Washington Nationals' Dominican operation is making progress one year after scandal
Friday, February 26, 2010
VIERA, FLA. -- One year ago Thursday, suitcase packed with just enough shirts for a 72-hour trip, Mike Rizzo took a flight to Santo Domingo, the capital city of a country in which the Washington Nationals had spent big and messed up bigger. Rizzo, then the franchise's assistant general manager, faced a clean-up job that required far more than three days, and ultimately even more than a year. Fifteen miles west of Santo Domingo, in the hills of San Cristobal, the Nationals' long-established international baseball academy had transformed into ground zero for scandal and embarrassment. So Rizzo arrived in the Dominican Republic and headed to ground zero.
When Rizzo reflects on that trip, he recognizes a point of both demolition and transformation. Trauma works like that, and February 2009 -- grand stage for what's now known as the Smiley González fraud -- remains perhaps the greatest trauma in Washington's franchise history.
None of Washington's recent progress in the Dominican would be possible without the original mess, which is why any story must begin there. Last February the organization learned that its most prized Dominican prospect, an infielder named Esmailyn "Smiley" González, was born sometime in November 1985 -- not, as previously thought, on Sept. 21, 1989. This age discrepancy turned into a serious deal, because Washington, in 2006, had given González a $1.4 million signing bonus. It turned out that González had fake medical reports, fake family members and even a fake name. Really, he was Carlos David Alvarez Lugo.
The people responsible for signing González lost their jobs. And the people who rebuilt post-González are still working to rebuild. José Rijo, who operated the San Cristobal academy and had brokered Smiley's contract, was fired Feb. 25. General Manager Jim Bowden, already involved in a federal investigation into illegal international scouting practices, resigned at the beginning of March. When Rizzo arrived in the Dominican one year ago, he removed 50-some teenage prospects from Rijo's academy and relocated them to a temporary academy 50 miles east, in Boca Chica.
So what's happened since? Well, Rijo ran for mayor of San Cristobal and lost to fellow former big leaguer Raúl Mondesi. ("They went with the position player," one Nationals employee recently joked.) Bowden is now paid to talk about baseball, not run a team. And the Nationals have hired a new Dominican staff, secured a permanent facility for their academy, and again resumed signing players, this time giving smaller contracts to players with real names.
Providing a sign of their reemerging presence in Latin America, the Nationals on Tuesday confirmed the signing of Rafael Martín, a 25-year-old pitcher from Mexico who is "close to the big leagues," according to team President Stan Kasten. Martín will join Washington's accelerated development camp, which begins Friday. Although Drew Storen is viewed as Washington's closer of the future, Martín, who has a fastball that touches 94 mph, could serve as a hard-throwing set-up man. He likely will begin the minor league season with either Class AA Harrisburg or Class AAA Syracuse.
'You have to be active'
When the Lerner family bought the Nationals in 2006, they, along with Kasten, emphasized the importance of international scouting, because roughly one-third of all big league talent comes from neighborhoods like the one that produced González. After the scandal, the Nationals scrapped most short-term player signings in the Dominican. But they also launched the quiet rebuilding process, certain that the rewards of international scouting (cheap talent) still outweighed the risks caused by unregulated street agents, dubious player-handlers and yes, falsified documents.
"I think that the main lesson -- to be a front-line organization you have to consider the international market," Rizzo said. "That's a big piece of your developmental system. You have to be active in that market. You have to sign players from that market, because the statistics say that almost a third of your players are coming from outside of the domestic draft. So you'd better be active in it. You'd better have the training facility. You have to be in that part of the game to have complete success."
Washington's efforts in the last year can be divided into survival steps and recovery steps. For short-term survival in the Dominican, the Nationals last season moved their players -- the members of their Dominican Summer League team -- to a baseball facility built by Rawlings, the glove manufacturer. Problem was, the facility had no on-site dorms, so players stayed in a nearby hotel.
"The hotel was a great deal" financially, Kasten said, "but it wasn't a good thing for the players. We're much better off when we can control them in dorms within our complex. Because they don't get out. Especially in the city of Boca Chica, frankly. Boca Chica is a great place to be young and single; not so great if you're developing young, single ballplayers."
Washington's first sign of more permanent building came in October, when Rizzo hired Johnny DiPuglia as the new international scouting director. In his years as a Latin American coordinator with the Boston Red Sox, the bilingual DiPuglia had developed a reputation for his keen scouting eye; his hiring was seen within the industry as a coup for Rizzo.
DiPuglia faces a formidable challenge, because Washington still hasn't established a permanent Dominican base. But at least the franchise has selected a site. Within several months -- perhaps between June and August, Rizzo said -- developers will complete renovations on an existing Boca Chica facility that will eventually become Washington's international base. The site, according to Rizzo, has two ballfields, five covered batting cages, eight pitching mounds, a cafeteria, a weight room and dormitory space for roughly 75 players. Once the fields have been resurfaced, everything will be ready. Meantime, the Nationals have moved to yet another temporary facility, this one operated by Abel Guerra, a former Yankees vice president of international operations.
'Feet on the ground'
Nationals executives admit that the organization is still catching up to other franchises. True, the Nationals made a stunning bid for Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman -- offering more than $20 million to the left-handed phenom -- but over time, they'll measure progress with quantity. While Kasten and Rizzo don't rule out high-profile signings, they prefer a system that brings in dozens of players who sign for bonuses of less than $100,000.
"Because I think the statistics are still true -- that 80 percent of the Dominican major leaguers are players who signed for under $100,000," Kasten said.
Rizzo, for his part, has signed only two international players to bonuses exceeding $500,000 -- Tony Peña and Jerry Gil. Both players signed when Rizzo served as Arizona's scouting director.
"I think you can get good bargains if you scout right," Rizzo said. "I signed Alberto González for $25,000. I signed Carlos Gonzalez, the hot shot with the Colorado Rockies now, for $100,000. So I think there are bargains there without putting $3 or $4 million into one player. I think the big reason for having the academies, you can house 50 or 70 players and watch them grow. And you can see who turns out to be the players of the group."
Rizzo added: "I think we're coming to the realization that we've finally got our feet on the ground there. We've got a facility that we call our own. We've got ourselves a guy at the top of it that is well-respected and very successful at doing it. And we have the resources to sign the players we want. So it's been a 180 since last year. And I think we're finally heading in the right direction, and I know when you sit down and talk to me next year we'll be head and shoulders above where we are now."