VIERA, Fla. (AP) -Locker stalls and bullpen mounds occupied a year ago by the Jason Simontacchis and Chris Michalaks of the world are now occupied by kids named Ross Detwiler and Collin Balester.
Whereas a Jerome Williams might have drawn pitching coach Randy St. Claire's attention in 2007, it's Garrett Mock who is getting pointers at Washington Nationals spring training these days.
Space and time once filled by hurlers trying to get back to the majors are being taken up these days by pitchers who are on the way up - and who the team figures make for a brighter future.
``The talent pool has definitely gotten better at the minor league level. This organization was pretty bare four or five years ago, and the past few years, and it's starting to climb it's way up,'' St. Claire said Tuesday. ``They've made some good choices in the draft and gotten some good young arms and hopefully it will start to pan out and help us at this level.''
How long might that take?
``Some of them could probably start helping pretty soon,'' St. Claire said. ``Maybe at some point this year.''
When St. Claire monitored Tuesday's bullpen sessions, he got a chance to get up-close looks not just at potential opening day starter Shawn Hill, but also, on the adjacent mound, Mock, a 24-year-old righty who came over in the trade that sent Livan Hernandez to Arizona.
When that group left, along came a crew that included Balester, a 21-year-old righty who split last season between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Columbus.
The day's third set of pitchers included Detwiler, a 21-year-old lefty who was the No. 6 overall pick in June's amateur draft out of Missouri State.
There are more young arms where old ones have been, including another 2007 draft choice, 19-year-old Josh Smoker, and Tyler Clippard, a 23-year-old acquired in an offseason trade from the New York Yankees.
``We're pleased and making progress. We told you that was our plan,'' general manager Jim Bowden said. ``We're making progress. A long way to go.''
Some inexperienced pitchers got their first taste of the majors last season, including Matt Chico - also part of the Hernandez trade, he led the Nationals in starts and innings - and John Lannan, who began 2007 in Class A and zoomed all the way up to Washington.
``It's refreshing to see a team that's just going to say, 'We're going to pull guys up from the system.' Not speaking just for myself, but all the young guys. From what I can tell, they're not scared to pull a guy up to the big leagues,'' said Mock, who was coming back from knee surgery at this time last year. ``It's nice to see a team that has faith in the guys that they draft, regardless of whether it's a fifth-round pick or 50th. They're moving guys along.''
Even if there is no positive return this season from some of the fresher faces - and Bowden, manager Manny Acta and St. Claire say there very well could be - there is hope on the horizon.
One indication of the direction the franchise is heading: Baseball America rated Washington's 2007 draft as the best in the sport. And another: Baseball America ranked the Nationals' minor league system ninth among baseball's 30 teams. Just last season, the Nationals' system ranked 30th; the 21-spot rise was the second-biggest since Baseball American began producing its prospect handbook in 2001.
``You can tell that it's younger in here this year,'' right-hander John Patterson, last season's opening day starter for the Nationals, said as his eyes scanned the clubhouse.
``This is what they've talked about the last couple of years: building the minor league system. Now you're starting to see these guys show up in camp. It's building an organization.''
Patterson entered last season's camp as the only starter guaranteed a spot in the rotation. There ensued something of an open audition, with about a dozen pitchers in the mix. That included players such as Simontacchi (who hadn't been in the majors since 2004), Williams (0-2 for the Cubs before being sent to Triple-A in 2006), and Michalak (2-4 for the Reds in 2006).
This time, there are about seven or eight pitchers vying to start, with Patterson, Hill and Jason Bergmann seemingly assured of jobs if healthy, and Odalis Perez added to the mix Tuesday, when he agreed to a non-guaranteed deal.
That makes things more manageable, allowing Bowden, Acta and St. Claire to spend time with the Detwilers and Mocks.
``They get firsthand instruction from the major league pitching coach and all the staff that is here,'' Acta said. ``And I wouldn't put it past those guys to wear our uniform this year. They're going to get their innings in spring training this year, believe me.''
St. Claire already has worked with Detwiler on his pre-motion setup. Balester credited the man everyone calls ``Saint'' with noticing that he was gripping the ball too tightly Sunday, Day 1 of camp.
``I wasn't able to flip the ball with my wrist. It wasn't loose, so everything was elevated. Hey, it was a little nerve-racking at first, my first spring here,'' Balester said. ``It's from everyone watching, that kind of thing. I was a little nervous. Now it's Day 3, so it's getting a little better.''

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