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After starring as a two-way player for NCAA Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point as a sophomore in 2006, Zimmermann exploded onto the prospect landscape that summer in the Northwoods League. He posted a circuit-best 1.01 ERA and 92 strikeouts, boosting his draft stock and ranking as the league's No. 1 prospect. That offseason, he broke his jaw in two places when he was struck by a line drive while throwing live batting practice in a workout. He missed the first three games of the season and lost 10 pounds, then had his wisdom teeth removed during the season. Zimmermann battled through the adversity, earning honors at the Division III College World Series, becoming the first player ever to receive that award without his team reaching the title game. He pitched a complete-game one-hitter with 10 strikeouts against Emory (Ga.), and batted .615 with two homers in four games as a DH. The Nationals signed him for $495,000 after getting him in the second round, and they've said he could have been a top-10 pick had he been healthy and at a higher-profile program. Washington aggressively pushed him to high Class A Potomac to begin his first full pro season, and he needed just five starts to prove he was ready for Double-A Harrisburg, where he ranked as the Eastern League's No. 5 prospect. Zimmermann is the rare pitcher who projects to have four average or better offerings in the majors. He attacks hitters with a 90-94 mph four-seam fastball that occasionally touches 95. It's a heavy fastball with riding action, and he commands it very well to both sides of the plate, evoking Curt Schilling. Zimmermann also mixes in a sinking two-seamer around 90 mph. He holds his velocity deep into games, works quickly and pounds the strike zone. His slider was his No. 2 pitch in college, but the Nationals wanted him to focus more on tightening his curveball early in his pro career. As a result, he has added power to the curve, which now sits at 75-78 mph and rates as a fringe-average offering, projecting as solid-average or a tick above. His tight, hard-breaking 84-87 slider is mostly average now but has its moments as a plus pitch, and his straight changeup isn't far from being average. Zimmermann has a clean delivery from a high three-quarters slot and a strong, durable frame. His athleticism helps him field his position well, hold runners, handle the bat and bunt well. An intense competitor, he's serious about his craft. The Nationals forced Zimmermann to throw 15-20 changeups per game in 2008, and while his feel for the pitch is improving, he's still learning how and when to use it. He has good arm speed with the pitch and is effective when he throws it around 82 mph, but he tends to throw it a bit too hard. At times his delivery gets a little too rotational, causing him to get on the side of his slider and turning it into more of a cutter. The slider can be a plus pitch if he can stay on top of it more often. His curveball also lacks consistency. It's easy to envision Zimmermann refining his command of his secondary stuff quickly and reaching the big leagues by the 2009 all-star break, if not sooner. He figures to start the year at Washington's new Triple-A Syracuse affiliate. He profiles as a frontline starter--probably a solid No. 2 on a first-division club.
Signed for $2.15 million as the No. 6 overall pick in 2007, Detwiler made a big league cameo in just his 10th professional appearance. He spent his first full pro season in 2008 on a strict pitch count in high Class A, where he carried a 5.86 ERA into July before an improved changeup helped him post a 3.84 ERA and a 52-18 strikeout-walk ratio over the final two months. When he's on, as he was during the Carolina League playoffs, Detwiler features two plus pitches and flashes a third. His four-seam fastball can sit between 92-94 mph and touch 96 with explosive life, and his two-seamer has power sink. Detwiler's power curveball has tight 1-to-7 break, and he has the makings of a plus changeup with good arm speed and fade. His deceptive delivery makes his stuff play up even further. Detwiler's mechanics are inconsistent, causing his fastball velocity to dip into the high 80s and affecting his command. Especially in the first half, he threw too far across his body and often struggled to get through his pitches, so the Nationals worked hard on straightening his direction to the plate. It's an ongoing process, but he showed much better alignment in the Arizona Fall League. He's also working on quickening his times to the plate and holding baserunners better. He still must add strength to his wiry frame. Detwiler has the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the system. He'll start 2009 in Double-A, and some club officials believe everything will click and he'll be entrenched in the big leagues by September.
A first-round pick in 2006 who signed for $1.625 million, Marrero entered 2008 as Washington's top prospect but struggled out of the gate, batting .200 with two homers in April. The Nationals noticed he was standing too far off the plate, and he heated up as he improved his plate coverage. But his season was cut short on June 18 when he caught his right cleat in the dirt while sliding into home plate, breaking his fibula and tearing ligaments in his ankle. Marrero has well above-average power from foul pole to foul pole, and his quiet swing has natural leverage. He squares balls up consistently and has a mature offensive approach for his age, projecting as at least an average hitter. He's very driven to succeed and is a tireless worker. After moving from the outfield to first base in 2007, Marrero got bigger and now there's concern he could wind up as a DH, though he dropped a few pounds in the fall of 2008. He's a well below-average runner with below-average range at first, but he does have soft hands and a strong arm. Though his ankle wasn't yet 100 percent, Marrero went to instructional league and had no trouble swinging the bat. He should be healthy by spring training and figures to get a shot at Double-A by midseason, if not out of camp.
Burgess ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League after the Nationals drafted him in 2007 out of Tampa's Hillsborough High, the same school that produced Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield and Elijah Dukes. Washington challenged him in his first full pro season, starting him at low Class A Hagerstown, where he bashed 18 homers in four months and easily won the South Atlantic League home run derby with 16 longballs in 38 swings. After a late promotion to high Class A, his power display continued but his average dipped. Burgess' game is all about strength and aggression. His best tool is his well above-average raw power, which translates to excellent home run production in games, particularly to right field. He also is capable of driving the ball to the opposite field and got better doing so in 2008. His above-average arm helped him lead the minor leagues with 26 outfield assists, and he uses the long hop effectively. His routes in right field have improved, though he sometimes baits runners to take an extra base so he can show off his arm. Burgess generates huge bat speed partly by taking monstrous hacks, and his tendency to overswing leads to very high strikeout totals. He's starting to learn that he doesn't need to swing so hard to drive the ball, but he doesn't ever project to hit for a high average, despite good hand-eye coordination. He's an upright runner with below-average speed who's not particularly fluid in the field or on the basepaths. Assuming Burgess keeps his weight in check and tones down his aggressive approach a bit, he profiles as a power-hitting right fielder who could bat fourth or fifth in a big league lineup. He'll open 2009 back at Potomac and could crack the majors sometime in 2011.
In order to buy the cerebral McGeary out of a commitment to Stanford, the Nationals not only had to give him a sixth-round-record $1.8 million bonus, but they had to pay for him to attend classes at Stanford from September through early June for the first three years of his career. He didn't report for the 2008 season until mid-June, then led the Gulf Coast League with 64 strikeouts in 60 innings. He spent 10 days in instructional league in the fall, then headed back to college. McGeary is very advanced for his age and experience level. He has superb feel for his above-average curveball, which he can throw in the mid-70s with tight 12-to-6 action, or with more lateral break by dropping his arm angle, or with bigger, slower break for first-pitch strikes. After pitching at 85-87 mph with his fastball during his pro debut, he worked at 88-91 in 2008. He commands his fastball very well. He's an exceptional athlete with a commanding mound presence. McGeary is very dedicated to his offseason workout regimen, but he still needs to add strength, like most young pitchers. He's learning to throw his changeup when behind in the count, and he must improve his command of the pitch. It has good action and projects as an average offering, but it remains inconsistent. McGeary is ready for low Class A once he rejoins the Nationals in June, though he might need a few tuneup outings first. He projects as a mid-rotation starter in the Andy Pettitte mold and could reach the majors by 2011.
A year after hitting .203 in his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League, Norris took the greatest step forward of any Nats farmhand in 2008. Playing against mostly older competition as a 19-year-old, Norris led the short-season New York-Penn League with 63 walks--22 more than any other hitter in the league--and ranked as its No. 4 prospect. As evidenced by his walk total, Norris has a very patient offensive approach. His strong, sturdy build produces solid-average to plus power, mostly to left field, though he has improved at using the right-center gap. He loves to hit and works hard at his offensive game. He has a strong arm and a quick release, helping him throw out an NY-P-best 47 percent of basestealers in 2008. He runs well for a catcher. Norris didn't start catching until his senior year of high school after spending three years at third base, and his receiving remains very raw, as his 16 passed balls last year attest. He tends to pick balls in the dirt instead of blocking them. The Nationals want him to take more pride in his defense, but some club officials question whether he'll stick behind the plate long-term. If Norris can become just adequate defensively, his bat could make him a star in the big leagues. He'll advance to low Class A in 2009.
Hood starred as a shortstop and wide receiver at St. Paul's Episcopal High in Mobile, Ala.--Jake Peavy's alma mater--and committed to play both baseball and football at Alabama. The Nationals took him in the second round and gave him an above-slot $1.1 million bonus to keep him away from the Crimson Tide. They immediately moved him to left field and sent him to the Gulf Coast League, where he raised his average from .175 to .256 over the season's final 13 games. Scouts long have marveled at Hood's electrifying bat speed, which translates into above-average raw power. He swings and misses a lot now, but he keeps the barrel of the bat in the zone for a long time and projects to hit for average as his offensive approach matures. He has a strong, athletic frame and average to plus speed. Underdeveloped as an outfielder, Hood has a long way to go with his reads, jumps and routes. Washington has put him on a long-toss program in an effort to strengthen his below-average arm. He doesn't have a smooth arm action and doesn't use his lower half well when he throws. Offensively, he simply needs experience and refinement. Unless Hood blows the Nationals away in spring training, he'll likely spend 2009 at short-season Vermont, following the same developmental path as 2007 draftee Derek Norris. Down the road, Hood has a chance to be a potent middle-of-the-order bat in the big leagues.
Nieto and his parents came to the United States from Cuba on a makeshift raft when he was 8. He began catching shortly thereafter and joined a travel team with future No. 2 overall pick Eric Hosmer when he was 11. As high school seniors, they helped lead a loaded American Heritage High team to BA's final No. 1 national ranking, with Nieto blasting two homers in the state championship game. He signed three days before the Aug. 15 signing deadline for a $376,000 bonus, the third-highest in the fifth round. A switch-hitter, Nieto shows solid-average power to all fields from both sides of the plate. Like most young switch-hitters, he's more advanced from the left side, but he has a good feel for hitting from both sides. A natural leader who exudes confidence, Nieto is a student of the game. He knows what pitchers are trying to do to him when he's batting and also knows how to attack other hitters when he's behind the plate. He's surprisingly quick on his feet and good at blocking balls in the dirt. His arm is a tick above average but plays up because of his quick release, accuracy and aggressiveness. Nieto is still working hard on refining his defensive skills, from his receiving to his footwork to fielding bunts and popups. He needs to concentrate on keeping himself in better shape. At the plate, he's still developing his pitch recognition. Nieto has all the tools and intangibles to be a solid regular big league catcher in the Jorge Posada mold.
Ramirez hit .395 for the U.S. junior national team in 2007 and batted .521 with eight homers as a high school senior to help establish his reputation as the best pure hitter in the Texas draft crop. His bonus demands and commitment to Tulane dropped him to the 15th round, but the Nationals signed him for $1 million in the hours before the Aug. 15 signing deadline as it became apparent they wouldn't sign first-rounder Aaron Crow. Ramirez has a smooth, compact lefthanded stroke and an advanced feel for hitting. He smokes hard line drives from gap to gap and showed at least average power in an impressive instructional league stint. He draws praise from scouts for his mature approach and high-quality makeup. With fringy speed and a below-average arm, Ramirez will be tied to left field in pro ball. Some club officials believe he'll end up with an average arm in time, but he's also got a lot of work to do on his reads and jumps in the outfield. It's unclear if Ramirez will develop enough power to hold down an everyday job in left field at the major league level, and some scouts see him as a tweener. Others, however, see him as a hitting machine in the David Dellucci mold. Ramirez should get a crack at low Class A in 2009.
Though his $1.4 million bonus in 2006 remains controversial, Gonzalez started to give Washington a return on its investment in 2008. After hitting .245 in his 2007 pro debut, he repeated the Gulf Coast League and won the batting title with a .343 average. With a quiet swing and excellent plate discipline for his age, Gonzalez projects to hit for average with gap power and occasional home run pop. The Nationals got on him to improve his conditioning, and he firmed up his body some and added strength, which helped him drive more balls. He also made plenty of progress using the whole field from both sides of the plate. Defensively, he shows smooth actions and soft hands that give him an outside chance to stay at shortstop. Nicknamed "Smiley" in part for his energy and enthusiasm, he showed more vocal on-field leadership in 2008, though he's still far from fluent in English. Gonzalez's substandard range and arm strength are still likely to dictate an eventual move to second base. He's a below-average runner who lacks first-step quickness. If Gonzalez continues to get stronger, he could wind up as a quality all-around second baseman, similar to Jose Vidro but with less power. In the short term, he'll remain at shortstop and advance to low Class A.
Injuries have dogged Maxwell since his college days at Maryland, but he showed what he could do in a full healthy season in 2007, when he turned in a 25-25 season, earned a late big league callup and delivered a pinchhit grand slam in his third at-bat. The Nationals expected to see him back in Washington some time in 2008, but he injured his wrist diving for a ball on May 19. He tried to play through the injury over the next week before the Nationals shut him down with what later was discovered to be a small fracture in his wrist. He returned for winter ball in Puerto Rico, where his .162/.330/.446 line in 74 at-bats reflected his patience, power potential and inconsistent contact. A gifted athletic specimen with a big, strong frame, Maxwell has a chance for four average or better tools. He's a patient hitter with average to plus power to all fields. In order to become an average hitter, he needs to stay taller in his stance and avoid collapsing on his back leg. He's a long strider with slightly aboveaverage speed that plays up once he's underway. Maxwell is an intelligent baserunner and has a strong work ethic. He projects as an average defender in center field, but he still takes suspect routes from time to time. His arm is below average and eventually could make him a better fit in left. Maxwell looks more like a solid regular than a star, but he could be ready for an everyday role by the second half of 2010.
A favorite of Nationals assistant general manager Mike Rizzo from the days when both were with the Diamondbacks, Mock was acquired as part of the Livan Hernandez trade in 2006, when he struggled while trying to pitch through a knee injury, which limited his workload in 2007. He stayed healthy for all of 2008, pitching well in a starting role in Triple-A before breaking into the big leagues mostly as a reliever. Mock has fought to stay on top of his four-seam fastball by raising his arm slot, so in 2008 he shelved it in favor of a sinking two-seamer that comes more naturally and has better life. He tends to pitch in the high 80s as a starter but works at 90-92 mph out of the bullpen, touching 93-94. He's aggressive with his heater and has improved his command, but it still comes and goes. Mock also features a solid-average slider, a fringe-average curveball and a changeup that can be average at times. He relies mostly on his fastball and slider out of the pen. Some scouts think Mock could follow the development path of Adam Wainwright or Brandon Morrow, breaking into the majors as a reliever before transitioning to a starting role. Others believe he's better suited to a Jon Rauch-type role in the pen, where he can just let it fly and not overthink things. Either way, Mock should stick in the big leagues for good this year.
Acquired from the Giants in the 2006 Mike Stanton trade, Martis has made a name for himself in international competition. He threw a seven-inning no-hitter for the Netherlands against Panama in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, then anchored the Dutch pitching staff in the 2008 Olympics, where he went 0-2, 6.75 and led the team in strikeouts (11) and innings (11). Shortly after returning from Beijing in late August, he was called up to Washington, where he held his own in four starts. Martis is aggressive and throws strikes with an 89-92 mph fastball that tops out at 93. He commands his fastball well in the zone, and it has some life. His best pitch is an above-average changeup with sink and tail at 80-82 mph, and he can throw it in any count. He throws two breaking balls and is inconsistent with both. He occasionally shows an average slider, but he often struggles to finish the pitch, causing it to lack depth and bite. Some prefer his curveball, though he needs to tighten it. Martis gets by more on savvy and competitiveness than on pure stuff, and his upside is limited to back-of-the-rotation starter. He could reach that ceiling sometime in 2009, though he figures to start the season in Triple-A.
A three-year starter and leader at Long Beach State, Espinosa is not surprisingly a throwback dirtbag who plays above his tools. After signing for an above-slot bonus of $525,000 as a third-round pick, he hit .328 at Vermont, though he didn't deliver another extra-base hit after doubling in his first two games. Espinosa's only above-average tool is his strong, accurate arm. He's an aggressive defender whose keen instincts and body control make up for fringy range and unorthodox glove work. Though the switch-hitting Espinosa is regarded as better from his natural right side, he fared much better against righthanders (.353) than lefties (.231) in his debut. He has a knack for squaring balls up and can lace hard line drives to all fields, but many scouts wonder how his bat will play at higher levels, as he's a front-foot hitter who tends to take wicked cuts at anything close. He has a slightly bowlegged running style and average speed at best, though he's a savvy baserunner. One scout likened Espinosa to a young John Valentin, but without as much power potential. He's likely to skip a level and start 2009 at high Class A.
Hicks made a name for himself at the Florida high school all-star game in Sebring, Fla., last spring, when scouts said he showed first-round talent. After signing for an above-slot $475,000 bonus as a fourth-rounder and making two appearances in his pro debut, Hicks broke his left middle finger fielding a ground ball in instructional league. The Nationals expect him to be back to 100 percent by spring training. With a long, lean frame, Hicks reminds some club officials of Ross Detwiler when he was in high school. He's similarly projectable, but Hicks already reached 92 mph with his fastball in high school, though he worked at 86-89 in his two pro outings. He has good feel for a curveball with tight, downward rotation, and he flashes an average changeup as well. He has a tendency to drift in his delivery, causing his elbow to get a little low, but other than that his arm action is clean and easy. With experience and refinement, Hicks has a chance to be a power lefty with three average or better pitches.
Davis's older brothers Marque and Rodney starred as football players for Fresno State, and Davis played one season as a safety at Fresno CC before switching to baseball. A strong, physical athlete, he began tapping into his natural ability in 2008, when he made huge strides refining his offensive approach and rocketed to Triple-A. Though he seemed worn down at the end of the summer, he bounced back in the Arizona Fall League, batting .325/.415/.600 with four homers in 80 at-bats. Davis tried too hard to pull everything when he was younger, but he did a good job utilizing his above-average power to the opposite field in 2008. An average runner with a fringe-average arm, Davis played right field in college and moved to third base in pro ball, and the Nationals have experimented with him at second base and back in the outfield corners in the last two years. He's most comfortable in left but can hold his own at third base and fill in at second. Pitch selection was an issue for Davis in the past, and while he showed more patience in 2008, his 48-5 strikeout-walk ratio in Triple-A is jarring. If he doesn't hit enough for an everyday job in the big leagues, his defensive versatility and power bat still could make him a valuable reserve.
Rhinehart played mostly outfield during his four-year career at Arizona before shifting to first base down the stretch in his breakout senior season. He stayed at first in pro ball and made all-star teams at his first two pro stops in the New York-Penn and South Atlantic leagues. After reaching Double-A in his first full season, Rhinehart finished 2008 on a tear in the Arizona Fall League, going 19-for-39 (.487) in his final nine games. Rhinehart doesn't have huge strength or electric bat speed, but he has a quiet, professional offensive approach and leverage in his swing. He excels at keeping an even keel and making adjustments, which makes him an RBI machine. With an open stance, Rhinehart can drive the ball to the left-center gap or pull a homer to right. He's a below-average runner but not a clogger, and he moves around well at first base, though he's still learning the nuances of the position. His arm is solid for a first baseman. Rhinehart has a chance to be an everyday first baseman in the mold of Lyle Overbay or Nick Johnson, and some Nationals officials expect him to reach the big leagues sometime in 2009.
Bernadina's route to the big leagues has been plodding. He spent three full seasons in low Class A and didn't force his way onto the 40-man roster until his strong performance for the Netherlands in the European Olympic qualifier in 2007. He carried his momentum into 2008, posting by far his best offensive season and earning his first major league callup when Lastings Milledge went on the disabled list in late June. After spending most of July and August in Triple-A, Bernadina returned to Washington for September and struggled to make contact. The fastest runner in the system, he has 65 speed on the 20-80 scouting scale. He stole 41 bases in 52 attempts in the minors in 2008, in line with his career 78 percent success rate. Bernadina's speed translates into excellent range in center field and allows him to compensate for an occasional bad route. His strong, accurate arm completes his outstanding defensive package. Bernadina made much better use of his speed at the plate in 2008, improving his drag bunting and spraying the ball around the field. He has decent raw power and hit the ball with more authority in the past year. Bernadina still has a tendency to cut off his lefthanded swing, pulling the barrel out of the zone too quickly, and despite his offensive progress it's uncertain if he'll ever hit enough to be a big league regular. At the least, he can be a speedy fourth outfielder with strong defensive skills, perhaps as soon as 2009.
Early on during Desmond's slow climb through the system, organization officials speculated that he might be the kind of player who needs 2,000 pro at-bats before he's ready for the big leagues. Desmond never has hit better than .264 at any minor league stop, and Washington still is waiting for him to translate his tools into results. After holding his own at Double-A in 2008, he finally took a significant step forward offensively in the Arizona Fall League, batting .267/.364/.525 in 101 at-bats. Desmond generates plenty of bat speed and flashes average power potential. His pitch recognition and selection are starting to improve, but he struggles to maintain a consistent, patient approach. He has average speed and excellent range at shortstop, where his above-average arm allows him to make spectacular plays at times. His error total dropped from 32 in 2007 to 22 in 2008, but he still needs to work on consistently making routine plays. The Nationals hope Desmond is ready to handle Triple-A in 2009. If his bat continues to develop he could compete for Washington's starting shortstop job in 2010.
Stammen finished his three-year college career as the all-time strikeout leader at Dayton, where he excelled as a closer during his sophomore year and as a starter during his junior campaign. He pitched through a knee injury down the stretch in 2007 and had minor surgery to clean it up after the season. The Nationals started him in the bullpen at Potomac in 2008 until a spot opened up in the rotation. After dominating in high Class A and Double-A, he finished the season in Triple-A, where he took his lumps but still showed good stuff. Stammen pitches at 90-94 mph with his four-seam fastball, but the pitch is rather straight, so he began throwing more 89-92 mph two-seamers in 2008. He commands his fastball well and it plays up out of the bullpen. His short, tight curveball is an average pitch that flashes plus at times, and his changeup is another average offering. He sometimes drifts in his delivery, causing his fastball to lose power. Despite his physical, workhorse frame, Stammen needs to incorporate his lower half more into his delivery to make better use of his leverage. He also needs to finish his delivery better. His solid three-pitch mix gives him a chance to be a No. 4 or 5 starter, but some Nats officials see him as a strike-throwing bulldog out of the pen. He'll likely start 2009 in Triple-A but could see significant action in the majors.
Estrada pitched for two years at Glendale (Calif.) CC before transferring to Long Beach State for his junior year, when he went 8-3, 2.43 and climbed to the sixth round of the draft. A broken collarbone delayed the start of his season in 2006, but he finished strong as the No. 10 prospect in Hawaii Winter Baseball that offseason. After a disappointing 2007, he excelled in the upper minors last year and finished the season in a big league relief role, where his stuff was down due to fatigue. Estrada is a less physical version of Craig Stammen, and his three-pitch repertoire is similar. Despite his smallish build, Estrada holds the 90-92 mph velocity on his fastball into the sixth or seventh inning as a starter, regularly touching 93-94. His best pitch is a plus changeup with good arm speed and tumbling action. He also features two different curveballs: an average 78-81 offering with some sharpness to it, and a slower pitch that he uses as a change of pace. He tried to overthrow in his big league stint and flew open in his delivery, but he ordinarily has good command and fine mechanics. Estrada is a strike-thrower who works quickly and holds runners well, giving him the ingredients to be a successful reliever if he can't stick as a starter. His quality three-pitch mix gives him a chance to be a back-end starter, but his size limits his ceiling.
Hinckley ranked as the Nationals' No. 1 prospect after his stellar 2004 campaign, but he hurt his shoulder in big league camp the following spring and spent the next three years wandering through the prospect wilderness. He re-signed with the Nationals as a minor league free agent before the 2008 season, and the organization decided to move him to the bullpen. He responded with a bounce-back season that landed him in the big leagues, where he didn't allow an earned run in his first 14 innings. A few mechanical adjustments helped Hinckley regain his fastball velocity, as he worked at 88-91 mph and bumped 92 occasionally. The Nationals focused on getting him to keep his upper body back longer in his delivery and gave him a slight shoulder tilt that helps him drive the ball down in the zone, reminiscent of Andy Pettitte's motion. He works mostly with his fastball and a good curveball with tight 1-to- 7 break, which he commanded much better in 2008 than he had in recent years. He can throw a 78 mph changeup with some sink but seldom uses it in a relief role. Hinckley should be a key lefthander in Washington's bullpen out of spring training. He can be more than a left-on-left specialist, but he'll never be more than a middle reliever.
King signed late for a $750,000 bonus in 2006, then split his 2007 pro debut between shortstop and second base while struggling offensively in the lower minors. He found a home at third base in 2008 and fared much better with the bat in his second go-round at low Class A, then was overmatched against older competition at high Class A in August. The Nationals say King made huge strides with his maturity and his all-around game. He has quick wrists and a swing that evokes Travis Fryman. With a strong, physical frame, King projects for average power, though he's more of a gap-to-gap hitter at this stage of his development. He's an average runner with good range, a strong arm and decent actions at third base, though he's still learning the position. Offensively, King must improve his pitch selection, as he has a tendency to chase breaking pitches down and out of the zone. He has a quality all-around package that gives him a chance to be a solid everyday big leaguer down the road, but he has plenty of work to do in all phases before he can be regarded as anything close to a safe bet. King will return to high Class A in 2009.
Atwood worked as a starter and reliever in three years at South Carolina but never quite figured out the Southeastern Conference, posting a 5.21 career ERA. He had some success against wood bats in his two summers in the Cape Cod League, however, and he had a dominant pro debut. Atwood throws strikes with a quality three-pitch mix. His fastball sat at 86-89 mph last summer but reached 90-91 in instructional league, when he was one of Washington's top pitchers. He uses a slow curveball in the high 60s to low 70s, but he worked hard to tighten it up in the fall, throwing more of a mid-70s slider with 2-to-8 break. He has good feel for the breaking ball, which he can throw for strikes or bury. His changeup is a third average offering. Atwood has a skinny frame and whippy arm action that leads the Nationals to believe he could add velocity to his fastball as he matures. He reminds some of John Lannan and has a similar ceiling as a back-of-the-rotation starter. Atwood should move quickly through the system and could skip a level to high Class A in 2009.
Smoker turned down a scholarship from Clemson to sign with the Nationals for $1 million, but he arrived at his first spring training with a sore shoulder that got worse as he tried too hard to make an impression in big league camp. The Nationals started him slowly in extended spring training, then sent him to low Class A when he started to pitch better. His shoulder discomfort lingered, affecting his range of motion and causing him to work in the mid-80s with his fastball, instead of his former 90-94 range. He pitched better after a demotion to the Gulf Coast League, but his velocity didn't return and he had surgery in November to remove a bone spur from his shoulder. At his best, Smoker's repertoire includes a curveball that can be plus at times and a promising changeup. He's a fierce competitor with a good feel for pitching, but he needs to do a better job commanding his curveball. Not only was Smoker's fastball velocity down in 2008, but the pitch also lacked life. The Nationals hope he'll be back to 100 percent by the spring and regain his former stuff, but there are no guarantees with shoulder injuries. Smoker is coming off a lost year, but he still has a chance to be a solid mid-rotation starter down the road.
Willems never has shown the overpowering stuff in pro ball that made him a first-round pick worth a $1.425 million bonus coming out of high school. He hasn't missed many bats in his first three pro seasons, though he did stay healthy for a full season in 2008 and posted decent results thanks to his competitiveness. Far from the 93-97 mph fastball he showed in high school, Willems' heater sat at 87-90 and topped out at 91 in 2008. He threw a slider in his prep days, but the Nationals made him switch to a curveball shortly after he joined the system. He raised his arm slot in order to throw the curve, and it affected his velocity. Washington let him go back to the slider in 2008, and he showed an improved ability to power through the pitch. He also threw some promising curves in instructional league. Willems has made progress over the last two years with his changeup, which is now close to an average pitch. He tends to cut his fastball a bit, which might be another reason his velocity has dropped. The Nationals want Willems to work on just throwing the ball instead of placing it. If he ever can regain his former stuff, Willems still has plenty of upside, but it's hard to imagine him succeeding at higher levels with what he showed in 2008.
Atilano signed for $950,000 as the 35th overall pick in 2003 and gradually climbed through the Braves system before he was derailed by Tommy John surgery in August 2006. Atlanta dealt him to Washington for Daryle Ward that same month. He returned to make one appearance in 2007 before the Nationals shut him down with a strained forearm muscle, but he bounced back in 2008 to help Potomac to the Carolina League title and land on Washington's 40-man roster. Atilano's solid three-pitch mix is highlighted by an average-to-plus changeup with good arm speed, and a heavy 89-91 mph fastball that tops out at 92-93. His mid- to upper-70s curveball has some depth and projects as an average pitch, but he needs to improve his command of it. Atilano was rail-thin out of high school, but he let his body go during his downtime. He got into better shape in 2008 but still must improve his conditioning. Though Atilano has a live arm and a clean arm action, he doesn't throw as hard as he could because he doesn't use his legs well, and he doesn't repeat his delivery. With physical and mechanical fine-tuning, Atilano could add velocity and become a mid-rotation starter, but some see him strictly as a bullpen arm down the road.
An unsigned third-round pick by the Dodgers out of high school in 2003, Van Allen had a decent three-year career at Baylor but never became the staff ace the Bears envisioned. Since the Nationals took him in the fifth round in 2006, he has been hampered by nagging injuries, from toe and chest problems in 2007 to forearm tendinitis that caused him to miss nearly all of June and July in 2008. He finished the year with a 2-1, 5.84 stint in the Arizona Fall League, and he showed good stuff there. Van Allen has an athletic frame, loose arm action and decent command of a three-pitch mix. He does a good job pitching off his 90-91 mph fastball, which touched 92-93 in the AFL. He has been caught between a curveball and a slider for much of his career, but he settled on a slider with good depth in 2008. He ordinarily can throw his average changeup for strikes, but he has trouble commanding all three of his pitches at the same time. If he can put it all together, Van Allen can be a strike-throwing No. 4 starter in the big leagues. He's likely to return to Double-A in 2009 and could arrive in the big leagues in the second half.
Montz has worked hard to make himself into a legitimate prospect. He had a reputation as a horrible defensive catcher early in his career, a label that gained traction when he hit Collin Balester in the head while trying to throw a ball to second base in 2005. Montz split time between catcher and first base until 2007, when he became a full-time catcher and started making big strides on his defense. He had a breakout year at Double-A in 2008 and finished the season in the big leagues, where he appeared somewhat intimidated and overmatched at the plate. Montz has aboveaverage power but it's almost exclusively to the pull side. He started using the opposite field better at Harrisburg and adopted a more patient approach. Montz has a strong arm and threw out 37 percent of basestealers last season. Working with former catchers Bobby Henley, John Stearns, Randy Knorr and Bob Boone over the last two years has helped his defense, but Monz still needs plenty of work on his blocking and receiving. He may never catch well enough to be an everyday player, but he can be a valuable backup catcher with a power bat off the bench.
Young dropped to the 10th round of the 2004 draft because of concerns about his makeup, and there's reason to question his aptitude after it took him five years to reach high Class A in the Reds system. But Young had a breakout year in 2008, and the Nationals took him with the first pick in the major league Rule 5 draft. He has an electric arm and will have a chance to stay in the big leagues as a reliever in the patchwork Washington bullpen. Young's best pitch is a 93-95 mph fastball that touches 98. It can be an above-average or better pitch if he can improve his command of it. He has made strides with his secondary stuff, but it's still lacking. His changeup is a fringy and merely adequate No. 2 pitch, and he struggles to locate his below-average slider. The Nats believe Young has matured and can absorb instruction, but the jury is still out. He'll never be more than a middle reliever or setup man, but his power arm gives him a chance to stay on Washington's big league roster in 2008.