The first email arrived to the entire baseball operations staff around 3 p.m. on Feb 1. The surprise was in the sender: Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who rarely corresponds via email. The pride was in the topic: “Congratulations.” Baseball America, one of the industry’s pre-eminent publications, had ranked the Nationals‘ farm system No. 1, and Rizzo felt it apt to express his thoughts to everyone who’d had a part in achieving that benchmark.
The second email came in shortly thereafter. This one was from principal owner Mark Lerner and it carried the same tone of gratitude and satisfaction. It also reflected perhaps the most impressive part of the recent rankings: When the publication’s 2007 rankings came out in February of that year, the Nationals were on the other end, No. 30. They were owners of the worst farm system with a “best prospects list” that some would say was ineptly titled. Esmailyn Gonzalez, who turned out to be Carlos Alvarez and four years older than he’d said, was their prized international acquisition.
“We knew better than anybody the condition that we purchased this team,” Lerner said. “To get from the Dead Sea — below sea level — to going up Mount Everest, it’s a long haul. Doing it in just five years, patting ourselves on the back, it’s pretty phenomenal.”
The ranking will change. The Nationals traded four of their best prospects to Oakland in December for left-hander Gio Gonzalez, and Baseball America’s executive editor, Jim Callis, said the organization will drop into the No. 5-10 range. ESPN.com’s Keith Law ranked them much lower, No. 21, because of what he said was a lack of depth. Before the trade, he concedes, they’d likely have been in the top 10.
But through an aggressive approach to the draft, where they spent more than $33 million on their top 12 picks the past three years, and a front-office roster heavy with scouting backgrounds and on-board with the organization’s vision, the Nationals‘ find themselves miles from their starting point — just like they planned.
‘It’s impossible to rush it’
When the Lerner family assumed ownership of the Nationals on May 3, 2006, it did so with no illusions.
“The team was No. 30 because there were only 30 teams,” said former team president Stan Kasten. “It would have been lower. No one was to blame. The team was being propped up for sale … and the farm system was allowed to, let’s say, wane. We knew that nothing good was going to happen — because it never does in baseball — until you had the proper scouting and player development system in place.”
They made that clear in their introductory news conference despite the knowledge that it would come with several painful years. Pushing through the Esmailyn Gonzalez scandal; failing to sign 2008 top pick Aaron Crow; losing more than 100 games in back-to-back years — it all was painful.
“Patience is the toughest thing to sell,” Rizzo said. “But the knowledgeable owners and the knowledgeable fans understand that it’s impossible to rush it. You can’t buy championships. You can buy short-term success.”
Thus began what became known as “The Plan.” Rizzo, a scout at his core, was the Lerners’ first hire as an assistant to then-GM Jim Bowden. The transformation of the scouting and player development department from that point was slow but dramatic.
“[Before the change in ownership] we only had nine scouts running around seeing players,” said former scouting director Dana Brown, now an assistant GM with the Blue Jays. “To put that in perspective, [in Toronto] we have almost 52 scouts.”
Brown recalled the 2003 draft, when he watched Matt Kemp go off the board in the sixth round with no idea who the future NL MVP candidate was. The Montreal Expos (who moved to D.C. and became the Nationals for the 2005 season) hadn’t scouted him. But the lack of manpower was just one issue. Under MLB rule, the team wasn’t allowed pay draft picks over the recommended value and Brown was powerless as they passed by top players, knowing they couldn’t afford them. That changed with the Lerners.
“When we get to the [Stephen] Strasburgs and the [Bryce] Harpers and [Anthony] Rendons and [Matt] Purkes of the world, honestly, we didn’t have reservations,” Lerner said. “Yes, it was expensive. Yes, it’s hard to sign that check once in a while. But at the end of the day, the bottom line was we were lucky to be in position to get these quality players.”
The staff also continued to evolve. Rizzo was the scouting director who brought Arizona from the No. 29 ranking in 2001 to the No. 1 spot in 2006 and much of his staff joined him in Washington, including scouting director Kris Kline. Kasten, who’d been instrumental in building the Atlanta Braves into a dynasty through a similar progression with Roy Clark, also was instrumental. Clark joined the Nationals in 2009. A scouting background became prevalent. Even director of player development Doug Harris came to Washington after 14 years as a scout.