By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 10, 2007
VIERA, Fla. -- On paper, the Washington Nationals' important business Friday took place in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where they played another Grapefruit League game against the Baltimore Orioles. In practice, the bulk of the regular lineup remained at Space Coast Stadium, working out in the morning and enjoying the rest of the day off as the grind of spring sets in.
But in reality, the Nationals' most important work took place on fields hundreds and even thousands of miles from here, be they in Arizona or Arkansas. The Nationals are widely predicted to finish last in the National League East, but they believe they will be contenders in the future. And they say that, at least in part, because of the work being done by nameless, faceless men holding radar guns and notebooks: scouts.
"There's nothing more important than what our scouts are doing right now," General Manager Jim Bowden said earlier this spring. "We've built an all-star team of these guys, the best there are in baseball, and we're going to compete with every single team. There's nothing we won't do to find and get the best players there are."
Bowden isn't afraid of strong words on almost any subject, but he appears especially passionate about this one. Opposing executives, coaches and players around the Grapefruit League are wondering whom the Nationals' starting rotation will comprise and how the 2007 team will possibly stay competitive. But within the executive offices at Space Coast Stadium -- and, indeed, quietly around the country -- the club is developing a swagger when it comes to its overhauled scouting department.
"I'm thoroughly impressed with the scouting and development departments, and I'm hard to impress," said Chuck LaMar, one of the dozen new scouts the Nationals hired. "I don't say that because I'm new on board. We are going about it the right way, and we are going to succeed."
LaMar is just one indication of the Nationals' commitment to hiring the best evaluators available. He is a scout's scout who came up through the Pittsburgh and Cincinnati organizations before becoming the director of scouting and player development with the Atlanta Braves, where he worked under Nationals President Stan Kasten. In 1995, he was hired as the general manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a position he held until he was fired a decade later.
LaMar now considers that "a 10-year detour." In November, he was hired as a special assistant to Bowden and a national "cross-checker," one of the people who offers second and sometimes third opinions on potential draft choices or prospects in other teams' systems.
"I am a scout," LaMar said. "I've always been a scout, and I always will be a scout."
That is exactly the kind of person the Nationals tried to hire in the offseason. Last July, they made their first significant move in this department, luring respected evaluator Mike Rizzo from the Arizona Diamondbacks and naming him assistant general manager and vice president of baseball operations. Rizzo's reputation lies in Arizona's well-regarded minor league system. The Diamondbacks drafted and developed 2006 Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb -- as well as top prospects Chad Tracy, Justin Upton and Stephen Drew -- under Rizzo.
Rizzo will help Bowden oversee the amateur draft, which takes place in June. Because free agents Alfonso Soriano and Jose Guillen signed elsewhere in the offseason, the Nationals received compensatory picks in the draft and now have five of the first 70 choices, including the sixth selection overall. Washington is hyping the baseball draft, which has a reputation as being fickle, as one of its major hopes for the future. Front-office members do so because of their unshakable belief in the hires made in the offseason.
"The people who say the draft is a crapshoot are the people who aren't successful at it," Rizzo said. "I think evaluating players is a skill. It's a talent. It takes experience. To call it a crapshoot really minimizes what successful teams do, and that's make informed, educated choices. I don't think it's luck that determines success. It's hiring the best scouts and trusting them."
Bowden and Rizzo believe the Nationals did that. Moose Stubing, who spent four decades with the Angels, came aboard last November as a special assistant to Bowden. "They gave me the title," he said at the time. "And they made it hard to resist."
Translation: They paid a more-than-competitive rate. "They just flat-out bought a lot of these people," said one source. Kris Kline, a 25-year veteran, and Bill Singer, who will spearhead the Nationals' effort in Asia, both came from Arizona. They hired Jeff Zona, whose 16-year career was spent with the Red Sox.
"We have enough bodies," scouting director Dana Brown said. "We can see players we never would have seen before."
The addition of Rizzo could have been seen as a demotion for Brown, who now has a boss he didn't have before. Yet Brown said, "I don't think of it that way for one minute."
Brown used his opportunity as scouting director of the Montreal Expos, and then the Nationals, to develop a reputation as a top evaluator of pitchers. His first-round picks from 2003 (Chad Cordero) and 2004 (Bill Bray) are both relievers in the majors now, and some of the organization's best pitching prospects -- Collin Balester and Clint Everts -- were chosen under him as well.
But Brown said the club had little chance to do well in later rounds because its best scouts were spread too thin.
"Our depth in this draft will be way, way better than in the past," Brown said.
Friday, LaMar saw the New York Mets and Detroit Tigers in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Rizzo was in Fayetteville, Ark., seeing amateurs. Brown believes he will see 250 to 300 players before the draft.
"There's nowhere we won't go," Rizzo said. "This is a competition. We need to beat other teams at it. We need to be the best, and we will be."