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The Nationals had MLB’s smallest player development staff. They plan to fix that.

The Nationals opted to rebuild this year, shipping out several players at the trade deadline. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

In 2021, the year they hit the reset button and placed a heavy emphasis — and heavy expectation — on developing young players, the Washington Nationals did not list a single nutritionist or mental skills coach in their minor league system. They didn’t have a full-time video staffer, a standard position for most franchises, at any level, leaving an intern to handle video and advance scouting at each affiliate, distilling information into a pair of iPads at every site. The Nationals also went the entire season without a catching coordinator, a basic role filled by every other organization, and acquired three catchers at the trade deadline in July.

When those players arrived, they found no minor league coach focused solely on their fundamentals or game-calling. The role was only addressed when Randy Knorr was reassigned in November.

“We were short on personnel,” General Manager Mike Rizzo told The Washington Post in November. “You saw it in the stress levels of some of the staff members. Some guys were doing double duty; we had infield coordinators managing teams. We felt this year that we were strapped, and it was something that we had to address, and ownership knew it.”

The Nationals had the smallest player development staff in the majors, according to a Washington Post review of media guides and minor league staff announcements for every MLB team. The analysis found the Nationals listed 46 full-time employees working as coordinators or directly with minor league players at their four affiliates, their Florida complex and in the Dominican Republic. The New York Yankees and Mets had more than 80, as did a handful of other teams. As for the rest of the National League East, the Miami Marlins listed around 70, the Philadelphia Phillies had 57, and the Atlanta Braves, the reigning World Series champions, had 51.

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

So while it’s hard to quantify how or whether player development staff size correlates to success in the majors, consider that before the July trade deadline, Washington ranked 30th in both staff size and on most prospect rankings. A pressing goal for this offseason, then, as Rizzo stated, is to fix each issue at once, adding new positions and changing a philosophy that has slipped behind the times. Rizzo noted how the department had gotten “stale” after 12 years, his tenure as GM. According to three people in the organization, the 2021 staff showed how ownership has invested in the minors — or, rather, how it hasn’t — while revealing the priorities of a front office that, under Rizzo, has typically focused more on scouting and building the major league roster through free agency and trades. Those people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

In a statement to The Post, Rizzo said, “As part of our rebuilding plan, we are investing in additional manpower and mind power this offseason which will ultimately increase our player development and minor league staff by at least 24%.”

It is a necessary step, especially with the team trying to compete again before Juan Soto can reach free agency after the 2024 season. Internally, there is skepticism about whether the Nationals are equipped to pull off the quick reboot they are promising — one that will depend on developing at least a handful of their prospects into contributors or valuable trade chips. But pledging growth is a start.

“We’re going to be active in adding staff at the scouting level and on the player development level,” Rizzo said at the general managers’ meetings in November, just before he nodded to pandemic cost-cutting that slimmed multiple departments, which also was a reality for most clubs. “Over the last couple years, with the covid setbacks, we lost a lot of personnel. We need to rectify that and make sure that we’ve got the staff to scout players and develop players.”

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

“We’re not going to add just to add,” De Jon Watson, the club’s new director of player development, explained in a recent phone interview. “We’re not going to put 15 coaches at one site, 12 at another, just to do it and say we did. Everyone will have a role, a responsibility, and we’re going to try to tie those together so we’re working in unison.”

For most of the past decade, as they chased titles with payrolls that annually ranked among the major leagues’ highest, the Nationals explained a deficient farm system as the price for trying to win. That showed in deals that shipped out Lucas Giolito, Jesús Luzardo and Dane Dunning, among others, for players who helped the Nationals win the World Series in 2019. But those decisions are only a sliver of why the Nationals have struggled to develop players.

One other element is misses in the draft. Then there’s a player development culture that, according to five minor leaguers, two former players and a mix of coaches and team officials, has not adapted with most MLB teams in nutrition, biomechanics or the use of video and advanced statistics. Contributing to that is the issue of staff size. By the end of the 2021 season, the front office had a spreadsheet comparing the Nationals’ player development staff with the other 29 franchises, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. The seeds were planted to fix it.

Two comparable player development staffs in 2021 belonged to the Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals. The Phillies, though similarly thin in many areas, climbed toward the middle of the MLB rankings with big staffs at their complex and in the Dominican. The Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Mets had some of the biggest overall staffs. The Los Angeles Dodgers were in that group, too, though their listings made it hard to decipher the exact number of minor league coordinators.

While compiling team data, The Post made subjective decisions about whether to tally certain subsets of employees. Education coordinators and language teachers were counted because they help players communicate. So were nutritionists, dietitians and all performance coaches, from rehab coordinators to biomechanics experts, because they work to keep players healthy and active.

Interns and part-time coaches/instructors were not counted, nor was anyone hired once the season began. Neither were equipment and clubhouse managers, special assistants and administrative staff, though their importance to their organizations should still be noted.

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The staff data shows only the Phillies had fewer managers, coaches, athletic trainers and strength coaches assigned directly to their four main affiliate teams (Class AAA, Class AA, high Class A, low Class A). The Phillies had 19 to the Nationals’ 20, which was tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cardinals and Rockies.

The Blue Jays, by contrast, had a dietitian and a mental performance coach for each affiliate club and the team at their Florida complex. They also had a development and position coach on each of those staffs, dwarfing the Nationals’ across-the-board affiliate structure of manager, hitting coach, pitching coach, athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coach. The Yankees had just over 40 coordinators — including performance science coaches, educators and a video team — which was the most in the majors. The Nationals listed only 11, again putting them ahead of just the Phillies and their woefully underperforming farm system.

“It’s all about education. There is no way that you can put a nutritionist in a clubhouse and expect immediate results,” Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins said at the GM meetings. “It takes a lot of time for people to authentically make it a part of their day and their routine, and that only happens if they believe it themselves. … So having those resources throughout the minors, as people who are there to support, educate — yes, provide things like water and supplements and well-balanced meals — it is more about the education and discussion and dialogue around it than the actual resource being there.

“But both are very important. The true measure will be winning. Secondarily would be looking at our overall health, and in our everyday position players that has definitely trended positive.”

Based on conversations with Rizzo and Watson, new positions could include a quality control coach to keep affiliates and coordinators on the same message; a technology and strategies role to coordinate the use of video and data across levels; and a low-level hitting and low-level pitching coordinator, plus an assistant director of player development, who already have been named. They also will have a member of their research and development department focused on pitching analytics in the minors.

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In mid-September, the Nationals let go of Tommy Shields (minor league field coordinator/manager), Gary Thurman (outfield/base-running coordinator), Brian Rupp (Class AA hitting coach) and Pat Rice (low Class A pitching coach). Around the same time, minor league pitching coordinator Brad Holman and minor league pitching coach Larry Pardo had their contracts terminated because they did not comply with a coronavirus vaccine mandate for non-playing employees. And in November, they officially moved Mark Scialabba, previously the assistant general manager in charge of player development, to a new role geared toward player acquisition in the majors and minors.

On top of the aforementioned growth, Washington still has to address some of these vacancies. Perhaps the organization will apply Rizzo and Watson’s stated vision of bringing in outside perspectives, plus better using analytics and video. Throughout the organization, there is acknowledgment that adding staff or cameras alone won’t bring the desired culture shift. Only the actual people can.

But if more people are employed, coaches and coordinators will be able to home in on their jobs instead of sharing the burden of a short staff. Young minor leaguers may no longer notice veterans who have played for other organizations grumbling about the lack of data, athletic trainers or support in the weight room. That will be a significant step.

“We’re going to make a lot of changes,” Rizzo said. “We’ve changed our entire coordinator system. We changed all the coordinators. I think we needed some fresh faces and fresh ideas and some new energy.”

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