By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Unless you're the Yankees and can buy titles, the core of any baseball franchise is not its starting rotation or batting order. Over time, you are your organization.
Before spring training, the Nats probably will sign two free agent starting pitchers and a couple of bullpen arms. They might trade for a middle infielder, too. But from a long-term view, the Nats have signed their most important offseason class, even though the average fan might not recognize a single name.
Roy Clark, Ron Schueler, Davey Johnson, Kasey McKeon, Jay Robertson, Johnny DiPuglia, Doug Harris, Bryan Minniti and Jay Sartori will change the Nats' future more than a couple of 12-game winners. When the regular season ends, most front-office employees become de facto free agents. The Nats, their hands tied since the day Jim Bowden left as GM, started signing. Since then, the Nats have added 17 men, constituting a dozen full-time slots.
"We have had a great offseason," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. Before you even sign a free agent? "Exactly," he said.
Were the Nats understaffed before? Yes. Did the presence of the controversial Bowden hinder the hiring of more top talent? Probably. Have the owners decided to spend on an area where results are hard to quantify and that some "Moneyballers" think is just dead weight? Absolutely.
The Nats have taken a stand. When they trade, draft or sign a free agent player, "We want our eyes and the numbers to agree," Rizzo said. "But we'll lean toward the scout."
"These are guys who sit in ballparks at every level, watch games and talk to other scouts," President Stan Kasten said. "It sounds trivial. But in baseball, there is nothing more important. They are the wise old owls."
Once you say such words, even when you add that the Nats give just a 65-35 weighting to scouting over modern statistical analysis, you are going to have quality scouts lined up to work for a team with which their talents will be respected, not inspected.
Even 30 years after the creation of the first new stats, including one of mine, the line between number nerds with Ivy League degrees and scouts with decades of bleacher splinters is as bright red as the Mason-Dixon Line. If you say you believe in both (obviously the only sane approach), eyes narrow.
The day the Nats took the "interim" title off Rizzo, whose dad is still a beloved scout (his radar gun probably pointed at Stephen Strasburg right now, even if he's only walking) the Nats couldn't hide their stripes.
"They know this is a baseball shop," said Rizzo.
A thinly staffed team, a chance for more duties, an open checkbook, plus the presence of Rizzo and Kasten, enabled the Nats to sign front-office brain power, including two of the game's best administrators.
"I think I can speak for all of us about why we came," said Harris, sitting in a room at Nationals Park along with a dozen top team execs. "Mike," he said, pointing at Rizzo.
"We've caused a buzz in the sport," Rizzo said.
Until now, there was no area of the game in which the Nats were even near the industry leaders. Now, maybe. Put them all in a room that already contained Bob Boone, Bill Singer (a loud voice for the Nyjer Morgan trade), Wade Taylor and Jeff Zona, as well as the Nats' stat mavens, and Rizzo isn't overstating when he calls this his "think tank."
Time will tell if the Nats just signed some of the best officers of the last war or whether a good soldier's value never diminishes.
Rizzo has a firmly held view of team-building: "Without PEDs and greenies, you're going to see a more old-school style: pitching, defense, speed, athletic ability. Catch the ball up the middle. Have guys at the corners who bang."
Now, he thinks he's got the eyes to find 'em -- whether in the draft, in free agency or in trades.
Clark has run the past 11 drafts that have restocked the Braves with young stars such as Brian McCann and Tommy Hanson. Three years ago, Clark was Kasten's first choice to be Bowden's top lieutenant. Clark said no. Kasten picked Rizzo. Now, full circle, Clark is Rizzo's right-hand man. So, Kasten ended up with his two top picks.
Schueler has done everything over 42 years from pitch and coach in the majors to run the White Sox for 10 years as GM. He has his pick of what World Series ring to wear: the '89 Athletics, where he was top assistant to boss Sandy Alderson, or the '06 Cardinals. On Tuesday, the Nats nailed down a senior adviser job for ex-manager Johnson.
"Among other things, he'll be the guy next to me in the golf cart in spring training, making me smarter," Rizzo said.
McKeon, son of fabled scout-manager-GM-cigar-face Jack McKeon, has spent the last seven years helping build Colorado into a power. Even for a scout, he's a road warrior. DiPuglia was the Red Sox' No. 2 wiz on Latin America, a former area of embarrassment for the Nats. Now he's in charge of rebuilding the wreck.
"Where are we still behind? Latin America," Kasten said.
Robertson has been a key figure in Cleveland and then Texas for the last 20 years while Harris has the kind of ex-player eye that should help the Nats' next weakest area: pro scouting, where you analyze trades and free agents. To help Rizzo with all the contract and administrative matters that cause migraines -- quick, give me a model for how to extend Adam Dunn's contract with deferrals and escalators -- the Nats considered Minniti, from the Pirates, and Sartori, a hot guy at MLB. Rizzo begged for both and got them.
Is all this too in-bred? In baseball, it's probably necessary. Nerds bury each other in printouts. Scouts yell. For that to work, you have to start and end with long-held respect.
"I've competed against every guy that I hired. And when I did, I couldn't get any of them to tell me a damn thing that was any use to me," said Rizzo, laughing. "I respect them all. That's the common thread."
These days, some will tell you that the only thing smarter than a room full of veteran scouts is the same room when it's empty.
The Nats don't believe it. Now, their room is finally full. If you're in this D.C. baseball thing for the long haul, the Nats' offseason probably just graded out at "80." Ask a scout what it means.