After years of wariness following a franchise-shaking scandal, the Washington Nationals signaled their intentions to again start vying for high-priced Dominican talent Thursday with the signing of 16-year-old third baseman Anderson Franco for $900,000. The acquisition may only be a preview of the Nationals’ increasing financial commitment to funneling talent out of Latin American.
“Ownership wants to be more aggressive,” said Johnny
DiPublia DiPuglia, the Nationals’ director of Latin American operations.
Baseball America rated Franco, who turned 16 today, the 29th-best international prospect eligible to sign this year. The Nationals lured him with the most lucrative bonus they have given to a Latin American teenager since they signed a 16-year-old shortstop named Esmailyn Gonzalez with a $1.4 million bonus in 2006.
Gonzalez was revealed in 2009 to be a 20-year-old named Carlos Alvarez, and the resulting fallout, which included the resignation of General Manager Jim Bowden, still lingers. This week, a lawsuit the Nationals filed against an insurance company claimed Alvarez kicked back $300,000 to Bowden’s assistant Jose Rijo, who also lost his job.
The turmoil gave Nationals ownership pause in spending big to acquire players in Latin America, one of baseball’s most important talent pipelines. Prior to their signing of Franco, the most expensive bonus the Nationals had doled out was the $385,000 they used to sign outfielder Luis Guzman.
“I think ownership is having more confidence with us now due to the way we have things structured,” DiPuglia said.
DiPuglia and his staff have overhauled operations in the Dominican Republic since General Manager Mike Rizzo hired him prior to the 2010 season, with the team moving into a new facility there. The Nationals instituted stricter regulations in signing players, securing five-year visas for players rather than one-year visas. New rules in the collective bargaining agreement have capped what teams can spend on international players, and Major League Baseball has enforced stricter measures to validate identities and ages.
“This is a long process,” DiPuglia said. “This is a couple years in the works. This is a lot of background stuff that makes [the Lerner family] feel comfortable, because they got burned in the past.”
Having taken over a system bereft of young Dominican talent, DiPuglia focused on increasing depth. The Nationals made few big splashes with signing bonuses, but they filled out rosters in the Dominican Summer League with younger talent. This summer, several of those players graduated to the Florida Gulf Coast League, where the Nationals’ affiliate has a remarkable 41-6 record.
Now, though, the Nationals have moved toward high-end players. The Nationals burnished their depth in the Dominican Republic by signing 10 players on July 2, the first day teams could sign young prospects who became eligible. They were given a bonus pool of $1.85 million, the lowest in baseball by virtue of having the majors’ best record in 2012.
Next year, the Nationals will have both a higher budget and a focus on the best available players.
“If we want to spend it on two guys next year, we could do it,” DiPuglia said.
For this year, DiPuglia said, Franco fit their budget “perfectly.” DiPuglia called Franco “a different kind of Dominican player” because of his 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame and the power he has already shown. He raved about Franco’s arm strength. He worried only about Franco’s foot speed and making sure Franco does not grow out of his position.
DiPuglia said he has known Franco and his family since he was 13. The signing was several years in the making, in more ways than one.
“Mike’s a scout,” DiPuglia said. “He knows that Latin America is a very important part of the organization. He wants us to be aggressive.”