Nationals Counting on Draft-Day Payoff

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Usually by early June, Dana Brown can't hide the bags under his eyes. Over the past five years, Brown's job title has been "director of scouting" -- first for the Montreal Expos, then for the Washington Nationals. In practice, though, Brown was simultaneously the scouting director, a national scout, and a "cross-checker" brought in to give second opinions on players. And in the days before the draft, he was worn down, worn out, lucky to be able to think straight.

"Sometimes I laugh about it," Brown said. "But I'm a lot stronger and not as tired as I was last year. Just put it this way: There's joy with ownership."

Brown and the Nationals are preparing for Thursday's amateur draft -- as important a date as there is this year for the franchise -- with more help than they have ever had before. This is the first draft in which the team is under the ownership of the Lerner family, which officially took over from Major League Baseball last July. The days when MLB had Brown trying to plug holes in a dike are gone. The Nationals believe it will pay off in a draft in which they own five of the first 70 picks, including the sixth overall.

Though ownership, with the guidance of President Stan Kasten, stripped payroll at the major league level this season, the front-office officials have consistently said that they would pour resources into scouting. That has, perhaps, affected Brown's life more than any other. The club hired former Arizona scouting director Mike Rizzo to be the vice president of baseball operations, essentially the second-in-command under General Manager Jim Bowden. It hired Chuck LaMar, the former general manager in Tampa Bay and a successful scouting director in Atlanta, to serve as a special assistant and cross-checker. They hired experienced scouts Kris Kline, Jimmy Gonzalez and Jeff Zona to add depth and breadth to their coverage.

"We've just got more minds, more opinions," Brown said. "We can have a deeper draft because you have extra reports, and your cross-checkers are able to get into more ballparks than you are. It makes it easier."

It will not, however, make it easier if the Nationals don't make the right choices. Though the organization intends to build itself around pitching, there is some thinking that a hitter might be a safer choice with the sixth selection. A player such as Josh Vitters of Cypress, Calif., or Mike Moustakas of Chatsworth, Calif., might remain on the board when the Nationals select. Vanderbilt left-hander David Price is widely expected to be the No. 1 pick by Tampa Bay, with right-hander Rick Porcello of West Orange, N.J., and Missouri State lefty Ross Detwiler projected to follow shortly.

Though the sixth pick will be the subject of the most attention, the Nationals have five choices in the first two rounds combined -- their own first- and second-round picks, two as compensation for losing outfielder Alfonso Soriano and another for losing outfielder Jose Guillen to free agency. Such opportunities are why Thursday is, potentially, such an important day for the franchise.

This is considered one of the deepest drafts in recent history, and the hope is that the lower picks will pay off as well. Two rules changes, though, also will affect the Nationals' draft. There is now an Aug. 15 date by which draft picks must be signed or they go back into the following year's draft. This eliminates the practice of "draft-and-follow," in which a club could take a player in a lower round, watch him progress in junior college the next spring, and sign him in May or early June.

More important is the new practice that if clubs don't sign a first- or second-round pick, they will receive the same choice in the next year's draft. If the Nationals, for instance, fail to sign their sixth pick, they will receive choice "6A" in the 2008 draft. The rule gives the clubs significant leverage.

"I wouldn't expect us necessarily to sign all of those five players that we take [in the first two rounds], because we'll get that same pick next year," Kasten said. "It's not like those picks will be wasted."

The Nationals, too, are deploying more tools and ideas. Over the weekend, a group of the club's statistical analysts -- "I'll call them our 'Mod Squad,' " Kasten said -- made a presentation to scouts detailing trends in the draft, using such modern stats as "VORP" (Value Over Replacement Player), the kind of analysis that can make old-school scouts shudder.

Rizzo, too, brought his own tools from Arizona. He has a five-pronged system for analyzing potential picks. He assesses the player's physical tools and whether those tools project to be useful at the major league level. He looks deep into the player's history. He employs some risk management, a process that takes into account the competition level a player faced. He uses statistics. And, finally, all that combines to create a profile of the player as a major leaguer.

In the Nationals' new draft room, though, it is just one of many ways to do things.

"We have a great, eclectic combination of experience from successful operations," Kasten said. "They bring together really divergent views, which will harmonize as we get closer and will ultimately be decided by the leadership here."

The leader, in this case, is Bowden, who will have the greatest impact on the player chosen sixth. It is a prospect that clearly excites him.

"I've never had a room like this," he said. "It's unbelievable."

Will the combination of increased staffing, a professed increase in talent and sheer bravado pay off in a big draft?

"We've got an idea how to do this," Rizzo said. "We think we do it the right way. We think we have the best analysis, the best scouts in baseball. We're going to find out."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company