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Nationals search for a new director of player development as organizational overhaul continues

Mike Rizzo has a big task in tapping the right person to run player development for the Nationals. (Gregory Bull/AP Photo)
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CARLSBAD, Calif. — It is likely that the most important personnel decision of the Washington Nationals’ offseason will have nothing to do with a pitcher, corner outfielder or coach. The Nationals are in the process of looking for a new director of player development, according to General Manager Mike Rizzo, and have to nail the choice.

Rizzo told The Washington Post on Wednesday that the organization is considering internal and external candidates. He didn’t have a specific timeline for the hire or promotion. The opening is part of a major player development overhaul for the Nationals, who have been tinkering with the staff since mid-September. Three long-tenured coaches were fired at the end of the minor league season. Every coordinator was let go or reassigned. And now the team is searching for someone to bring the entire department — including members of the front office, four affiliate teams, the complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., and operations in the Dominican Republic — into the future.

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That became all the more critical once the Nationals sold off at the trade deadline in July. By doing so, they forfeited the present, strengthened a thin system with 12 prospects and looked ahead. Rizzo won’t call this stage a “rebuild,” conscious of suggesting it will take longer than he wants or expects. But it has put their minor league players, coaches, coordinators and leadership under a microscope.

Mark Scialabba, currently the assistant general manager in charge of player development, will keep his assistant GM title and shift to “player personnel.” He is expected to be in Washington more, rather than zipping between affiliates, and have a hand in every facet of player acquisition. John Wulf, previously a coordinator in baseball operations, has been promoted to assistant director of player development. But that still leaves a big spot to fill.

“We’re still in the interview process,” Rizzo said at MLB’s general managers’ meetings Wednesday. “But what we’re looking for is a fresh perspective and leadership style. That’s what I think we need.”

The Nationals’ deadline fire sale unfolded in a matter of days. But it was years in the making.

Scialabba has been with the Nationals since 2006 and was the director of player development for six years. He worked closely with Doug Harris, then had his role grow when Harris had to step back (and ultimately leave the organization this year) for medical reasons. Rizzo described Scialabba’s new role as a promotion, saying he will be “very hands-on with how we build our roster at the major league level.” Scialabba was bumped up to assistant general manager in November 2019.

The Nationals have since gone 26-34 and 65-97, good for back-to-back last-place finishes. And while only a fraction of that can be pinned to trouble developing major league contributors, a bottom-ranked system helped nudge them to dealing Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, among six others, this summer. Flaws in player development philosophy and a lack of resources — from staffing to technology — were exposed and given a hard look within the organization. Fixing that became a top priority.

In September, the Nationals fired Gary Thurman (outfield and base-running coordinator), Tommy Shields (manager for high Class A Wilmington), Brian Rupp (hitting coach for Class AA Harrisburg) and Pat Rice (pitching coach for low Class A Fredericksburg). When asked about those decisions Wednesday, Rizzo stressed a desire to get younger, be more progressive in coaching tactics and bring in voices from outside the organization. So far, though, the Nationals have named Randy Knorr and Bobby Henley as their new minor league catching coordinator and field coordinator, respectively. Knorr and Henley, both organizational lifers, were on the major league staff last season. Sam Narron, pitching coach for Harrisburg in 2021, is also their new minor league pitching coordinator.

That doesn’t mean these were not sound reassignments. Results will sort that out. They just don’t fulfill Rizzo’s stated goal of putting fresh eyes on a system that has been run by the same people for a while now. That could change, of course, if the next director of player development is from another club, injecting a new vision and varied experience. And that person will have heavy influence on hires for a growing staff, according to Rizzo, with current openings at minor league hitting coordinator — an important position — plus various coaching roles for affiliate teams.

But the first step is solidifying the top of an evolving department. No small thing.