Earlier versions of this story incorrectly stated that Atahualpa Severino was the only player the Nationals have signed out of Latin America since baseball returned to Washington in 2005. The Nationals also signed Cuban pitcher Yunesky Maya in 2010.
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Two years later, Washington Nationals moving past Esmailyn 'Smiley' Gonzalez scandal in Dominican Republic
"Down here is a lot about word-of-mouth," said Severino, who joined the team last year. "Either the good word or the bad word is going to spread around quickly. When you don't have stability and you don't know where you're going to be next month, it's not good. Now you can see the difference. We're here now."
The spartan, two-story building has a small weight room stuffed with bench presses, medicine balls and dumbbells. Two barracks-style dorm rooms can sleep roughly 75 players in bunk beds. There are vents, but no air conditioner yet; the Nationals are working on installing one. They hired an English teacher and a team psychologist, and they are discussing adding the RBI School of Baseball program, which helps players' transition to America.
Down the road, just outside Boca Chica in El Toro, the New York Mets run perhaps the most luxurious facility in the Dominican Republic. In hotel-style dorm rooms, two players share one set of bunk beds. Four fields, including one with a FieldTurf infield, spread across the biggest swath of land owned by any team. There are several classrooms, a computer lab, a game room, leather couches, and flat-screen televisions. The receptionist's office is bigger than the one Severeno and De La Mota share.
The Nationals' facility is more typical, and also, in DiPuglia's opinion, preferable. "I like it to be a little rough," DiPuglia said. "Not to the extreme of poverty level, but to the point where kids get in there and they've got baseball on their mind and they want to get out of there. We have everything we need to get the job done."
A younger talent pool
With their facility in place, the Nationals have shifted focus to filling it with players talented enough to reach the major leagues. Roughly one-third of the talent in the majors comes from outside the United States, but only two players currently on the Nationals' 40-man roster, minor league reliever Atahualpa Severino and Maya, have been signed out of Latin America since baseball returned to Washington. Center fielder Eury Perez, one of the team's top prospects, could be added by next year.
DiPuglia's primary personnel achievement has been making the Nationals' Dominican talent pool younger. In 2009, the average age of the Nationals' Dominican Summer League team was roughly 201/2, which meant players who graduated to low Class A were almost uniformly older - and therefore less imbued with potential - than their opponents. The Nationals signed 32 players last year, mostly on signing bonuses of less than $10,000, and the average age of their DSL team dropped to 171/2.
The Nationals remain hesitant to hand out the massive signing bonuses like the one Gonzalez received in 2006. Not counting the major league contract given to 28-year-old Cuban pitcher Yunesky Maya, the Nationals spent roughly $1 million on signing bonuses for prospects in Latin America last year, one of the smallest budgets in the majors. Teams at the top of the list spent upward of $14 million.
Still, the Nationals have started spending more on individual players. They've signed 14 new players for this summer, DiPuglia said, with bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $150,000. Last Thursday, the Nationals finalized two of their biggest Dominican contracts in years. They signed 17-year-old catcher Raudy Read ("easily an everyday catcher," De La Mota said) for $130,000 and 16-year-old outfielder Randy Novas ("a body like Devon White," DiPuglia said) for $150,000. Last year, they signed pitcher Miguel Navarro for $120,000. At 17, he's now throwing 94 mph fastballs.
"We've given a couple signing bonuses," Fausto Severino said. "It helps because when you don't give a lot of money, the buscones won't even call you."
Last Wednesday, Severino attended a game from the Dominican Prospect League. During the game, he approached the Patriotas De Santo Domingo dugout to speak with a buscone named Niche. He represented Read, who had reached a verbal agreement and would be signing the next day.
So on Thursday, Read arrived with his parents at the Nationals' complex. Severino plopped a stack of papers on a circular desk. Read had agreed to the deal about one month earlier, and Severino had been securing the proper paperwork since, working with MLB to investigate Read's background and age. Parts of the process that once took a day or two, Severino said, sometimes now take a week. There were legal waivers for investigations, places for Read to fill in information about his family.
"Covering your end, making sure they understand exactly what they're signing," Severino said.
Read signed and Severino explained until they reached the last page. Severino stood, shook hands and said in Spanish, "Congratulations. Welcome to the family."
Read's parents had raised him in a house with no floor. When they got back into their green Toyota Tacoma, their son had ensured a check for $130,000. Read felt happy, thanked God for everything that happened and thought about the work ahead to reach the major leagues.
Why had he chosen the Nationals?
"Because of the way they take care of me," Read said in Spanish. "I like the people who work there."
Read and his parents drove away from the facility, down the dirt road and back on to Avenida Caracol, the latest sign of progress for the Nationals in the Dominican.