Nationals' Top 50 Prospects: #1-5

CapitolDugout.com continues its unveiling of the 2006 Off-Season Top 50 Nationals' Prospects list with a look at prospects #1-5. This is part ten of our ten part series that will take us from prospect #50 all the way to #1. Now, let's take a closer look at prospects 1-5.

5. Esmailyn Gonzalez - One of the prized catches of the international free agent market this summer, Esmailyn Gonzalez has the Nationals' simply gushing over his potential. Washington inked the 16-year-old shortstop to lucrative $1.4 million signing bonus back in July and expect huge things out of the switch hitting Dominican. The bar has already been set very high for the youngster, as he's already drawn comparisons to such big league stars like Ozzie Smith and Miguel Tejada. So, as he heads into 2007 it will be interesting to see how he handles the hype. When dealing with such a high profile talent, teams often push the envelope and throw their star right into full season ball so it will be interesting to see how Washington handles that situation. The more likely scenario is that he begins the season in extended spring training and debuts with the GCL Nationals.

4. Colton Willems - Yes, he pitched only 16 innings in the Gulf Coast League before being shut down due to arm fatigue, but the Nationals saw more than enough from their prized 18-year-old righty to believe they got exactly what they drafted in the first round. His upside made his selection a very worthy first round choice and he simply needs refinement in the coming years. Willems stood out in a draft class that lacked depth in high school pitching talent, but Washington made it a top priorities to pick up an arm of his caliber. In those 16 innings of work in the Gulf Coast League, the hard throwing Floridian went 0-1 with a 3.38 ERA while walking 3 and striking out 8. It is a very small sample size but it appears that the Nationals are confident enough to have him break camp with Low-A Hagerstown in 2007.

3. Chris Marrero - Washington's first pick in the 2006 draft is looking as good as advertised following his first season in professional baseball. Marrero's season was shortened after he came down with viral meningitis, but he displayed the pure hitting skills and power potential that made him the 15th overall pick in the draft. The converted left-fielder appears to be on the right track to begin the 2007 season in full season ball and the Nationals couldn't be more pleased with what they received in their top pick. In his first taste of pro ball, he batted a solid .309 with 9 doubles and 16 RBI. Despite his shortened season, the chances that he will be the opening day left-fielder for Hagerstown are very good.

2. Collin Balester - If you just looked at his overall statistics, you may not be able to truly appreciate what Collin Balester accomplished on the mound in 2006. The 20-year-old righty got off to a very rocky start with Potomac, but as the season wore on he continued to get better and better. By August, the California native had earned a promotion to Double-A Harrisburg and he continued to pitch well there as well. All total, he was 5-5 with a 4.72 ERA in 137 1/3 innings of work. With his heavy, moving fastball at 92-94 MPH and plus curveball, Balester has shown big league stuff and likes to attack the strike zone. Washington was impressed by that aggressiveness and feel that he could be a factor in the big leagues sooner rather than later. It also would not be out of the question for the hard throwing righty to make the big club out of spring.

1. Kory Casto - There was very little doubt who deserved the top spot on this year's Top 50 list, as it was quite clearly Kory Casto. He split the season between third base and left field, but it appears that he will have to make his living as a left fielder if he wants to play for the Washington Nationals with the presence of Ryan Zimmerman at the hot corner. But, no matter where he plays on the diamond, Casto's ticket to big league success is his potent bat. Although he ended the season in a tailspin, batting .219 in August and .188 in September, the lefty swinging Oregon native still had a fantastic 2006 season. He batted a solid .272 with 20 home runs, 24 doubles and 80 RBI. Casto will turn 25 before the start of the 2007 season, so the Nationals will likely give him a great chance to make the big club out of spring training.

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