“It was horrible,” Sanchez said, through a team interpreter, of coming from California. “Real bad experience.”
Before the season, amid widespread reshuffling of Class AAA affiliates, the Nationals ended up with the Fresno Grizzlies. The team made almost no geographic sense for any franchise, but the New York Mets had bought the Nationals’ old affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y., and Nashville, their preferred location, picked the Texas Rangers instead and signed a four-year deal. The Nationals didn’t have much choice. They signed a two-year deal with Fresno.
Months later, the Nationals have all but abandoned Fresno as a legitimate place to keep fringe major league players whom they could need on short notice. The team has nearly as many players on its 40-man roster in Harrisburg (four) as it does in Fresno (five).
“They treat us great over there. It’s a great facility to play in,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “It’s [just] difficult geographically to move players back and forth.”
The team understood the challenges from the beginning. Fresno Yosemite International Airport does not fly nonstop to Washington, but Rizzo tried to apply a positive spin. When asked about the in-season availability of top prospect Carter Kieboom, he said, “We’ve got airplanes now, so he’s not that far away.”
In early April, the Nationals made Sanchez the season’s first call-up from Fresno. He became the first of 14 players so far this season to total 19 trips from California’s Central Valley to meet the Nationals. He was exhausted. On every subsequent trip, it seemed as though the player arrived dogged by whispers around the clubhouse of flight trouble, lost luggage and/or sleep deprivation.
By July, Rizzo admitted the challenge was becoming too much.
“It’s problematic to get somebody from Fresno there the next day and have them perform,” the general manager said last week. “[Players] are there physically, but they are getting into town at 4 or 5 in the morning and there is a game that night. It’s difficult. We’ve kind of learned on the fly.”
The travel issues followed one of two templates.
Reliever Austin Adams illustrated the first. In mid-April, the right-hander found out late the night before he was needed in the majors. Adams scrambled to a 7 p.m. flight with a layover in Phoenix. The next morning, he took an early flight to meet the team in Miami.
In mid-June, the Nationals needed starter Austin Voth. The right-hander woke up at 3:30 to catch a 6 a.m. flight to Salt Lake City, but mechanical issues and weather forced him to miss his connection. He got rerouted through Detroit in a middle seat and, later that night, arrived in the District with his baseball bag. His personal bag did not make it.
In mid-May, Kyle McGowin flew into Washington after an Adams-type trip. He slept in the nap room outside the clubhouse and said he would rely on adrenaline to carry him through the game.
“It's along with [us] being in California, so everyone’s got to get used to it,” he said. “It's not ideal, but it is what it is. Still got to perform.”
Once, a reporter joked to a Nationals front-office member that the team should buy one ticket on every overnight flight from Fresno for the rest of the season. “That’s actually not a horrible idea,” the official responded.
If you looked closely at the Nationals’ transaction report, you could see the team gradually arrive at Rizzo’s later conclusion. In April, the Nationals called up six players from Fresno. In May, it was five. In June and July, just four apiece. All the while, the Nationals started stashing more players on their 40-man roster in Harrisburg.
At first, it was just Sanchez. Then they added a few arms from the revolving bullpen. Then, coming out of the all-star break, they transferred three pitchers — Erick Fedde, McGowin and Voth — from Fresno to Harrisburg. The move left the Grizzlies with a dearth of starters but gave the big league club what it needed.
Throughout, the Nationals have maintained Fresno is a great developmental destination. They have kept Kieboom there to face Class AAA competition and cycled pitcher Joe Ross in and out while he has transitioned through his bullpen and starter roles.
This weekend, among the Nationals’ four roster moves, they selected the contract of reliever Javy Guerra from Fresno while they were on a West Coast road trip. Guerra was home in Arizona after being designated for assignment the week before, but it was the first time those logistics would have worked out all season. The circumstances also served as a reminder that the Nationals must go through this all again next season.
“We’re going to have to find something we like about it,” Rizzo said, “because we’re there.”
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