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IF HEALTHY, WHITNEY CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE

[January 4th] -- When the Nationals took 3b/1B Matt Whitney in the recent Rule V draft, most of us wasn't sure what to make of it. Certainly, he had a great year in 2007, batting .299-32-113 at Cleveland's version of Hagerstown and Potomac. But with only 400 minor league games under his belt, did the Nationals really think he was ready to play at the Major League level? And with that kind of production, the Nationals must know that if he doesn't make the team, the Indians would likely jump at the chance to reclaim him for just $25,000.

And to make matters worse (for Whitney), the Nationals brought in Aaron Boone to play backup at both third and first.

The Nationals picked Whitney because he was, at one time anyway, referred to as the Indians' "next Manny Ramirez."

Whitney was chosen by the Cleveland Indians in 2002 out of high school with a supplementary 1st round pick (number 33 overall), gained by the loss of free-agent outfielder Juan Gonzalez. He was considered one of the best pure power hitters to come out of high school that year. In 45 games with Burlington (Rookie A), Whitney batted .286-10-33, an amazing power display for that level.

He was on the fast track to Jacobs Field. That is, until the following spring. Playing a game of pickup basketball at the Indians Spring Training facility in Chain of Lakes Florida, Whitney broke two bones in his leg when he stepped on a sprinkler head. He underwent two different surgeries immediately and another one later that spring, wiping out his entire 2003 season. Nationals fans understand that broken legs don't heal very well -- just ask Nick Johnson.

He returned to the diamond in 2004, though he was never completely healthy over the next three seasons, batting .230-21-96 in a combined 225 games. He struck out 275 times in 816 at-bats. He was forced to walk, and run, awkwardly because of the pain in his leg, which led to other injuries in his back and neck.

No one, then, was expecting the breakout season in 2007. Whitney says it was due to being healthy for the first time since 2002 as well as a whole lot of hard work and preparation. Kinston manager Mike Sarbaugh says that in addition to his good health, he shortened his stroke in 2007 and is now recognizing pitches much better. "Last year, he head a tendency to chase some breaking pitches out of the zone that he's not doing this year (2007)".

Indians' farm director Ross Atkins said that "not having your legs in any sport is not good, especially if you're a power hitter." Whitney can now - finally - plant his leg and drive the ball deep.

The Indians moved Whitney from third to first last year to reduce the stress on his bad leg. Whitney had played both first and the outfield during high school, so the move seemed natural. Though he committed a league high 20 errors at first, the Indians were convinced that Whitney would be a solid first-baseman at the Major League level.

Whitney, a 6'4", 220 pounder, bats right-handed and hits with a lot of power. That said, the 24 year old also strikes out a lot. He struck out 38% of the time at Kinston in 2006, though he was able to decrease that number to 22% last year.

If he remains healthy, Whitney could be a solid power hitter in the future. In his two healthy seasons, he would have averaged .296-32-110 over a 500 at-bat season. In his three injury plagued seasons, those same 500 at-bats would have produced only .258-21-81. Looks like he just might be a "player" one day.

So if Whitney doesn't make the team next spring, and the Nationals don't want to offer him back to Cleveland for $25,000, the only option left is for Jim Bowden to make a trade, sending a prospect to Cleveland so the team can send Whitney to Harrisburg and let him continue to mature. What will he cost? Something along the lines of a Glenn Gibson I would guess, the cost of obtaining Elijah Dukes.

One thing's for sure, though. If the Nationals can keep Whitney in the system, they'll own the two best first baseman in the South Atlantic League last year, Whitney and Andrew LeFave.

Either way, it'll be interesting to watch Whitney next spring.


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