Nats Look to Overcome System Failures

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Sports Writer
Sunday, March 26, 2006

VIERA, Fla., March 25 -- The days when the Montreal Expos' farm system cranked out major leaguers -- from Tim Raines to Tim Wallach, from Javier Vazquez to Vladimir Guerrero -- were long gone by the time the franchise moved to Washington and became the Nationals. Talent was thin. Stars were few. Hope was, it seemed, lost.

"Our player development department needs a complete overhaul," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "It was in complete disarray."

This winter, the Nationals made a concerted effort to restore order, fundamentally changing the way their entire system runs. It starts with Bob Boone, the former major league catcher and manager who Bowden put in charge of the process. But Boone's new position is just one step in a complex process that, the Nationals say, will eventually turn around one of the worst farm systems in baseball.

Baseball America annually ranks each minor league system, and when Major League Baseball took over the Montreal Expos in 2002, the franchise -- which for years was one of the best talent-producing clubs -- placed 16th. But then came a now-infamous purge, when it appeared the team would be eliminated altogether, and the organization traded away prospects such as Grady Sizemore, Jason Bay and Cliff Lee, all standout major leaguers now. The club fell to 29th in 2003, dead last in 2004, 26th in 2005.

"Jim said, 'Make it better,' " Boone said. "That's the directive: 'Make it better' and 'I don't want to be 29th.' "

Last year, the drafting of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman provided a boost to the organization, but Zimmerman won't help the system. He's in the majors already. Bowden believes truly restocking the system is a four- or five-year process, one that will be helped by having four of the first 70 picks in this June's draft.

Still, when Boone took over -- essentially replacing Adam Wogan, who was fired last fall -- he thought there were some steps he could take to immediately improve the system. Bowden put Andy Dunn, who ran RFK Stadium in Washington last year, in charge of administration of the farm system, leaving the baseball to Boone. And Boone began to bring the scouting and player development departments closer together.

"Historically, it's always been scouts sign guys, and then they look at the players in the minors, and they say, 'What has development done to my player?' " Boone said. "And development guys look at scouts and say, 'Who signed this guy?' "

So Boone worked on building a relationship with Dana Brown, the scouting director. "We know what the guys look like when we scout them, and we know what their strengths and weaknesses are," Brown said. "It's good for us to be able to follow the guy to give some input if they get away from the things that led us to draft them in the first place."

With Step One put into place, Boone went to work on what he figured was the logical next move. "I can't improve the players," he said. "But I thought we could improve the teachers."

So the Nationals began reshuffling their minor league coaching staffs. Of the 15 positions for the five teams, only five men remain in the same spot as a year ago. The club made what it believes is a key hire in Scott Little, a respected developer from the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, to serve as the field coordinator, the man who makes sure everything -- from cutoff plays to philosophies on bunting -- is run the same from rookie ball to Class AAA. They named Spin Williams, who was the Pittsburgh Pirates' pitching coach for the previous five years, as a roving advisor. And they hired three former major leaguers -- Dante Bichette, Darnell Coles and Keith Moreland -- essentially as consultants who will travel the minors and work with hitters.

"I'm excited about it, but a little nervous at the same time," Boone said. "You don't want different guys telling people different things. But the other thing we know: Not everybody can fix everybody. I think this'll be a great approach."

The result, Bowden believes, is a development staff that is a "night-and-day" difference from last year. And the players say they feel more part of the organization as a whole.

"Andy Dunn and Scott Little, they're always visible, always around," said Kory Casto, an infielder who was the Nationals' minor league player of the year in 2005. "In the past, the major and minor league sides seemed kind of separate. It just seems like there's more of a connection to the major league team now."

In the offseason, the Nationals signed 43 minor league free agents, guys who may or may not be prospects but will impact the system nonetheless. Boone felt that, too frequently, players entered the system and just moved up year to year, regardless of performance. He wants that to stop.

"We want to tell them, 'Look, you're not going to the next level until you command this level,' " Boone said. "It's like taking psychology 301 before taking psych 1, 2 and 3."

Bowden is preaching patience, and this June's draft could be another big step. But Boone knows, with a new owner for the Nationals likely to be named early in the season, the new approach must show results.

"At some point," Boone said, "the ultimate guy above is going to say, 'Where is it?' It has to produce."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company