Nationals draft pair of preps

Nationals draft pair of preps

WASHINGTON -- There's a new philosophy in the Nationals organization when it comes to drafting players. Unlike the past four years, in which they worked with a limited budget, the Nationals were told by the Lerner Group to draft the best player available, not the most signable. Build long term, not short term as they did with Chad Cordero, Bill Bray and Ryan Zimmerman.

The Nationals went long term, all right, during the First Year Player Draft on Tuesday. The team had two first-round picks and it went the high school route, selecting third baseman Chris Marrero with the 15th pick and right-hander Colton Willems with the 22nd selection.

It's the first time since 2002 that the Nationals/Expos went the high school route in the first round. Right-hander Clint Everts was selected by the Expos that year. Scouting director Dana Brown hinted a few weeks ago that they would go this route because college talent is weaker once it was their turn to pick.

Marrero, 17, has signed a letter of intent with the University of Miami, but he plans to go straight to professional baseball and try to make it to the big leagues within two to three years.

The right-handed-hitting Marrero worked out for the Nationals on May 28 at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium and impressed the organization. He went to Monsignor Pace High School in Miami and hit over .400 with 11 home runs and 33 RBIs in 2006. Four of those homers came in the postseason and he was awarded state 4-A-1A first-team honors.

"I knew what I had to do when I went to the workout, so I think I caught some eyes," Marrero said. "When the Nationals picked me I was surprised. I was relieved also because it's a nervous day. It's a feeling I can't explain."

Washington compared Marrero's bat to Marlins slugger Miguel Cabrera, Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez or Brewers outfielder Carlos Lee.

"When Dana and I went to Florida and saw Marrero -- we saw two games -- he performed really good," Bob Boone, senior director of player personnel, said. "We called [GM Jim Bowden] to say, "We just saw an outstanding player, we don't think there's any chance he would get to us at 15."

Washington thought Marrero would be gone when it was its turn to pick, but Marrero suffered a hamstring injury during the season and his stock dropped soon thereafter. He ended up missing two games.

"Hurting a hamstring is something that goes around a lot in the Majors, but once I got right up, I actually had to show whomever that wanted me that I'm the player that they really need. I worked harder and everything turned out as I planned, Marrero said."

The Nationals already have a third baseman in Zimmerman and he is expected to be at the position for years to come, so Marrero has agreed to switch to the outfield. The team is not sure if he will play left or right. Marrero intends to learn to play the position from his brother Chris, who recently signed with the White Sox.

Incoming president Stan Kasten said it was important to draft pitching, and the Nationals followed that edict by selecting Willems. The Nationals were able to obtain the 22nd overall pick from the Athletics, who signed pitcher Esteban Loaiza as a free agent last offseason.

The Nationals went to Fort Pierce, Fla. on Monday and spent two hours with Willems, and the visit gave him an inkling that Washington would pick him.

Willems, 17, is considered one of the best high school pitchers in the draft. In fact, he was the Most Valuable Pitcher in the Cape Cod Classic. His velocity has been clocked as high as 97 mph.

This past season, Willems was 7-1 with a 0.68 ERA and striking out 99 batters in 51 1/3 innings for John Carroll Catholic High School.

Willems played for the East club in the AFLAC All-American Classic last August, striking out four batters in three scoreless innings of relief. This past fall, Willems earned Most Valuable Pitcher honors at the '05 World Wood Bat Association's 17-and-under National Championship, tossing a three-hit shutout in the semifinals. The 6-foot-4, 185-pounder went 6-2 with a 1.68 ERA as a junior in 2005 to earn first-team all-county and Class 2A all-state honorable mention honors. He also had 69 strikeouts while allowing just 14 hits in his 53 2/3 innings.

Former big leaguer David West is Willems' personal pitching coach. Besides teaching him the art of pitching, West has taught Willems about life in professional baseball.

"He's a very versatile athlete and has a talented arm. He's a strong kid with big shoulders. He has a powerful fastball, a very dominate slider and a very good changeup," West said. Once he learns how to be a professional player and get some experience, [he's going to be a player.]."

Willems signed a letter of intent with the University of Florida, but plans take online classes and play professional baseball for the Nationals.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.