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NATIONALS FUTURE PEGGED TO AMATEUR DRAFT

After years of neglect and abuse, the Washington Nationals’ farm system is beginning to look like, well, a farm system again.

When the Montreal Expos moved here in the fall of 2004, the farm system was completely bare; all of the best players—Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, Jason Bay—had been traded by then general manager Omar Minaya.

Of that class of 2004—those having never played in the majors—not a single player has made it to the major leagues as a productive full-time player. Just two, shortstop Ian Desmond and pitcher Colin Balester, might one day become credible major leaguers.

The Philadelphia Phillies, on the other hand, had 10 players in 2004 that are today quality major leaguers: Ryan Howard, Placido Polanco, Vincente Padilla, Pat Burrell, Gavin Floyd, Ryan Madson, Carlos Ruiz, Cole Hamels, Michael Bourn and Kyle Kendrick.

Now, there is no guarantee that Chris Marrero, Josh Smoker, Michael Burgess, Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and Destin Hood will even make it to the major leagues, little alone make a difference.

But one thing is for sure, the last three or four drafts couldn't be any worse than what this franchise has had prior to 2005.

Would you have liked the 2009 Washington Nationals to look like this?

CF— Curtis Granderson
RF—Aaron Rowand
2B—Chase Utley
3B—David Wright
LF—Garrett Atkins
CA—Brian McCann
1B—Prince Fielder
SS—Brian Roberts (original position)
And this starting rotation wouldn't have been too bad, would it?

Barry Zito
Jeremy Bonderman
Dan Haren
C.C. Sabathia
Cole Hamels
I would think that this version of the Washington Nationals would have played well into October.

The Nationals wouldn't have had to trade for, or sign as free agents, any of these players. They only needed to choose them in the baseball amateur drafts from 1998-2002. Each player listed was available in one of the first four rounds of each draft after the Expos made their selection.

Incredible, huh?

In the first round of the 2000 draft, the Expos chose pitcher Justin Wayne , bypassing Chase Utley and outfielder Rocco Baldelli. In 2001, with Aaron Heilman, Bobby Crosby, Jeremy Bonderman, Noah Lowry and David Wright waiting to be chosen, Montreal went with pitcher Josh Karp .

In 1998, infielder Josh Mc Kinely was chosen ahead of Brad Lidge, Jeff Weaver, C.C. Sabathia and Aaron Rowand. Three rounds later, first-baseman Clyde Williams was taken by the Expos instead of Barry Zito and Mike Maroth.

2002, however, was the worst .

With one of the top picks in the draft, Montreal chose Clint Everts , a pitcher who is today still toiling in the minor leagues. In that same first round, however, they could have chosen Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Jeremy Hermida, Khalil Green, Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher, Jeff Francoeur or Matt Cain.

There can be only two possible conclusions for the team picking lumps of coal for their Christmas stockings when candy and toys were still available.

Either general managers Jim Beattie (1995-2000) and Omar Minaya (2001 - 2004) were stupid and couldn't find a major league prospect in a barrel of fish or they were told by ownership to draft "signable" players rather than the best player available.

I vote the latter.

Jeff Loria was so cheap and difficult to work with that the city of Montreal withdrew its funding for Labatt Park, the stadium that was to keep the team in Quebec.

The following season, no English speaking radio station would carry the Expos’ games for the price that Loria demanded. Today, Loria is the owner of the Florida Marlins, and his continual fire sales show he’s still a bottom line, and not a finish line, type of owner.

Both owners, then, saw the amateur draft as a drain on resources, and told the team's general manager to only draft players that would sign within a particular financial parameter. That kind of draft philosophy destroyed the team's farm system, once one of the richest in the major leagues.

Justin Wayne (#1, 2000) is out of baseball having fashioned a 25-34, 3.97 career record. He started only eight games in the major leagues. Tom Mitchell (#5, 2000), the guy chosen over Garrett Atkins, never played professionally. Josh McKinley (#1, 1998), the 11th player chosen, never made it above 'AA' and retired in 2004.

Josh Karp was the poster-boy for the team's low-budget draft philosophy.

Karp, a 6'5" right-hander, was drafted in the 8th round out of high school by the Atlanta Braves in the 1998 draft. Not wanting to sign for 8th round money, he played three years for UCLA (8-3, 4.29 in '99, 10-2, 5.08 in '00 and 5-2, 3,26 in '01).

Though he did strike out 10 batters per nine innings during his college career, he also walked four and gave up 8.5 hits. He was considered a mid-round pick at best. Yet the Expos, having the 6th pick of the draft, weren't about to pay a bonus that could reach three million dollars.

They instead chose Karp, a player they assumed would be so grateful to be a first-round pick that he'd sign quickly and easily. He signed all right, and for very little money. But he lasted just four seasons in professional ball, going home to Bothell Washington in 2005 with a 24-32, 4.74 record.

That #6 pick could have brought the Expos Jeremy Bonderman or David Wright or Aaron Heilman or C.C. Sabathia or .... well, you get the idea.

Thank goodness the Washington Nationals are starting to right their ship. No, things aren’t perfect, but the minor league system now has 15-20 players that you would expect to have at least an average major league career.

The Justin Wayne's and Josh McKinley's and Josh Karp's of the world are now a footnote in the team's history. Sure, the players they sign may never make it to the major leagues. But they also might end up being stars for years to come.

That's what’s fun about the draft.

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