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[November 17th] -- Marco Estrada has been one of those names buried in the Nationals' minor league system that didn't mean much, a guy who was filling a uniform but never really mentioned in the same breath with Kory Casto, Larry Broadway and the other true "prospects" in the organization.

That may be changing, however.

Estrada, 23, was a 6th round pick by the Nationals in the 2005 draft out of Long Beach State where he went 8-3, 2.43 in his only college season. His first year in the professional ranks, however, was an eye-opener to say the least. Playing for Vermont in the short-season NY-Penn League, Estrada went 1-3, 5.08 for the Expos. Things weren't as bad as his numbers might indicate, though. Estrada struck out nearly ten batters per nine innings, and allowed less than a hit per inning. He did walk a lot of batters, however (4.2 per 9 innings).

Estrada began the 2006 season with the Gulf Coast Nationals, and pitched very well, going 2-0, 1.52 in 23 innings. His internal numbers were strong as well, allowing only five hits and two walks per nine innings. He struck out 27 in 23 innings. A mid-season promotion to Savannah forced Estrada to face much better hitters than in the GCL, and he struggled accordingly, going 1-4, 5.59. He gave up more hits and struck out fewer batters, taking some of the shine off his Gulf Coast League efforts. He was sent to the Hawaiian winter league, where he again flourished. Estrada went 0-2, 1.32 in 27 innings against mostly second tier prospects (but prospects nonetheless). He struck out 32 (10.6 k's per 9 innings) and again allowed less than one hit per inning. He still is having some difficulty with his control, but appears ready to begin 2007 at class 'A' Potomac.

Estrada was named the #10 prospect in the Hawaiian Winter Baseball.

"Marco Estrada, rhp, pitched for the Waikiki Beach Boys (Nationals). A separated shoulder just before spring training cost Estrada the first two months of the regular season, and he didn't hit his stride until he got to Hawaii, where he ranked second in the league in ERA. A sixth-rounder in 2005 out of Long Beach State, Estrada throws three pitches for strikes. His best offering is an above-average curveball that gave hitters fits in Hawaii. He also has good feel for a changeup. His fastball velocity is underwhelming and he typically sat at 88-90 mph. He needs to cut down on his walks. Estrada's stuff and profile are similar to Kennedy's but he lacks the notable pedigree."

Although Estrada is progressing nicely through the Nationals' minor league system, it's doubtful that he'll be seen in the Nationals' new stadium until sometime in late 2008 or early 2009.

Over the past two years, Nats' fans have kept an eye on draft choices taken in the first three or four rounds, names that we were at least familiar with. Now, however, it's becoming obvious that the Nationals "brain trust" did a very good job of making quality picks later in the draft (remember, Dee Brown was taken four rounds later).

Here is an article written by Vincent Bonsignore for the Los Angeles Daily News:

Four years removed from an unremarkable career at Sylmar High and a season removed from a self-inflicted one-year exile from baseball, Estrada has emerged from seemingly nowhere to become a bonafide pro prospect and the co-ace of the 24-11 Long Beach State pitching staff. "First game he pitched this year, people were like, 'Marco Estrada, who the heck is that?' " Long Beach State pitching coach Troy Buckley said. "He's shutting down (Arizona State) and nobody knows who the heck he is. He just stepped right in and started getting the job done."

Nobody saw any of this coming for Estrada, least of all the Long Beach State coaching staff. "We had no idea, to be perfectly honest," Buckley said. In Buckley's defense, what could he really expect from a pitcher who played just one uneventful year at Sylmar High, then spent two years shuffling between the bullpen and starting rotation at Glendale College? Not to mention a guy who didn't even pick up a baseball all of last year. Estrada sat out the entire season while taking two classes he needed to transfer to Long Beach. "The most frustrating year of my life," Estrada said.

Estrada wasn't even guaranteed to earn a regular job on the 49ers' staff, let alone fill the void left behind by dominating All-American Jared Weaver, a first-round pick of the Angels. In fact, by the time undersized 6-foot right-hander finally showed up at Long Beach State for fall ball last year, he was just another face in a nine-pitcher competition for a spot in the 49ers' rotation. "I was just trying to earn my place," Estrada said. "More than anything, I was just happy to be getting a shot and playing baseball again."

But it wasn't long before he captured the attention of Buckley, a guy who studies a pitcher's persona and personality almost as much as he measures how much their curveball bites. What Buckley saw was a polished pitcher who wasn't afraid of a fight. Maybe it was the way Estrada had to scratch and claw for everything he's ever gotten in life -- the only child of a struggling single mother, enduring three years of JV ball at Sylmar before finally getting a shot on varsity; sitting out all of 2004 to get his academics in order -- but the newcomer from the San Fernando Valley projected a sense of toughness and savvy that immediately caught the eye of Buckley. "The journey he's traveled, the way he came up, it all plays a part in the type of pitcher he is," Buckley said.

Estrada arrived with a good fastball (which ranges from 87 to 93 mph) and a quality curveball, and in fall ball he added a slider while also making major improvements on his changeup. By the end of the fall, his arsenal consisted of four quality pitches, each of which he had enough confidence in to throw at any point in the count. It's one thing to throw a changeup for a strike when the whole park is expecting a fastball, quite another to blow a fastball by someone when the whole park is expecting a fastball. That's the kind of pitcher Estrada was coming out of fall ball. "He took that progress into the (regular) season and started putting things together," Buckley said.

It all came together for Estrada when he earned a start against Arizona State in the opening weekend of the season, allowing just one earned run while scattering eight hits with three strikeouts over six innings against Sun Devils. Long Beach State won 11-1 and Estrada came away with a sense of belonging. "To have that kind of performance right off the bat against a really good team was huge for my confidence," Estrada said. "I couldn't have asked for a better start."

Success came rapidly after that -- a four-inning relief stint against USC in which he retired all 12 batters he faced; two earned runs and nine strikeouts in five innings against St. Mary's. A month into the season, Estrada was the No. 2 starter behind ace Cesar Ramos and showing veteran savvy by shrugging off a subpar performance against hard-hitting Baylor to limit Houston to one run over six innings while striking out eight in a 5-1 victory.

The bounceback from the Baylor pounding -- in which he got the win despite giving up three earned runs and seven hits in five innings -- was a critical sign for Buckley, a confirmation that Estrada is grasping the mental side of pitching in college as much as he is the physical. "You can't hang your head over a bad pitch, or a bad outing," Buckley said. "You keep fighting." It's a mind-set Buckley thinks will serve Estrada well when he turns pro, which could happen after this season, depending on how high Estrada gets drafted.

"He's got the stuff to pitch at the next level, he'll get drafted and he'll play pro ball," Buckley said. "After that, it's how does a 6-foot right-hander stand up to the physical aspect of a professional season, and how does he figure out ways to be successful. And in Marco's case, I'm talking about Triple-A and in the big leagues. He's got the stuff to get there."

Here's hoping that Buckley is right.

Ironically, I had a conversation with a friend of mine that covers SoCal sports about Estrada just 2 weeks ago. He told me that at Long Beach, Marco was quite impressive toward the end of his college career, and felt, he was a sleeper at the pro level. Not one of those guys that stands out, but somehow preserve and find a way to make it to the next level. I have been watching him for some time, find him very intriguing. Its amazing how similar we think. REALLY.
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