There was less than a month until Opening Day in 2002 when Omar Minaya, then the general manager of the Montreal Expos, hired Dana Brown as his director of amateur scouting, a young man entering a strange new world. MLB owned the team and, following the season, intended to eliminate it.
So Brown heard it from his peers: Why scout if you won't exist? Who are you evaluating talent for, and why? Baseball officials allowed Brown to hurriedly hire a staff of nine scouts. The average for other clubs was 17.
It could take several years for the Nationals to rebuild their minor league system, Jim Bowden said.
(Molly Riley - Reuters)
"They didn't know if we were going to be around," Brown said last week. "That's probably why they didn't give us anybody."
Three years later, the Expos are still around, albeit with a new city (Washington) and a new name (Nationals). But the scars from that period of uncertainty are still visible throughout the organization. Because the team is owned by the other 29 major league clubs, there has been little incentive to spend money to make it more competitive -- at any level. The result is a franchise that not only has parted ways with top major league talent, but one that has left behind a minor league system and scouting department that, by some standards, are shells of what they should be.
"Right now, this farm system is one of the weakest in baseball, if not the weakest," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "We've got to rebuild it, and that takes three to six years. There's such a range of factors involved. It depends on how well the big league team is doing, where you pick with your first pick [in the amateur draft], whether you can sign players in Latin America. We're going to put a lot of emphasis on scouting and development -- because we have to."
To that end, the Nationals announced their entire minor league structure yesterday. The moves are intended to be twofold: to help with development, and to help with winning. None of the team's top five minor league clubs had a winning record in 2004. Baseball America magazine ranked the franchise's minor league system 30th out of 30 teams prior to last season.
"I think we take some heat, and I think the majority of it is because we've been an easy target," said Adam Wogan, the Nationals' player development director. "We're the team that everyone likes to make fun of. But the second part of it is because of statistics, because of wins and losses. You can't argue with the numbers, but I think that the numbers are not reflective of the talent level in the system."
For years, the Expos had a reputation as having one of the best and deepest minor league systems in the game. Vladimir Guerrero, who won the 2004 American League most valuable player award in his first season with Anaheim, is just one notable product. In 1985, the Expos drafted a lanky left-hander named Randy Johnson; he now has five Cy Young Awards. They developed Larry Walker into the 1997 National League MVP, though he won the award with Colorado. Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Tim Raines and Andres Galarraga all came up through the Expos' farm system.
All that, however, seems like eons ago. Though the franchise has its share of promising prospects -- led by left-hander Mike Hinckley and first baseman Larry Broadway -- both Bowden and Brown believe the system lacks depth, a problem that has complex origins. Because the Nationals' scouting staff, now up to 11 area scouts, isn't as large as those of other teams, they often don't have the luxury of seeing prospects more than once.
"For us, it's one time, and that's really difficult," Brown said. "We have to go in and pull the trigger."
But other circumstances conspired to weaken the system, too. In 2002, the Expos were contending for a playoff berth, and Minaya traded some of the team's top prospects -- including Jason Bay, who won the 2004 NL rookie of the year award with Pittsburgh -- in an effort to stay in the race. Also, because the franchise has been restricted financially, it hasn't been able to take chances on prospects in the draft that it might not be able to sign. Typically, a hot high school player who has a college scholarship offer might want $25,000 more than his draft slot typically calls for in order to sign. Because the Expos couldn't afford such bonuses, they frequently passed on those players.
"We didn't have an owner to go to, to say, 'We really like this guy, and we need an extra $25,000,' " Brown said.
The biggest void, though, has been the team's lack of activity in Latin America. More than one in four major league players now comes from outside the United States, and countries such as the Dominican Republic have become essential and competitive scouting targets. Bowden hired former big leaguers Jose Rijo and Jose Cardenal to assist him in reestablishing contacts in Latin America.
"You have to be there," said Rijo, who owns an academy that develops teenage talent in the Dominican Republic. "There are so many good players there, and they all want to get to the big leagues. You can't overlook those guys."
The idea, Bowden believes, is to not overlook anything. When the team signed free agents Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman -- thus giving up second- and third-round picks in this year's draft as compensation -- the team reallocated those funds to international scouting.
Still, that's just one minor step. The fundamental problem remains that the team doesn't have an owner, and it isn't just the major league club that is affected.
"It's something the new owners are going to have to come in and address immediately," Bowden said. "We're not going to make those kinds of decisions for them. But they're going to have to decide, philosophically: Will they rebuild through development and scouting? I will recommend that's what they do."