Nationals set their sights on hitters

Nationals set their sights on hitters

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The 2005 First-Year Player Draft will be different for the Nationals. Unlike the previous three seasons, when they were the Expos, the Nationals will not have budget constraints.

No longer will they avoid the best players simply because they will ask for more money. The Nationals also feel the best players in the country are willing to sign with them because they know the team has a pleasant future in Washington.

"We are picking a little higher than we picked in the past, so that helps," said Dana Brown, the Nationals' amateur, professional and international scouting director. "[Interim general manager] Jim Bowden is committed to signing the best player in any round. We are not looking to give guys more money, but if he ends up taking a high school kid that is going to cost a little more, chances are, we are going to get it done. In the past we were kind of handcuffed on the high school players."

Unlike the previous three years under Brown, the Nationals most likely will not draft a pitcher in the first round, No. 4 overall, on June 7. The goal is to draft mostly offensive players, which the team lacks in their Minor League system.

"We are really zoning in on hitters this year," Brown said. "We feel strongly about the pitching we have taken in the past. We have Chad Cordero, Bill Bray and Collin Balester, and Clint Everts is going to be back this year. We are really going to pound the bats. That's really putting the pieces into the puzzle of building a championship team."

The Nationals have their sights on shortstops Justin Upton and Troy Tulowitzki, third basemen Alex Gordon and Ryan Zimmerman and outfielder Cameron Maybin.

Upton and Gordon most likely will be the first two picks in the draft. But they feel they have a shot at Tulowitzki, Zimmerman and Maybin.

Maybin is from North Carolina, and he hit .646 with 14 home runs and 36 RBIs for T.C. Robertson High School.

Zimmerman is considered one of the best defensive third basemen in the draft. He had a .404 batting average with six home runs and 54 RBIs for the University of Virginia.

Tulowitzki is a power hitter from Long Beach State. He missed time because of a broken hamate bone, but he still hit with seven home runs and 25 RBIs.

Most draft experts believe that the Nationals will select Zimmerman in the first round.

"Is Zimmerman in our mix? Yes, he is in our mix.," Bowden said. "Zimmerman is projected to be a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman like Scott Rolen. He even has the agility and body control to play shortstop. He is a guy who should hit .300 with 20 to 30 home runs.

"When he played with a wooden bat for the USA Team, he outhit Gordon, who is expected to be the No. 1 college player taken in the draft. Zimmerman has tremendous character, tremendous makeup. He's a leader and he's a winner."

The Nationals do not have a pick in the second or third rounds of the First-Year Player Draft because they signed third baseman Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman to free agent contracts this past offseason. However, the money they had allocated for those rounds will now be spent on signing players in the Dominican Republic.

Bowden would not say who they are trying to sign from the Dominican Republic, but they are looking for an impact player on offense.

"We are going to be better with the way we have done it. We are very excited about that," Bowden said. "I don't want to make the other 29 clubs aware who we are going to sign. Unlike the United States, there's no draft when it comes to signing players from Latin America."

The Nationals have drafted pitchers in the first round of the First-Year Player Draft the last three years. Here's a look at how they are doing in the Nationals organization.

LAST THREE TOP PICKS

Bill Bray, LHP, 2004, Pick #13: Signed late and then was hit hard at Class A Brevard County. The season ended early because of the hurricanes, so the Nationals sent him to the Arizona Fall League and he didn't have success there either. Bray was nursing a back injury during Spring Training and has yet to play a Minor League game this season.

Chad Cordero, RHP, 2003, Pick #20: Shocked that he was a first-round pick, Cordero has proven that he was worth it. After making a strong impression after an August callup in 2003, Cordero earned the closer's role on June 8 of the following year. He was 7-3 with a 2.94 ERA with 14 saves in 2004. This year, manager Frank Robinson said Cordero should be considered for the All-Star team. He has a 1.44 ERA and 13 saves.

Clint Everts, RHP, 2002, Pick #6: It looked like he was going to be one of the top prospects in the organization. After all, he went a combined 9-5 with an ERA under 2.50 in 2004 for Class A Savannah and Brevard County. He also struck out 122 batters in 111 1/3 innings. But he had Tommy John surgery last September and is not expected to be on the mound again until late in the year.

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