MILWUAKEE — Every time the Washington Nationals have picked up a win this season there’s been plenty of pride for that victory throughout the organization. Perhaps more than many other teams in the big leagues, the 2012 Nationals are heavily home grown — either with their own draft picks or with players they traded for when they were still minor leaguers.
This weekend, with a gaggle of the Nationals’ top officials with the team in Milwaukee, the Nationals have won two of their first three games against the Brewers.
On Saturday night, they did so with home runs off the bats of Corey Brown (his first big league hit), Tyler Moore (his sixth of his rookie season) and Ryan Zimmerman (the 15th for the face of the franchise this year), as well as a command performance from Jordan Zimmermann (a 2007 draft pick).
They did so with eight players in the starting lineup who were either drafted by the Nationals or acquired as a minor leaguer in a trade, including three rookies and one, Brown, who was filling in for another rookie in Bryce Harper.
“With all the injuries we’ve had, the young guys have really stood up and picked up a lot of slack,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “Harper, (Steve Lombardozzi), Tyler Moore, the catchers, (Jhonatan Solano, Sandy Leon), the list goes on and on. Thats just a tribute to (Nationals GM Mike Rizzo) and the job they’ve done getting this organization prepared to take the next step.”
On a quiet Sunday morning, Nationals director of player development Doug Harris, who doesn’t usually travel with the team but is on this trip because of its proximity to the July 31 trade deadline, looked around and marveled at a clubhouse filled almost exclusively with players who’d been brought through the Nationals’ minor league system.
“To see them come up here and compete at the level they’re competing at — when we’re in the middle of this thing at this point in the year — it’s a tremendous feeling for a lot of men below us,” Harris said.
Seventeen of the players on the Nationals’ 25-man roster fit the description listed above. Twelve were drafted or signed by the Nationals or the Expos and four came to the organization as minor leaguers trades: Tyler Clippard, Ryan Mattheus, Brown and even Michael Morse. Jesus Flores falls somewhere in the middle as a Rule 5 pick.
If you extrapolate things further, six members of the current 40-man roster who’ve contributed at the big league level this season have also gone through the system, including John Lannan, Ryan Perry and Carlos Maldonado, as well as Jhonatan Solano and Ian Desmond, who are both on the disabled list right now.
And eight players who began the year in the minor leagues have found themselves called upon in the majors already this season.
“It’s the fruits of your labor,” Harris said, deferring a good deal of credit to the minor league staff that is responsible for cultivating that type of depth and talent on a daily basis.
Harris said he often receives text messages and phone calls from the minor league staffers when one of their homegrown players does something in the show. This morning he was fielding calls with people asking “Did you see what Corey did last night?”
“That’s why our guys do this,” he said. “We have a great staff in the minor leagues. There’s great camaraderie… Everybody’s fired up about it. But for the players, it’s opportunity. And that’s a credit to Davey and Rizz in that they’re not afraid to give these guys chances and they go hand in hand.
“The biggest thing is every one of these guys are tremendous makeup guys and that’s incredible to have.”
The Nationals system got mixed reviews as the 2012 season began. Named the No. 1 farm system in baseball this past offseason, four of their best prospects were shipped to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez trade and their talent close to the major leagues was said to have a drop off after the top names like Harper and Lombardozzi.
Moore, Brown, Solano and Leon — to name a few — have proven that false, playing integral roles for the team tied for the best record in the National League and helping them overcome a never-ending barrage of injuries to key players.
“We felt like we were deep,” Harris said, admitting that depth was predicated on certain players excelling in new roles as Lombardozzi and Moore have in left field. “We’ve actually been able to absorb the injuries pretty well because of the depth.
“We certainly maximized skill sets where, probably going into this thing, we didn’t have specific needs at specific spots… You try to have a vision and try to prepare for the what-ifs. And fortunately we’ve been able to do it.”
What Harris stressed most, however, was the work of the minor league staffs from managers and coaches to roving instructors and more, all the way on down. Then he emphasized the importance on the fact that the Nationals feel one common thread in almost all of their players is character.
“Our scouts do a very good job on that end,” Harris said. “But we also have certain standards and parameters that we’re going to work under in the minor leagues and if a player doesn’t really want to get on board with that, that’s the type of organization that we are.
“We want quality people along with quality players. That’s a big part of it. To a man they’re all tremendous guys. That’s what championships are (made of), championship makeup guys.”