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De Jon Watson has a clear vision as Nationals’ new head of player development

The Nationals are in the early stages of an organization-wide reboot. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

De Jon Watson’s phone has been ringing a lot this week. Officially named the Washington Nationals’ new director of player development Tuesday, Watson has touched base with holdover coaches and coordinators and started external searches for a small handful of openings. He is both part of and leading a critical transition, one the Nationals need to go well in the early stages of an organization-wide reboot.

Watson’s first task is to effectively add to the minor league staff. After that, the real challenge begins.

“I’ve had a ton of conversations with different people outside, just trying to find the best fit for us with how we’re trying to move this forward,” Watson told The Washington Post in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s just an exciting time. We have the opportunity to add to some places in our development system that we haven’t had in the past. So it’s a chance for us to really broaden what we’re doing, to grow our players as well as gathering new information on them.

“A key is getting some of those key PIs, those key performance indicators, so we know where they are when they’re coming in and where we’re going with them as we’re progressing.”

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

And the key to that, Watson explained, is modernizing the whole operation, infusing technology and people to use it. The 55-year-old has been with the Nationals since January 2017. He is a Los Angeles native, graduate of Santa Monica High and played five years of minor league ball with the Kansas City Royals organization. But with Washington, he has spent close to a half decade in scouting, serving as a special assistant to General Manager Mike Rizzo.

Scouting is his baseball roots. Player development, though, is what he did for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 2007 to 2014. So as he takes a new and important role for the Nationals — a job held by assistant general managers Mark Scialabba and Doug Harris in recent years — Watson is drawing on what he knows and still has to learn.

“Looking at the last four teams in this year’s playoffs, there were a lot of guys we developed into championship-caliber players that I can draw on now,” Watson said. “I’m talking about Nathan Eovaldi, Joc Pederson, Kenley Jansen, Julio Urias. There is a reason those guys were successful, but also there are new metrics and ways to quantify what we’ve been seeing with our eyes for a while. I think it’s blending all of that together. With L.A., I believe we were one of the first teams to introduce TrackMan into player development, so I have a basis there and have kept reading on what’s next.”

At the general managers’ meetings in Carlsbad, Calif., last week, Rizzo stressed the desire to get younger and more cutting-edge in player development. Watson then described practices and staffing decisions that would achieve that goal. When discussing pitchers, he referenced Rapsodo cameras and K-vests, which are used to measure biomechanics and movement patterns in real time. When asked about growing the staff, he referenced a “player development technology and strategies” position, someone to coordinate the use of technology and data across levels. He floated the possible addition of a “quality assurance coach” to keep all coordinators and affiliates on the same message.

Watson also threw player development buzz words such as “nutrition” and “data-driven” into his vision. For a majority of teams around baseball, these are common practices. For the Nationals, there is catching up to do in philosophy and investment from ownership. And that is a necessary step after they traded eight veterans at the deadline in July, placing more pressure on a system that has underachieved in recent years.

“We’re still talking baseball, man, so the baseline of all of this is learning those fundamental skills and how to play the game,” Watson said. “But the kids in high school and college, even the recruiting process has changed for them. Scouts and coaches are taking high-tech video. They are introducing them to advanced numbers, taking measurements of all sorts of things. So I want to get us to the point where we are speaking the same language as they are in college, then also introducing them to new technology or practices.

“We want to make sure our tools and information are in sync to make it an easier transition to the highest level. That’s our goal.”

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