By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 11:30 PM
BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic
In January 2010, Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo drove along Avenida Caracol, over potholes and past a strip of bodegas, until the road turned to dirt. The relentless whir of motorbikes yielded to a wall of vegetation on both sides. He passed ditches where garbage often burns, where goats and cattle share the road with passing cars.
At the end of road sat Complex De Las Americas. He wanted to see, firsthand, if it could become the team's home in the country. Rizzo was given a tour of the complex by Johnny DiPuglia, the man Rizzo had chosen to reestablish the Nationals' Dominican presence. Rizzo walked the two fields and saw the dorm rooms, the empty weight room, the small offices, the cafeteria and kitchen. He was convinced.
"This," Rizzo said aloud, "is the one."
Less than a year earlier, in late February 2009, scandal had forced Rizzo to the Dominican Republic. He shuttered the Nationals' facility and tore the organization's presence in the country down to the studs after it was discovered that prized shortstop prospect Esmailyn "Smiley" Gonzalez was really Carlos Alvarez. And that he was really 20 years old and not 16 when he signed a $1.4 million contract in 2006. The fallout decimated the Nationals' Latin American effort and cost former general manager Jim Bowden and a top adviser their jobs.
Slowly, the Nationals have stabilized the chaos from the Smiley fiasco. They have moved into a permanent home at Complex De Las Americas. They hired an almost entirely new staff. While legal loose ends remain and the Nationals are still catching up to other teams in acquiring players, those charged with running the team's Dominican operations have separated their work from the team's murky past.
Moises De La Mota, the team's Latin American scouting coordinator, is the only member of the Nationals' Latin American staff who has been with the team since before the scandal broke. When Rizzo and current director of minor league operations Mark Scialabba made their emergency visit in 2009, De La Mota drove them around.
"It happened so quickly," De La Mota said of the scandal's aftermath. "Bang, bang, boom, and you're like, 'What the [expletive] happened?' It wasn't pretty. But no one talks about that anymore. I don't see it anymore. There's too much going on for us to worry about that. You start thinking about that stuff, you can't do your job."Changes for the good
It has been a challenging process. The upheaval first forced the Nationals to evacuate the academy owned by Jose Rijo, an assistant to Bowden who was also fired. They moved their operations to a field owned by Rawlings, the equipment manufacturer, for the 2009 Dominican Summer League.
Rizzo's inspection visit with director of player procurement Kasey McKeon came that winter. The academy was built 13 years ago and has always been shared by two teams. The Colorado Rockies occupied one half, and the Cleveland Indians, with their lease ending, decided to move out. "Thanks to God," De La Mota said. "Because we were all over the place."
They shut down briefly while the Nationals resolved equipment and operational issues and Complex De Las Americas underwent renovation, and spent two months using a field owned by Abel Guerra, an agent and longtime friend of DiPuglia. The Nationals moved for good in May, having reached a three-year rental agreement that has them paying roughly $300,000 per year.
The move instantly changed things for the Nationals. The facilities they used before did not have dorms, a weight room or an English teacher. The instability hurt their pursuit of players. When the Nationals hosted tryouts, buscones - street agents who handle players - would call De La Mota or Nationals Academy coordinator Fausto Severino and ask, "Where you guys at this week?"
"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.