Bryce Harper: Extensive process led to Nationals' decision to draft him
Monday, June 7, 2010
On Monday night, the Washington Nationals are going to make one of the most scrutinized draft choices in baseball history. They'll select Bryce Harper, the 17-year-old power-hitting prodigy, with the overall first pick. A room full of scouts and executives will exchange high fives. General Manager Mike Rizzo will be interviewed on national television. And then the real work of building the team's future will start to show itself.
The Nationals have known for weeks who they'll take Monday night. "One-one" -- industry parlance for the first pick of the first round -- "will take very little time," Rizzo said. The Nationals have spent the majority of their preparation on the final 49 picks of their draft, constructed by a new personnel infrastructure and executed, Rizzo said, "on very little sleep and adrenaline and coffee."
For years, Rizzo built his career on and centered his life around draft day, crossing the country in rental cars and sleeping in cheap hotels, writing 300 scouting reports a year and trying to discover hidden major leaguers. He came to the Nationals after serving as the scouting director for the Arizona Diamondbacks. "I love it," Rizzo said. "Draft day is like the day of your high school football game. We're fired up."
This year has been different for him. Rizzo retains the zeal, but not the hands-on influence. In his first year as full-fledged general manager, Rizzo has delegated his most cherished part of running a baseball team to two of his most trusted lieutenants, new amateur scouting director Kris Kline, Rizzo's best friend, and new vice president of player personnel Roy Clark, who helped build the Atlanta Braves for two decades.
Clark and Kline have headed an extensive process that culminated last week with finalizing the Nationals' draft board -- a wall full of magnets, each with a player's name etched on it, ranked from 1 to 1,600. The focus outside the draft room will be on Harper. The work by area scouts, supervisors and cross-checkers was done for everything else.
"I'm not exaggerating -- these guys have really, really grinded it out." Rizzo said. "They are absolutely exhausted. They've done everything they're supposed to do. I think we have all the answers. We know the guys that we like. We know who the big leaguers are."
The process began this winter, when Rizzo built his new front office. When he came to the Nationals in 2006, he was allowed to bring two Diamondbacks executives with him. One was Kline, whom he had known since they roomed together while playing for the Class A Salem Angels in 1982. ("Neither one of us was very good," Rizzo said. "I was tougher.")
Rizzo had known for years he would add Kline the moment he became a GM. Clark, he figured, was a pipe dream. Rizzo came to know him from running into him as they competed. "We've deceived each other, we've lied to each other, we've hid people from each other," Rizzo said. "I always respected and always loved him for that."
During his 20 years with the Braves, Clark became one of the most respected scouting directors in baseball. He recently drafted Jason Heyward, the 20-year-old rookie who is terrorizing the National League.
With Clark and Kline in place, the Nationals began the long slog of building a draft board. The Nationals' area supervisors and scouts made reports on 1,600 players. Every Sunday night, they would send Kline their schedule -- which players they see and when pitchers in their area were scheduled to pitch. The Nationals have all of their area scouts come to Nationals Park for at least one series during the season, "so they remember what a big leaguer looks like," Kline said.
Kline and Clark scoured the country, too, each seeing about 170 players in person. Trying to see as many players as possible can border on mania.
"I was in Atlanta," Kline said. "Then drove to return a rental car. Couldn't get a flight, so I drove from there to -- where was it? Gosh, I can't remember. I think it might have been Chattanooga. If I can stay in the car, I'll stay in the car. I drove somewhere. I drove 800 something miles in two days. But I got to see like five players in the process. I didn't plan it like that. It just works out."
After months of compiling reports, the Nationals finished organizing them last week. For two weeks, scouting interns, organized by scouting coordinator Reed Dunn, scrawled names of prospects on 1,600 magnets. They made dossiers on every player, including medical reports, psychological evaluations, notes about a player's character and how difficult or easy it will be sign him.
Armed with all that, the Nationals started to make their list. At 9 a.m. last Monday, the Nationals' top amateur scouts and cross-checkers gathered in a conference room at Nationals Park with Rizzo, Kline and Clark. They chit-chatted for a few minutes, drank coffee and ate doughnuts. Then, "we lock in," Rizzo said.
Every player on their list has been seen in person by one of their scouts. The scouts had all come to Washington at some point, Rizzo preferring to speak face-to-face at least once. When a player was brought up in the room, they called the area scouts who watched him.
They debated and argued about players, sometimes staying until 2 a.m., sometimes leaving at 5 or 6 p.m., too fried to continue for that day. The difference between players can be absurdly small.
"And then I remind my staff that Dan Uggla was an 11th rounder," Rizzo said. Josh "Willingham was a 17th rounder. There is that thought at times. Somebody will pop up and say, 'There's a big leaguer there somewhere. We just got to find out which one it is.' It kind of locks you back in."
On Tuesday and Wednesday, their draft board will be the Nationals' only guide. They never draft for need by position. They never second-guess themselves. Maybe, if they've picked several, say, college pitchers in a row and a high school shortstop intrigues them, they may bypass the higher-ranked pitcher. Those cases are rare. "We honor the board," Rizzo said.
The right pick
Sometimes, with the right mix of work and luck, it can feel perfect. In 2000, one of Rizzo's scouts with the Diamondbacks, watching a random game outside of his own area, happened to see a Kentucky pitcher he had never heard of who dazzled him. He made a call to Rizzo's father, Phil, who worked as an adviser. "This guy threw the [expletive] out of the ball for me," the scout told Phil Rizzo. "Do we have anything on him?"
Phil Rizzo called his son. Mike Rizzo called Kline, then an Arizona supervisor. Kline realized that, no, the Diamondbacks had no information on the Kentucky pitcher. They scouted him more, researched his background. On the day of the draft, the Diamondbacks' turn arrived in the eighth round.
"He was the 105th guy on the board or something," Rizzo recalled. "And if he would have been the 106th guy on the board, we wouldn't have drafted him."
And so, with the 249th overall pick, Rizzo and the Diamondbacks drafted the Kentucky pitcher. In 2003, he made his first major league start. And in 2006, Brandon Webb won the Cy Young award.
"That's probably one of my favorites," Rizzo said. "The process there worked exactly how we map it out. To witness the way it comes together in the room, and the process that you go through to get to the name that you finally pick, it's remarkable."