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Nationals beat deadline, sign Smoker

Nationals beat deadline, sign Smoker

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals announced Tuesday that they had signed left-hander Josh Smoker, the 31st overall pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, a critical move for the rebuilding team, but also news that would surely spread quickly across the baseball world.

Wednesday is the final day for teams to sign their picks from the 2007 Draft, and those contracts mean more now that Major League Baseball has placed an emphasis on signing players at their "slot" value.

It appears the Nationals held the company line on Smoker, who received a $1 million signing bonus. That money is in line with what the 31st pick in the Draft was slotted to receive, and equal to what last year's 31st pick received.

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The Nationals have placed a priority on pitching as they look to rebuild their farm system, and have signed 19 of their first 20 picks from this year's Draft.

"It's better than our wildest dreams," principal owner Mark Lerner said. "The whole staff has done an amazing job with their analysis of the Draft and getting people signed. Every one is tough, but they've done an unbelievable job."

The lone unsigned player is sixth-round pick Jack McGeary, who scouts said had first-round talent, but felt he was committed to playing college ball at Stanford. General manager Jim Bowden declined to comment on those negotiations.

Smoker, on the other hand, said he wanted to sign and get working in the organization as soon as possible. He said he tried not to get too involved in the negotiations.

"All that stuff is going to work itself out," he said. "We knew our advisor was going to get the job done, it was just a matter of time."

With the deadline approaching, Bowden said the two sides became close to an agreement on Saturday. Smoker then flew to Washington on Monday evening and underwent a physical exam.

Teams that don't sign their first- and second-round picks are entitled to compensation in 2008, but that's not a route the Nationals wanted to go.

"I like deadlines because they put an end to it," Bowden said. "I think it's worked in our favor as an industry. Instead of waiting past the first day of classes, we all know what the deadline is. I think that's better for the players."

Smoker will report to the Gulf Coast League on Saturday to begin his career with Washington. At his introductory press conference on Tuesday, he sported a No. 17 jersey. He said it was his dad's number, and he began to wear it when he started playing baseball. Parents Mike and Debbie Smoker joined their son for the day at RFK Stadium.

Director of scouting Dana Brown spoke of the quality young rotation the Nationals were working to build.

"When you build an organization, you're always looking for quality left-handed starters," Brown said.

Smoker was taken with a compensation pick the team received after losing Alfonso Soriano to free agency. The other compensation pick was used to select pitcher Jordan Zimmerman, who is currently pitching in low Class A Vermont.

Smoker was a prep standout at Calhoun High in Georgia, and was rated the 11th-best pitching prospect by Baseball America. Bowden praised his strong command as well as his curveball. He added that the pitching the Nationals have been able to assemble in the past two years is impressive.

"I've never seen pitching depth like this in my career," Bowden said.

Michael Phillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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