherlands against a Panama team that included Carlos Lee, Olmedo Saenz and Ruben Rivera. The 10-0 win was shortened to seven innings by the tournament's mercy rule, allowing Martis to complete the game in 65 pitches--the limit allowed by WBC rules. Martis then held his own in the low Class A South Atlantic League, and the Nationals acquired him from the Giants for reliever Mike Stanton in July. With a loose arm and an advanced feel for pitching for his age, Martis looked good in a late-season stint in high Class A. He pitches in the low 90s with a solid-average fastball, touching 94, and he could add velocity as he matures. His changeup became his best pitch over the last year, an above-average pitch with fade and deception. Martis needs to improve his inconsistent breaking ball, which tends to get slurvy. Given time, he has the solid repertoire and mound presence to be a No. 3 starter in the big leagues. He'll start back at high Class A in 2007.
Broadway was the top hitting prospect in the Nationals system entering the 2005 season, when a knee injury derailed him. He rebounded with a solid 2006 campaign in his first extended taste of Triple-A, leading Nationals farmhands with a .288 average, and he would have been in line for a big league promotion when Nick Johnson got hurt if he hadn't dislocated his shoulder diving for a ground ball in late August. He did not need surgery and planned to spend all winter strengthening the joint for spring training. Broadway's best tool is his above-average power. He can drive the ball to all fields, and he's always had a solid offensive approach and drawn plenty of walks. Broadway is a reliable defender at first base, with sure hands and a plus arm, but he has lost a step since his knee injury--and he was a below-average runner to begin with. The Nationals have talked with Broadway a lot about his physical condition, and they expect him to enter spring training ready to play first base in the big leagues in case Johnson is not fully recovered from his broken femur. He doesn't look like a future star, but he still has a chance to be a solid everyday player. That chance may have to come with another organization, however.
Englund looks the part of a big-time prospect, so scouts expected big things from the third-team BA Preseason All-American in his senior year at Bellevue (Wash.) High. His bat was inconsistent, but the Nationals saw enough five-tool potential to draft him in the second round and give him a $515,000 bonus, buying him out of a commitment to Washington State. A shortstop in high school, Englund moved to the outfield after signing. A slightly above-average runner, he has a chance to stay in center field, but some scouts compare him to Jay Buhner and project him in right. Like Buhner, Englund has a plus arm and plus raw power, and he is capable of hitting long home runs in batting practice thanks to his excellent bat speed and a swing with good leverage. But as his rough debut in the Gulf Coast League suggests, he is raw in all facets of the game. He's adjusting to playing every day and using a wood bat, and he's working on shortening his swing and improving his two-strike approach. He also needs to mature, as his drama-filled high school career included being kicked off the team once and reinstated. Englund's exciting package of tools gives him a chance to be a star, but it's going to take a while. He should open at Vermont in 2007.
Considered a potential first-round pick as a junior in 2004, Maxwell battled freak injuries his final two seasons at Maryland. He signed late with the Nationals for a $390,000 bonus in 2005, and he was held back in extended spring training to start 2006 in order to find his rhythm. Maxwell hit a three-run homer in his pro debut in low Class A in late April before heading to the disabled list two weeks later after breaking his toe. He returned to the field a month later but played most of the second half at Vermont, where he flashed the power-speed mix that has tantalized scouts for years. Maxwell is a true five-tool talent with above-average speed that translates well on the basepaths and in the outfield. A long strider, Maxwell has excellent range and a solid-average arm in center field. He shows plus raw power in batting practice but has yet to harness it. Maxwell's swing tends to get long and he has trouble with pitches on the outer half. He has a solid approach at the plate, but he needs an uninterrupted string of at-bats so he can polish his offensive game. Maxwell should return to low Class A to open 2007, but at age 23 he needs to get moving, so the Nationals figure to push him once he gets his feet wet.
Carr led the Big 12 Conference with 22 home runs as a first baseman at Oklahoma State in 2005, when Nationals area scout Ryan Fox happened to be on hand for two of his five career pitching appearances. Fox saw Carr throw one inning in fall practice that year as well, and he was impressed enough to push the Nationals to draft him as a pitcher even though he didn't pitch at all as a senior in 2006. Signed for $1,000 as an 18th-rounder, Carr was disappointed he wasn't drafted as a hitter, so the Nationals let him DH on days he wasn't pitching, and he batted a combined .302 with three homers in 63 at-bats between two levels. He was even better off the mound, and better still in Hawaii Winter Baseball, going 1-0, 1.64 with a pair of saves in 11 innings. Carr has a surprisingly clean delivery given his inexperience as a pitcher. He has an electric, fresh arm and a lively fastball that touches 95 mph. Carr also throws a low-80s slider that can be an above-average pitch, and he's dabbling with a changeup that could give him a third average offering. His biggest weakness is simply his lack of experience and polish, but he's got a good feel for pitching and a strong, durable frame. He should start 2007 with a full-season Class A club and could be a power arm at the back of a big league bullpen sooner rather than later.
A native of Long Beach, N.Y., Lannan is a classic late-blooming Northern pitcher. He dominated as a starter his junior year at Siena, going 10-2, 2.29 with 83 strikeouts in 83 innings, but he fell to the 11th round of the 2005 draft because his fastball topped out at 88 mph. He added strength to his wiry frame in the offseason, and his velocity increased as a result. Lannan pitched at 89-91 mph for low Class A Savannah in 2006, touching 93. He also improved his mid-70s curveball, which was rather loopy in 2005 but showed good break and depth in 2006. Lannan's best pitch is a plus changeup in the low 80s that he commands to both sides of the plate. After posting a 1.61 ERA in April, he struggled with his command in the middle of the season before regrouping over the final two months, and he'll have to learn to avoid the big inning. He needs to sharpen his curveball and add strength, but projectable lefthanders capable of throwing three average or better pitches are hard to find. Lannan has a chance to be a No. 3 or 4 starter in the big leagues, and he'll open 2007 at high Class A.
Stammen finished his three-year college career as the all-time strikeout leader at Dayton, where he recorded nine saves as a closer his sophomore year and nine complete games as a starter his junior year. He suffered from poor run support during his first full pro season in 2006, when he started 0-6 in low Class A before going 3-0 in June. Stammen has a similar repertoire to teammate Marco Estrada, but he's got a more physical build. Stammen's best offering is a plus curveball with sharp 12-to-6 action that he can throw for strikes or as a chase pitch. His fringe-average fastball sits at 89-91 mph, touches 92 and has late life. He mixes in a two-seam fastball, but his four-seamer is better. He's still trying to harness the command of his high-70s changeup, but he throws it with good arm speed and it can be average at times. He throws across his body, causing his walk totals to climb, but his arm action is quick and easy. Stammen figures to start 2007 at high Class A and profiles as a No. 4 starter.
Estrada and his mother moved from Mexico to California in 1989. He pitched at Glendale (Calif.) Community College in 2002 and '03 before sitting out a year while taking the two courses he needed to transfer to Long Beach State, where he jumped right into the weekend rotation. The Nationals had high hopes for Estrada in his first full pro season, but he broke his collarbone just before spring training while roller-blading, causing him to miss the first two and a half months. It took him a while to get going in low Class A, but he came on strong in Hawaii Winter Baseball, where he was the No. 10 prospect. Estrada's best pitch is an above-average curveball that he uses to put hitters away, and he has good feel for a changeup. His fastball is underwhelming, sitting at 88-90 mph and occasionally bumping 92 when he needs it. He needs to cut down on his walks. With a slight build, Estrada will never dominate, but he could be a No. 4 starter in the majors. He could move fast in 2007, starting at high Class A.
Peacock turned down a chance to transfer to Auburn when he signed with the Nationals as a draft-and-follow before the 2005 draft. After a trying pro debut in the Gulf Coast League, Peacock spent the winter before the 2006 season working with former big league catcher Randy Knorr, who helped the hyper Peacock learn to play under control and shorten his swing. He also improved his glovework and footwork behind the plate. He hit .288 with seven homers over the first two months last season at low Class A before shoulder soreness limited his effectiveness. An appendectomy in August ended his season. Peacock is an excellent athlete with solid-average speed, slightly above-average raw power, plus arm strength and a quick release when healthy. He needs to refine his offensive approach because he tries to pull everything and strikes out too much. He has the tools to be an average defensive catcher, but he needs to improve his hands and receiving skills. Peacock is a natural leader with an impeccable work ethic, giving him a chance to be an everyday catcher down the road. He could head back to low Class A to start 2007, but he'll get a chance to earn a job at high Class A.
A two-way star in high school who signed for a $2.5 million bonus after being drafed fifth overall in 2002, Everts was the top prospect in the system in 2003 and 2004 before having Tommy John surgery in September 2004. He returned earlier than expected in 2005, taking the mound in late June, and it now looks like he returned too early. Everts is still trying to regain the low-90s fastball he showed prior to his injury. He worked mostly in the mid-80s in a rough 2006 season in high Class A. His changeup and curveball, which have previously rated as plus-plus offerings, still have good movement, but he struggled to command the curveball as well as he once did. Everts fell into a number of bad habits right before his surgery when he was favoring his arm. He spent 2006 almost having to relearn his rhythm and hip loads, and he had trouble finding a consistent release point. The Nationals planned to send Everts to the same long-toss program in Southern California this winter that Joel Zumaya once attended, with the hope he can regain some arm strength. If that plan works, he still has the terrific secondary stuff to be a frontline starter. But first, he'll have to conquer high Class A in 2007.
Hill appeared on the verge of cementing a rotation spot in Washington in 2004, when he also went 1-0, 1.64 in 11 innings for Canada in the Olympics. But Tommy John surgery ended his season prematurely, and he missed all of 2005 while rehabbing. Hill returned to the mound in 2006 and got off to a terrific start in Double-A, going 2-1, 1.86 with 22 strikeouts and just three walks in 29 innings in April. He pitched well in the big leagues before experiencing tightness in his surgically repaired elbow in June and missing nearly all of the second half. Hill relies on an 88-92 mph sinker that he spots to both sides of the plate. He also has good command of a solid curveball and adequate changeup. With an athletic frame, Hill fields his position well, and he is a fearless competitor. The Nationals hope he'll be ready to withstand the rigors of a full season in 2007, with his surgery more than two years behind him. Assuming he's healthy--not necessarily the safest assumption--he should earn a spot in a wide-open big league rotation out of spring training, and he profiles as a solid back-of-the-rotation starter.
One of the hardest-working players in the system, Ivany put himself on the prospect map through sheer force of will in 2005, when he reinvented his swing on his own during the offseason. He struggled out of the gate at high Class A in 2006, hitting just .229 in April before turning things around to finish the season at .262 for the second year in a row. He also showed some pop in Hawaii Winter Baseball, slugging .536 in 56 at-bats. Ivany's strength is his defense behind the plate. He's major league-ready as a defender. He has soft hands, quick feet and a solid-average arm, and he earns plaudits from his pitching staff for his ability to call a game and command the field. He's a good athlete who runs well for a catcher, even stealing the occasional base. At the plate, he's a line-drive, gap-to-gap hitter with occasional pull power, but he needs to work on his load and get his hands into position quicker. He has below-average raw power and doesn't figure to ever hit better than .270. Ivany looks like a future backup catcher, but his makeup gives him an outside chance to be a regular. He'll go to Double-A in 2007.
A converted pitcher, Diaz had a breakout year in 2005, his fourth season as an outfielder, when he represented the Nationals in the Futures Game. He built on that success in April of 2006, when he batted .356 in Double-A, but he slumped badly in May before rebounding in June and wearing down late in the season. That's Diaz--a streaky hitter with average or better tools across the board. One of the best defensive outfielders in the system, he gets good jumps in center field and covers plenty of ground, and he has a strong, accurate arm. He has fringeaverage power and solid-average speed. Diaz still has work to do at the plate, where he sometimes gets tied up because of a late trigger. He needs to trust that he can get started early without becoming a lunger. He also needs to work on his pitch recognition and plate discipline, as he has a tendency to chase fastballs up and out of the zone. At this point, Diaz looks like a fourth outfielder in the majors thanks to his defense. He should advance to Triple-A in 2007.
The third-highest unsigned pick from the 2003 draft, Van Allen fell to the fifth round in 2006 after failing to develop his secondary pitches or command as scouts hoped in three years at Baylor. With an ideal pitcher's frame, experience at a big-time college program and tantalizing stuff, the Nationals considered Van Allen a steal in the fifth round and signed him for $170,000. He attacks hitters with a changeup that can be above-average at times, though he doesn't always locate it where he wants. Van Allen also has good fastball velocity for a lefthander, pitching at 89-91 mph and touching 93, but the pitch lacks life. He threw a slider and a curveball in college, but his three-quarters arm slot is better suited for the slider, which is still developing. The Nationals want Van Allen to sharpen the slider and learn to command it more consistently. He has the build, stuff and control to be a No. 4 starter in the big leagues, but he's got work to do to reach that ceiling. He should begin 2007 in low Class A.
A good athlete who played shortstop and pitched for Thomasville (Ga.) High, Speigner worked mostly as a starter his first three years at Auburn, but he allowed 18 home runs as a junior and the Tigers moved him to the bullpen for his 2003 senior year. He flourished in the role, going 10-0, 2.42, and the Twins drafted him in the 14th round. Speigner continued to work out of the bullpen in his first two pro seasons before moving back to the rotation at Double-A New Britain in 2005. He had his best pro season as a closer in 2006, and the Nationals took him with the first pick of the second round of the major league Rule 5 draft. Speigner attacks hitters with a two-pitch mix--an 89-94 mph fastball with good life, and a hard curveball that can be an above-average pitch at times. He has never posted big strikeout numbers, and he needs to improve against lefthanders, but he has the stuff to be a useful reliever in the majors for Washington in 2007. If he doesn't stick on the big league roster, he'll have to clear waivers and be offered back to Minnesota for half of his $50,000 draft price.
Hinckley looked to be on the fast track in 2004, when he posted a 2.87 ERA in 94 innings in Double-A and finished the season as Washington's No. 1 prospect. He went to big league spring training in 2005 with a chance to earn a spot in the Opening Day rotation, but he began overthrowing and his arm action got longer, creating strain on his shoulder that caused him to miss the first month of the season. He pitched with a sore shoulder in 2005, and had posterior capsule relief surgery after the season. Hinckley returned to high Class A in 2006, where he struggled to regain his stuff and his command. At times he showed flashes of what he once was, but for most of the year his fastball sat in the mid- to upper 80s, not approaching the low 90s he pitched at two years ago. When he was at his best, Hinckley had excellent command of a three-pitch mix, but he had trouble commanding his changeup in 2006, and his curveball did not have the bite it once did. This season will be critical for Hinckley. He needs to return to Double-A and show that his stuff has come all the way back. The Nationals aren't giving up on a lefthander with Hinckley's pedigree yet, but time is running out.
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