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National agenda: Restocking the Minors

National agenda: Restocking the Minors

WASHINGTON -- Incoming team president Stan Kasten made it clear during his first press conference early this month that replenishing the farm system would be the Nationals' top priority, and the team gets to start on accomplishing that mission during the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, which starts on June 6 and ends the next day.

The Nationals have two first-round picks and two second-rounders, but the problem is, according to scouting director Dana Brown, the draft class is weaker than last year's in terms of quality college players.

In 2005, the Nationals were pretty clear weeks before the draft that they were going to select third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was the first position player they had drafted in the first round since infielder Josh McKinley was taken by the Expos in 1998.

Zimmerman was with the University of Virginia when he was selected. In fact, the franchise's last three picks were college players. But being that they have they have the 15th and 22nd picks this year, the good college players most likely will be gone.

"The players are good [in this year's draft], but there are no Ryan Zimmermans, guys that are real good and are close to the big leagues," Brown said. "You may have to go with a young high school bat or young high school arm because of the way we are picking. So you may not get a guy that is close to being ready like Zimmerman or Bill Bray.

"The better college players will probably go before the 15th pick, although there are some position players that could slide. But we are still going to get a good first-round pick."

Brown declined to name the players they are targeting, but players such as catcher Hank Conger, outfielder Drew Stubbs and shortstop Emmanuel Burris could be players that could fit in the Nationals' system.

Washington doesn't have a solid leadoff hitter in the organization. Burris, who attends Kent State and is from the D.C. area, could solve that problem, for he has speed and patience at the plate. Entering Friday's action he was hitting over .370 and had an on-base percentage over .460.

Brian Schneider is the only solid catcher in the Nationals organization and getting a player like Conger would help for the future. He is considered raw behind the plate, but his bat has opened some eyes with scouts.

Stubbs is a power bat with a lot of strikeouts. He can play center field, another weakness in the Nationals organization.

Unlike the past four years, in which they had a limited budget, the Nationals will not have problems signing first-year players. General manager Jim Bowden declined to say how much money would be spent, but Kasten said during that press conference that they are willing to overpay to get the players they want.

"We budgeted a significant amount of dollars for this draft and for signing players in Latin America at a record number for this franchise, knowing that's how you rebuild an organization," Bowden said. "It's a good number to be able to sign a significant amount of players. Now the key is to make sure [we] sign the best players that can help us. That's what has to be measured."

But before jumping ahead, here is a look back at how the last three first overall picks are faring for the Nationals.

Zimmerman, 3B, 2005, pick No. 4: It was mid-September of last year, and believing that Zimmerman was ready to be the everyday third baseman, Bowden traded Vinny Castilla to make room. Afterward, Bowden said he is Brooks Robinson, Scott Rolen and Mike Schmidt rolled into one defensively -- and it's turning out to be true. In his first full season, Zimmerman has already made a handful of acrobatic catches. Zimmerman also is not bad with the bat. He is currently third on the team in home runs and RBIs.

Bray, LHP, 2004, pick No. 13: Drafted as a closer, Bray did not pitch well in his first two professional seasons. He's also had health issues, missing Spring Training and the first two months of the 2005 season with back stiffness. But Bray has finally put it together in 2006 to the point where Bowden said that Bray is ready for the big leagues. Bray has struck out 44 batters in 29 2/3 innings for Triple-A.

Chad Cordero, RHP, 2003, pick No. 20: After spending almost two months in the Minor Leagues, Cordero was promoted to the Majors on Aug. 30, 2003. By the middle of the 2004 season, he was the Expos' closer. In 2005, Cordero led the Major Leagues in saves with 47. At 23, he became the youngest player to reach the 40-save plateau.

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

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