- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2005

The Montreal Expos once had a model player development system. The organization developed future major league stars like Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom and Vladimir Guerrero, and it was possible to field an All-Star team with one-time Expos prospects who went on to enjoy success in the majors.

But years of economic problems for the struggling franchise in Montreal — particularly the last three years under the ownership of Major League Baseball — have decimated the minor league system.

That means one of the challenges facing whoever purchases the Washington Nationals will be to rebuild it.

“The farm system is just average at best now,” a National League scout said. “They were able to keep up when they were losing all those great players to free agency because they were getting draft choices for compensation, two at a time for some of them. But in the past few years, they stopped getting those draft choices.

“They didn’t have the big free agents leaving that they used to and were forced to trade a number of players before they reached free agency so they didn’t have to go through arbitration.”

The Nationals do have some prospects, and one of them likely will be starting in center field in Monday’s season opener in Philadelphia.

Ryan Church, acquired before last season with shortstop Maicer Izturis from Cleveland, was the Expos’ minor league player of the year in 2004, batting .343 with 17 home runs and 78 RBI.

But there’s not much else in the cupboard, and Nationals general manager Jim Bowden has acknowledged that one of his priorities is to get the farm system back on track.

“I am not going to go forward and trade a top prospect for a player that is going to help us in 2005,” Bowden said. “That doesn’t make sense. I am going to act as if ‘what can I do as a steward of the organization to put them in the best position I can, short and long term, when the new owners come in?’”

One could argue trading Izturis and Juan Rivera to Anaheim for outfielder Jose Guillen during the offseason contradicts that promise. Guillen, who hit 27 home runs and drove in 104 runs for the Angels in 2004, will be a free agent after the season. That makes him a likely target for a midsummer trade if he has a successful first half.

Even though the Nationals should be one of the largest revenue-producing teams in the National League this season, they are operating with a $50million payroll, and Bowden is running the team as if it were a small-market club.

He has said small market teams can help themselves by getting prospects for players at the trading deadline in July, and he has taken steps this spring to start the process.

The Nationals have added a few more scouts to their system, and Bowden has hired several special assistants to help him find talent, including Jose Rijo. The former Cincinnati pitcher runs a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic and has been active this spring in signing talent for the Nationals and establishing a presence for the franchise in Latin America.

“When I first came in here and looked at the minor league system, I saw there is nothing there,” Rijo said. “Hopefully, we can start signing some prospects. I don’t care how good you are at the major league level, you need to have a good minor league system.”

The franchise has made some changes in its system that could benefit player development. Class A Potomac, just down the road in Prince William County, is now an affiliate. The Nationals’ move to Washington means Class AA Harrisburg, Pa. — just two hours away — is conveniently located.

The proximity of both affiliates will allow Nationals officials to see prospects on a regular basis and provide a nearby locale for injured major leaguers’ rehabilitation assignments.

The Nationals’ Class AAA team is now in New Orleans, a stark contrast to the Expos’ past affiliations with Edmonton and Ottawa, where bad weather was a concern early in the season.

The other minor league affiliates are Class A Savannah of the South Atlantic League; Class A Vermont in the short-season New York-Penn League; and the Gulf Coast Nationals in the Rookie League in Viera, Fla.

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