The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A scandal once upended the Nationals in the Dominican Republic. Today, the well runs deep.

The Nationals have carefully rebuilt their scouting operations in the Dominican Republic and moved into a new academy facility in 2014. The restoration was necessitated by a 2009 signee identity scandal. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic — A framed lineup card from a game between the Nationals and New York Mets in September hangs inside Washington's baseball academy here, by the entrance to the administrative office. The dreadful Mets won as the playoff-bound Nationals were counting down the days to October. The result was trivial.

But the Nationals' starting lineup that Friday night in New York City was not trivial, at least not to the organization's international scouting department. Four of Washington's starters signed with the franchise as teenagers out of the Dominican Republic. Another hailed from Venezuela. Another Dominican signee was on the bench. After the game, the six players autographed the lineup card by their names and it was mailed to this outpost on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic.

"I framed it immediately," Alex Rodriguez, the Nationals' Dominican academy administrator, said this month.

The memento was nearly a decade in the making. For years, the Nationals faced a severe disadvantage in procuring talent from the Dominican Republic, the leading producer of major leaguers outside the United States, after a scandal forced an overhaul of their Dominican operations in 2009.

Today, the franchise's farm system is stocked with promising Dominican talent at every level. Five of the Nationals' consensus top 10 prospects are Dominican. Victor Robles and Juan Soto, two Dominican outfielders, are Nos. 1 and 2. Robles is a top 10 prospect across baseball. Soto could reach that level soon. Both are projected to become foundational pieces on South Capitol Street — if they're not traded for established big leaguers first.

The influx is the product of a gradual turnaround in a nation oozing with baseball talent, one that the Nationals believe will make continued success in Washington more attainable. It did not come easy.

"I'm not going to tell you it was a honeymoon," said Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals' vice president of international operations. "Obviously, it wasn't."

Rebuilding from ground up

A complete restoration was required because a federal probe in February 2009 revealed that shortstop Esmailyn "Smiley" Gonzalez, a promising Dominican prospect, was actually Carlos Alvarez and that he was 20 years old, not 16, when the Nationals gave him a then-club-record $1.4 million signing bonus in 2006. General manager Jim Bowden and Jose Rijo, Bowden's top adviser in Latin America, lost their jobs. The Nationals' presence in the Dominican Republic was left in shambles.

"We needed to start fresh," said Fausto Severino, who was hired in 2009 as an academy administrator in the Dominican Republic. "There was some stuff going on that needed to be addressed."

The revival began when Mike Rizzo, promoted to general manager in the fallout, made DiPuglia one of his first hires. DiPuglia boasted experience in rebounding from scandals in the region; the San Francisco Giants hired him as their assistant international scouting coordinator after a 1997 incident in which several Dominican players accused Luis Rosa, the club's coordinator of Latin American operations, of demanding sexual favors and embezzling signing bonuses and salaries.

The challenge with Washington, DiPuglia quickly realized, was mighty. When he visited the Nationals' headquarters for the first time to watch an instructional league game, he encountered two stupefying complications: The Nationals didn't have the money to pay the umpires, and the team's uniforms weren't ready. The organization eventually cut short the instructional league season.

But the most troubling revelation was ownership required approval for every potential signing, no matter how small the investment. It was a hindering obstacle in a frenzied open market.

"I'm not going to lie to you," DiPuglia said, "there was a couple of times I wanted to resign because it was so difficult."

One of the first priorities was signing younger players. The average age on Washington's Dominican Summer League team in 2009 was over 20 — hoary compared with other organizations. The average dropped to 17½ by the following summer. Securing a bigger budget to offer the best prospects market value, seven-digit signing bonuses followed. That didn't come as quickly.

"We had to get [ownership] to believe that not everybody in Latin America is there to steal money out of their pockets," DiPuglia said.

To convince ownership to allocate more resources, the department needed to discover and develop potential major league-caliber players. They scoured the clearance aisle for prospects and settled on a market inefficiency: slightly older players whose luster dulled within months in the cutthroat market.

Infielder Wilmer Difo was the first big leaguer to emerge from that initial phase after signing for $20,000 in 2010 at age 18. Then came catcher Pedro Severino ($55,000 signing bonus in 2011 at age 17), outfielder Rafael Bautista ($35,000 in 2011 at age 18), catcher Raudy Read ($130,000 in 2011 at age 17) and right-hander Reynaldo Lopez (signed as a catcher for $17,000 in 2012 at age 18).

"We've got players that nobody knew about," DiPuglia said, "and made them into big leaguers."

The Nationals rejoined the high-stakes table in 2013 when they gave third baseman Anderson Franco $900,000. The investment marked a symbolic triumph for DiPuglia's department. But it still did its best work away from the premium price tags; that was the same year they signed Robles for $225,000, which, it appears, will be remembered as a bargain.

Robles made his major league debut in September, becoming, at age 20, the youngest player to appear in a major league game in 2017. He was the seventh international free agent signed by the Nationals to make his major league debut with the club over the past three seasons. Six were from the Dominican Republic. The Nationals had just five international free agent signings make their debuts with them from 2009 through 2014. Two were Dominican.

There's another wave behind Robles, highlighted by Soto, whom the Nationals signed for $1.5 million in 2015, surpassing Gonzalez's bonus as the biggest given to a Latin American teenager in club history. Washington splurged further on Dominican teenagers the next year, giving Yasel Antuna $3.9 million and Luis Garcia $1.3 million. The infielders impressed in the Gulf Coast League as 17-year-olds last season, both hitting over .300, and are considered two of Washington's top 10 prospects.

Unearthing gems

The raucous group of position players burst out of the 9 a.m. team meeting on the first day of pre-spring training camp at the Nationals' academy this month. Nearly all of them bombarded Taisuke Sato, DiPuglia's assistant, with bear hugs, one by one, at the bottom of the stairs. A light workout was on deck, followed by a heavy lunch of rice, beans and chicken.

The players flocked to the batting cages, where they took turns hitting and teeing up balls for each other as coaches and club officials observed. Among those watching was Modesto Ulloa, a short 62-year-old man wearing a light blue polo tucked into his jeans on this warm, sunny morning.

Ulloa is the most experienced of the Nationals' five scouts in the Dominican Republic. His network throughout the country, one he's cultivated since taking his first scouting job with Japan's Hiroshima Toyo Carp in 1987, has led to his discovery of Robles, Soto and Difo, among others. Buscones — scout-trainer-agents who usually handle Dominican prospects before they sign — call to alert him when a prospect is playing. If it's a pitcher and Ulloa can't make it on time, the buscon waits until Ulloa arrives to put the pitcher on the mound.

"People don't do that for me," joked Fausto Severino, now a crosschecker based in Florida.

A plugged-in resource such as Ulloa is instrumental for a club whose international department remains understaffed compared with most competitors. He often finds obscure players before rivals swoop in, a skill the department prides itself on and one that is required to flourish in a showcase-driven industry.

"We don't go to the auction," DiPuglia said. "We go and find cars that go in the auction later on."

While Washington's international department consists of 12 full-time staff members, other clubs, DiPuglia pointed out, have a few dozen full-time employees dedicated to international scouting.

This month, for example, DiPuglia said the Nationals had four representatives, including him, at a showcase for Venezuelan players in Colombia. He estimated that other organizations deployed as many as 12. Rodriguez, the academy administrator, doubles as the Nationals' Puerto Rico scout, and the club doesn't have one in Mexico.

DiPuglia said he wants to improve operations in Venezuela, add another crosschecker to handle Latin America and hire a U.S.-based bilingual Latino liaison who roves the lower minor leagues to help players from Latin America.

"We're kind of on a skeleton crew," DiPuglia said. "But we always try to stay positive. When we first got here, there would be one or two prospects in that early camp. And now I think we're more predominately Latin American than we are U.S. throughout the organization, which is a good feeling."

In the Dominican Republic, the academy the Nationals moved into in 2014 is a considerable upgrade from their previous headquarters. The gym is stocked with the proper equipment — some was shipped from the Nationals' previous spring training home in Viera, Fla. — and the two fields are meticulously manicured. But they don't own the facility — they're leasing from former major leaguer Junior Noboa — and it lags behind most other clubs' amenities.

The Nationals have flourished anyway. The lineup card from that forgettable September game hanging in the academy's administrative office, alongside spring training portraits of each international free agent signing to reach the majors as a National since 2009, is proof. It was presented to the instructional league team last fall to serve as inspiration, to show the players that, yes, they can become big leaguers in a Nationals uniform.

The thought was nearly unfathomable less than a decade ago. The Nationals now expect it.

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