Former first-rounder Willems decides to hang it up

When the Nationals took high schooler Colton Willems in the first round of the 2006 draft, they thought they were getting a top-of-the-rotation starter who could be a cornerstone of their build-through-pitching approach. But after four seasons of trying to climb and slipping back down, Willems has decided he’s had enough.

Willems, who the Nationals took with the 22nd overall pick in the 2006 draft, informed coaches at Single-A Hagerstown on Saturday he was leaving the team and retiring from baseball. The 21-year-old began his drive back home to Florida on Saturday, and is currently on the restricted list in case he changes his mind.

“He feels like it’s the right move in his life,” Nationals player development director Doug Harris said. “We try to present everything so kids can look 10, 15, 20 years down the road and have no regrets. You can’t put a gun to somebody’s head. We wish him the best, and we’re here for him. He’s a good kid, a really good kid.”

The 6-foot-3 right-hander, who was the Nationals’ second first-round pick in 2006, brought a power arm to the organization and was projected as a No. 2 starter in the future by Baseball America, who ranked him the third-best prospect in the system in 2007. He never caught on in the low minors, though. He posted decent results at Hagerstown (a 5-9 record, a 3.70 ERA and a 1.226 WHIP in 20 starts) in 2008. But after starting the season at single-A Potomac in 2009, Willems was sent all the way back to the Nationals’ rookie league in Viera, Fla.

This season, Willems had been moved to the bullpen, where he had an 0-1 record with a 9.49 ERA at Hagerstown. He allowed two runs in 1 1/3 innings on Friday night, and decided after the game to give it up.

Harris said Willems was 100 percent healthy, free of some of the arm issues that had hurt his delivery in the past. But “he felt like his heart wasn’t in it at this point,” Harris said.

The restricted list gives the Nationals some freedom to bring Willems back if he changes his mind, and Harris was open to that possibility. As the Nationals do with all of their prospects who are mulling over such a decision, they told Willems to take some time after his Friday outing to think about his decision and make sure he understood what he was giving up by walking away.

But Willems needed little time to follow through on his decision. Perhaps it was a choice he’d been weighing for a while. In the end, though, he decided to walk away for good.

“If you’re stepping away from the Nationals and pro baseball, you’re doing it as a human being,” Harris said. “Ultimately, if they’re at peace with that, it’s fine. ... He’s a great kid, a wonderful person. We want him to be happy.”