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WATKINS CONTINUES TO IMPRESS

[March 9th] -- There isn't a spot available in the Nationals' bullpen for Steve Watkins.

And that just may become a major problem for manager Frank Robinson later this spring.

For the third consecutive game, the Washington Nationals played so poorly that Frank held a meeting on Wednesday morning and threatened, cajoled and otherwise scared the crap out of the Nats' players who are on the "bubble" and unsure of making the traveling squad. Both Robinson and GM Jim Bowden told the press not to give the players making the mistakes much thought; they won't be around come Friday's first, big, bloody cut. Many of these players have made the decision easy for Frank.

Steve Watkins, however, is making things very difficult for the Nationals' manager. Over three appearances, Watkins has a 1-1 record with a 1.29 ERA. He has struck out 8 in just 7 innings, walking 3 while giving up 5 hits. Watkins has by far the best overall stats of any pitcher so far this spring. But it hasn't always been this way for the 27 year old from Lubbuck Texas.

After high school, Watkins stayed home and attended Lubbuck Christian University. He was a 15th round draft pick by the San Diego Padres in 1998. Over the next six years, Watkins slowly moved up the Padres' organizational ladder, pitching j-u-s-t well enough to be promoted, but not particularly well enough to impress GM Kevin Towers. 2004, however, was a breakthrough year for Watkins. Splitting time between 'AA' Mobile and 'AAA' Portland, the tall right-hander went 9-6 with a 3.37 ERA. He struck out 112 in 117 innings, earning a "cup of coffee" with the Padres that September. His solid 2004 season wasn't strong enough for the Padres to keep him, though, and San Diego released him that fall. The Indians signed him to a minor league contract, but was impressive enough to offer him an invitation to the major league camp.

Watkins spent the year in Buffalo as one of the team's starters. He pitched well again, going 9-2, 4.16 in 31 games. The Indians told him he wasn't part of the club's long range plans, however, and Watkins became a six-year minor league free agent, ultimately agreeing to terms with the Nationals. Bowden signed him to a minor league contract with the probable intention of having Watkins help fill out the Zephyrs starting staff.

Don't blame the Padres and Indians for releasing him. Up until this season, he's never pitched well in spring training. In the last three years, Watkins combined for a 1-1, 8.86 record in 21 innings. Not exactly numbers that makes a general manger comfortable.

Todd Donovan of MiLB.com reports that Watkins has "Big league stuff, big league mind, great guy, great role model." Mobile play-by-play man Tom Nichols calls Watkins "One of the all-time best people I've ever met." He's also a good hitter, compiling a .326 minor league career average with a home run and 7 RBI's in 43 at bats. Watkins doesn't have "overwhelming" stuff, but he's found a way to succeed at every level. His age, though, indicates that if he had the stuff to be successful at the major league level, he would have done so already. Although his stuff is good enough to be a starter, he always seems to slide into the bullpen towards season's end to get those "tough" outs.

If Watkins continues to impress, Frank Robinson and Jim Bowden will have to rethink their roster moves. Watkins could be this years Hector Carrasco, but at the major league minimum, and not the $3.2 million that the Angels is paying the former National. He is a great clubhouse guy, and he's a good pitcher with a career record of more than 8 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. He gives up a hit an inning, better than some of the Nationals current starters. He keeps the ball on the ground, giving up relatively few home runs.

I like the guy. Charley Slowes and Dave Jageler seem very impressed as well. Jim Bowden would love nothing more than to claim "victory" by having found Watkins on the baseball "scrap heap."

Hopefully, Frank likes him too, because he's the guy that counts.


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