Michael Burgess and Destin Hood represent the Nationals' future, and in a way, their past. They are two of the last vestiges from the Jim Bowden era, a pair of the "toolsy" outfielders Bowden famously chased after, both of them oozing skill but only trickling polish.
They are still a pair of the Nationals' top prospects; that much is indisputable. But Bowden, the general manager who compared one to Dave Parker and the other to Torii Hunter, is gone, and Mike Rizzo, his replacement, has put a new farm director in place and championed a more methodical pace of development in the minors.
It's not so much that the paradigm has shifted to something that's unfriendly for either player. But it has changed, and they've had to change with it. Burgess gave up McDonald's, Burger King and his favorite, Wendy's (the double cheeseburger meal was his go-to order) for grilled chicken, pasta and vegetables. He dropped 15 pounds, replacing baby fat with muscle and mobility.
Hood started last year in major-league camp, thanks largely to Bowden's habit of prematurely showcasing his young players. But if his .330 average in the Gulf Coast League was a sign of the then-19-year-old's promise, his .246 mark -- complete with 45 strikeouts in 38 games -- for Class A Vermont of the New York/Penn League showed just how far away he was. Hood was a two-sport athlete in high school, only available in the second round of the 2008 draft because of concerns he might cash in on his scholarship to the University of Alabama and play there as a wide receiver. But the side effect of his versatility was an unrefined nature to his game, full of the peaks and gaps that any player without thousands of hours in baseball would have.
Neither player is in big-league camp this year, getting only a token taste of the majors on Tuesday when they traveled with the Nationals to face the Cardinals in Jupiter. Instead, they'll start in minor-league camp, smoothing out their games to succeed in the system Rizzo and farm director Doug Harris have set up.
"(The year) is real important to me, man," Burgess said. "I still have a lot to prove to get where I want to go."
Burgess, taken with a sandwich pick in the 2006 draft, has hit 43 home runs in his last two minor-league seasons. But he's struck out 297 times, never posting an on-base percentage above .333. If the biggest key to his off-season was losing weight, the biggest key to his year in the minors is learning discipline at the plate.
"(The pitchers) are around the plate more (at higher levels)," Burgess said. "They find the holes in your swing, and they stay there. My goal is to not let them know where my hole is."
With Rizzo in charge, there are far fewer prospects in the Nationals' major-league camp this year than there were under Bowden, and Hood was one of the more obvious examples of the switch. He figures to start the year at Class A Hagerstown without any of the attention put on his talents that would have come last year during his stay in big-league camp. But that experience, Hood said, showed him what the finished product looks like. That goal in mind, he's taken a workmanlike approach to minor-league camp this year.
"You've got to stay a little hungrier on the other side," Hood said. "It's good I started out there, because a lot of guys helped me out, let me know how it is to get to the big-league level, but also how to stay focused so I can find ways to get there."
He showed no regret when talking about watching Alabama win a national championship this year; instead, he mentioned that wide receiver Julio Jones was a high school teammate, that he had played against several other players on the team and how happy he was to see them win a title.
There was nothing in Hood's voice that suggested he would have done things differently.
"I knew where I wanted to be," Hood said. "If I had second chance to do it, I'd do the same thing I did."
It's unlikely either player will arrive in Washington before 2012, but both are still highly regarded in the Nationals' system. Burgess figures to arrive first, especially if he can learn to be more selective at the plate; his left-handed bat and strong arm would play nicely in right field at Nationals Park.
But most players in the Nationals' system don't make the kinds of turbo-charged leaps they did under Bowden anymore. It will take painstaking improvements and the ability to, as Rizzo says, "master a level" of the minor leagues before advancing -- almost like ascending through ranks in the military.
Both players say they're ready to put in the work.
"It's a dream," Burgess said. "It's always been a dream to play here, to have a chance to play on the same field as a lot of big-time guys. ... This is where I want to be. It's fun playing with all these guys, man. Maybe I'll be there in the future."