VIERA, Fla. - Chris Marrero is going into his sixth season in the Nationals' organization. It's his fourth as the team's first baseman of the future, and at some point, his time with that designation is going to have to end.
â€¨The signs of it are there already: The Nationals put Marrero on the 40-man roster at the end of last season to block him from eligibility for the Rule 5 draft. Shortly after that, they signed Adam LaRoche to a two-year deal with an option for 2013, landing their second veteran first baseman in four years. Marrero is 22, and had he been ready to play in the big leagues, the Nationals might not have had to explore another option.
It hasn't been so much that Marrero's development has lagged in the minors. He's switched positions twice, from third base to left field and then to first base, and continues to work on his defense there. And he's put together some solid seasons in the minors, hitting .294/.350/.450 with 18 homers and 82 RBIs at Double-A Harrisburg last year.
If there's been a problem with Marrero's growth, though, it's that it hasn't been quite fast enough to stop the Nationals from making other plans. He comes into camp this year looking like he's aware of it.
In a clubhouse full of bulked-up players with something to prove, Marrero isn't the most obvious example. But the change is there nonetheless; the 2006 first-rounder has shed some of the baby fat he's had in the past, trading it for big biceps.
Marrero spent the winter in Miami, as he usually does, working out with older brother Christian, who plays in the White Sox organization. But he started seeing a nutritionist, who put him on a diet of six meals a day. The menu changed every other week, to keep Marrero's body from getting too used to one type of food, but mostly centered on protein to help him build muscle and burn body fat.
"I did take eating seriously," Marrero said. "I took everything a lot more seriously. I made sure I got all my meals in, and I was just eating everything he told me to eat."
After about a month, he said, people started to notice.
"My parents started telling me they saw a change," he said. "It was a typical diet, but I'm really happy with how it turned out."
The goal for Marrero this year is the same as it was last year: to finally reach the majors and make his Nationals debut. But now that he's on the 40-man roster, it seems like it's more attainable.
â€¨He should start at Triple-A Syracuse, after playing 164 games the last two years at Harrisburg, and he'll get another chance to work with manager Randy Knorr, who had Marrero at both Single-A Potomac and Harrisburg. It's rare for a prospect to have the same manager throughout his minor league career, but Knorr has risen through the system at roughly the same pace as Marrero. He's had a knack for getting through to the first baseman in the past, and even though Knorr has dispensed some tough love in the past, Marrero is at a point where he welcomes it.
"He's seen me play for four years, through the ups and downs," Marrero said. "He knows me better than probably any other coach I've worked with. He knows one day if I come out, and I'm being lazy or doing something I'm not supposed to be doing, he'll pull me aside and let me know."
When the Nationals signed LaRoche this winter, Marrero said he paid some attention to the news. But he quickly conceded that he's not yet in a position where he could have forced the team's hand to do anything different.
He's hoping that will finally change this year.
"When (Adam Dunn) left, I didn't think, 'Oh, he's out, so maybe they're going to give me the position,' " Marrero said. "If I would have been in the big leagues already, then maybe, but I still don't have one game up there. I've got to prove I can play."