It was late Thursday night when the Harrisburg Senators, the Washington Nationals’ Double-A affiliate, let loose their celebration. After five months of baseball, after traversing the eastern part of the country for 138 games while sending five players to the major leagues, the Senators celebrated clinching a spot in the Eastern League playoffs.
Two nights later, their catcher, Sandy Leon, got the phone call every minor league player waits for. The Nationals‘ roster expanded on Sunday, and Leon was being added to the major league team. For the second time in his career, Leon was a big leaguer.
“I was expecting to stay there and play [in the playoffs] and see what happens,” Leon said Sunday evening. “But they called me yesterday and I was happy. I [wanted to] help the team win a championship but I am here now.”
This, regardless, is where Leon would rather be.
“You play to get to the big leagues,” he said with a smile.
That is, of course, the overriding purpose of the minor leagues. Teams build their farm systems in order to develop players into major leaguers, and the main goal is to produce as much MLB-caliber talent as possible. It’s how the success of any team’s system is judged.
What, then, should be made of the actual on-field success the Nationals‘ system has had this year?
The Nationals are sending four of their seven affiliates to the playoffs this year.
The Gulf Coast League Nationals — filled mostly with first-year professional players, many of whom are only teenagers — finished the regular season 49-9. That .845 winning percentage is the best single-season winning percentage for any U.S.-based minor league team in history, according to the Nationals. They won the GCL title Sunday.
Harrisburg has clinched a playoff spot with a 76-65 record. High Single-A Potomac (42-26) won its division along with earning the first-half divisional title, and low Single-A Hagerstown (42-26) earned a playoff spot by virtue of having the best record in its division in the first half.
“I think winning [in the minor leagues] is very important,” said Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr, who managed the 2008 Potomac team to a Carolina League championship. “I think you teach them how to win. I think that’s part of their development.
“Any organization that says that they’re not in it to win, just to develop, that’s crap. That’s just saying that because you didn’t win anything. But I believe that: you teach them to win. You want them to have experience playing in playoff atmospheres, even in the minor leagues, so when they get up here they’re not in awe.”
The Nationals are proud of the success their minor league teams have had this season. Briefly ranked as the No. 1 farm system in all of baseball before the 2012 season, the Nationals have depleted their minor league ranks through promotions to the big leagues and trades to bolster their major league roster.
But they’re rebuilding their stock quickly, particularly with pitchers, and that is evident in the success of these teams.
“I always say a byproduct of a good development program is winning,” said manager Davey Johnson. “If you develop properly, sign good players, a good development process leads to winning. I still say our organization is about a year behind having all the depth at high levels to supply the big leagues. We’re not quite there yet I think we will be after this year and a couple months into next year.”
“We’re never going to sacrifice the development of a player for a win but we do feel like winning is a part of development,” said Nationals director of player development Doug Harris. “That is a goal every night we go out, our goal is to win a ballgame.”
There are different obstacles in the minor leagues, however, to doing that. When Harris says the organization will “never sacrifice the development of a player for a win,” he means in tactical ways.
They won’t vary from the set parameters for use of relief pitchers, for example. And they won’t pinch hit for a top prospect, even if the game situation may dictate it.
“We’re never going to do that,” Harris said. “Ever.”
“Sometimes you have to give up a chance to win a game for their development,” Knorr said. “There are some instances where ‘We might lose this one but I need this guy to do this, I need to develop him in this respect.’ But hopefully by doing that, they develop faster and you end up winning the games anyway.”
The development of the players comes first. Winning is still an important aspect. The experience of playing in the playoffs is also something the Nationals like, and want their players to get as often as possible.
“I think it speaks to depth in the system,” Harris said of the affiliates’ success this year. “I think it speaks to discipline in how they prepare and play the game and I also think it’s a mindset. … It’s a fringe benefit, is what it is.”