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Wilmer Difo’s call-up is a success story for Nationals’ Latin American operation

Wilmer Difo (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

When prospect Wilmer Difo walked into the Nationals‘ clubhouse on Tuesday, unloaded his belongings into a locker with a No. 1 jersey and his last name on it, the moment meant more to the organization than simply a first-time call-up. And when Difo smacked his first major league hit that day, the young players at the Nationals’ academy in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic erupted as they watched on TV. Difo symbolizes a lot to the Nationals.

He is the first Nationals’ homegrown player from the Dominican Republic since the Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez scandal in 2009. After Gonzalez was discovered to be lying about his identity, so much changed for the Nationals.

Jim Bowden resigned as general manager and the Nationals blew up their entire Dominican operation. Mike Rizzo moved up from assistant general manager to interim general manager, and his first task was to rebuild the ruins of the team’s Dominican academy from scratch. He hired Johnny DiPuglia to be the Nationals’ international scouting director and oversee the Latin American operations.

They moved into a temporary academy, bounced around to old facilities that didn’t have air conditioning or meetings rooms, until settling into their current, newer home. Convincing players to sign with them back then was challenging because they had lost credibility in the country rich with young baseball talent. The Lerner family became leery of investing in Latin America. Getting to this point — with Difo in the majors for now while Jayson Werth is injured — was a slow and long road.

“It’s very rewarding,” said DiPuglia, on a scouting trip in Panama, after Difo’s call-up. “We started from the bottom and had to revamp a lot of things and the thinking process of ownership. We know the only way they’re going to support us is with big leaguers. He’s the first guy of a wave of many coming.”

Of the Nationals’ top 10 prospects according to Baseball America, two are from the Dominican. Difo is ranked seventh and Reynaldo Lopez, a hard-throwing right-handed starter at Class A Potomac, is third. Catcher Pedro Severino, at Class AA Harrisburg, didn’t crack the list but isn’t far behind; he has shown signs of maturation at the plate this season that could catch up to his standout defense. There are other, more raw players in the system the Nationals are hoping, too, could be part of the future: catcher Raudy Reed, starter Jefry Rodriguez, outfielders Victor Robles and Rafael Bautista.

While some teams such as the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Rangers have sunk tens of millions into Latin America, the Nationals slowly built their Dominican talent pool with a limited budget. They had to gain the trust of the Lerners and deal with MLB international spending limits based on major league winning percentage. Since the Gonzalez scandal, the most the Nationals have spent on a prospect is $900,000 in 2013 for third baseman Anderson Franco, a 6-foot-3 hitter with power potential. For the 2014-15 international period, the Nationals have the 12th smallest bonus pool at $2.08 million. A comparison: the Yankees’ No. 5 prospect, catcher Gary Sanchez, signed out of the Dominican for $3 million six years ago.

“The money doesn’t dictate that he’s a big leaguer,” DiPuglia said this winter at the Nationals’ Dominican academy. “You’ve got to be able to profile a player for a position. The way we evaluate is that we look for players who can play the middle of the field, where if they don’t profile we can move them off or put them on the mound. We like speed and tools. And they’ve got to profile to a big league position. If we can sign any of these guys and they become the 25th guy on the big league roster because of their speed, their left-handed bat, defensive skill set or Mike Rizzo can trade one of these guys for a piece to help us get to the playoffs, we’re doing our job.”

The Nationals have six scouts spread over the Dominican Republic who attend games, tryouts and showcases nearly daily. Difo was spotted by scout Modesto Ulloa, who saw potential in the small, skinny 18-year-old, older than normal signees, and kept bringing Difo back for tryouts until he signed. After that, a large cast — including DiPuglia, Ulloa, academy director Fausto Severino, Nationals’ Dominican Summer League team Manager Sandy Martinez and Difo’s coaches in the minor leagues in the U.S. — had a hand in helping him overcome his early struggles and blossom.

“It’s not like the draft where you’re getting a guy from the University of Stanford who’s got education, or University of Georgia,” DiPuglia said. “We’re trying to teach them to speak English when some of these kids don’t even fully speak Spanish. They don’t have running water in their house or electricity. Or who knows what their situation is at home with mom and dad because a lot of their fathers are not at home. It’s a consistent education. You’ve got to be consistent with your plan. You’ve got to tell them every day. Until one day, the light switch goes on and then one day you’ve got a big leaguer. But to get a big leaguer out of this environment, as a scout, is the hardest thing to do in baseball. It’s hardest than being a big leaguer and hitting a slider because you’re looking at a 15-year-old and you’re trying to tell me you’re projecting him to be a big leaguer at 15.”

But with strong scouting and player development, the Nationals’ philosophy could yield gems. They signed Difo for $20,000, Severino for $55,000 and Lopez for $17,000 over the past four years. If any of them reaches the majors or is used as a trade chip for a major league player, it’s a success story. Compare those players’ signing bonuses to those of the top players drafted out of college. 

“If this guy plays in the big leagues for six years, he pays for the academy for a while,” DiPuglia said. “The way the bonus are now $20,000 is a cup of coffee.”

Obviously, Difo hasn’t gotten that far; his everyday future with the Nationals may not come until next year. The two others behind him, especially Lopez, could move quickly through the minors but have a ways to go. DiPuglia, who was instrumental in signing top players such as Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez when with the Red Sox, says the group of Latin American players assembled by the Nationals now is the most talented group he’s been around.

Before Difo left Harrisburg for Washington earlier this week, he gave Severino an ambitious goal: “I told him, ‘I’ll be up there waiting for you.'” Severino’s future is still to come but Difo is happy to be the first of the new wave of the Nationals’ Dominican players.

“It means a lot,” Difo said. “I know now that I’m here it’ll open the doors for the other guys.”