Doug Harris traveled with the Nationals’ front office contingent to Milwaukee so he could provide his input in daily trade deadline meetings, but Sunday morning he found himself in the Nationals’ clubhouse. Harris, the Nationals’ director of player development, glanced toward the row of lockers occupied by Tyler Moore and Corey Brown. “I look over there,” he said, “and it’s fun.”
Brown and Moore had both smashed home runs in the Nationals’ 4-1 victory Saturday night, Brown’s solo shot doubling as the first hit of his career. The performance represented one of the most crucial themes of the Nationals’ season. They weathered a confluence of injuries with depth from their minor league system, culling replacements from Class AAA Syracuse to keep them rolling and in first place.
“With all the injuries we’ve had, the young guys have really stood up and picked up a lot of slack,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “That’s a tribute to [Mike] Rizzo and this organization and the job they’ve done getting this organization prepared to take the next step.”
On the Nationals’ current 25-man roster, 17 players were either drafted by the Nationals or started in their minor league system after arriving via trade or signing. Of the 42 players on the 40-man roster, counting those on the 60-day disabled list, 30 fit that description.
This year, eight players who started the season in the minor leagues have been promoted to the majors, five of whom made their major league debuts: Bryce Harper, Carlos Maldonado, Sandy Leon, Jhonatan Solano, John Lannan, Ryan Perry, Moore and Brown. Combined, they have produced 2.1 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs.com, 1.5 of them coming from Harper.
The Nationals have tapped into the top level of their farm system, which many believed paled compared to the lower levels stocked by recent drafts. But along with the above replacements, Steve Lombardozzi, the Nationals’ 2011 minor league player of the year, has essentially become an everyday player.
“We felt like we were deep,” Harris said. “We’ve actually been able to absorb the injuries pretty well because of the depth not only here, but we’ve had some injuries in the minor leagues. It’s really come to fruition.”
The Nationals’ depth has made an impact on their thinking at the trade deadline. Even with Ian Desmond nursing a sore oblique, the Nationals plan for now to stand pat after perusing the market for those players. One name not brought up much is Carlos Rivero, the 24-year-old hitting .298/.331/.405 at Syracuse. He primarily plays third base, but he’s been playing shortstop lately at Syracuse and he could hold his own as a backup at shortstop.
Similarly, the Nationals feel confident about their catching situation at the deadline despite four of their catches spending time on the disabled list this year. Top backup Jhonatan Solano is recovering from an oblique injury, and the Nationals feel they will be covered once he returns.
Harris beamed about the contribution the Nationals’ minor league system has made this year at the major league level. He credited the entire minor league staff, from field coordinators like Bobby Henley, Tony Tarasco and Jeff Garber to coaches and managers from the Gulf Coast League on up.
“A lot of people have had an impact on them along the way, had a hand in their development,” Harris said. “To see them come up here at the level they’re competing at, in the middle of this thing at this point in the year, it’s a tremendous feeling for a lot of men below us.”
The success has allowed the Nationals’ minor league coaches and coordinators to feel more invested in the organization’s success. Harris receives texts and calls after every game about the performances of players from the system. One coach called this morning and asked, “Hey, did you see what Corey did last night?”
In some cases, the staff’s creativity helped. They turned both Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi into outfielders, and both have played a main role in left field with both Michael Morse and Jayson Werth missing significant time with injuries. The Nationals had Moore learning outfield last fall in the instructional league.
“We certainly maximized the skill-sets,” Harris said. “We try to have a vision and prepare for the what-ifs. Fortunately, we’ve been able to do it.”
Harris also raved about the character of the Nationals’ homegrown players. Nationals scouts put effort into determining which players have the right makeup, and Harris and his staff stress the same once players enter the system.
“We have certain standards and parameters that we’re going to work under in the minor leagues,” Harris said. “If the player doesn’t really want to get on board with that, that’s the type of organization we are right now. That’s what champions are. They’re championship makeup-type guys.”