Update on the Dominican Republic, post-Smiley
A year ago at this time, almost every story written about the Washington Nationals contained some reference to a player named Esmailyn "Smiley" Gonzalez. Smiley, the Nats learned last February, was born in November 1985 -- not, as previously thought, on Sept. 21, 1989. This turned into a big problem, because the Nationals gave Smiley $1.4 million, only to find out that he had fake medical records, invented relatives and a different real name. As we now know, of course, the two men most responsible for Smiley's signing lost their jobs. And the Nationals used the trauma as an impetus to re-launch their international scouting operations.
So what's happened since? Well, Jose Rijo ran for mayor of San Cristobal and lost ... to Raul Mondesi. ("They went with the position player," one Nats employee recently joked.) Jim Bowden is now paid to talk about baseball, not run a team. And the Nats have hired a new Dominican staff, secured a permanent facility for their academy, and again resumed signing players, this time giving smaller contracts to players with real names.
"We have been signing players from other countries. We just haven't released that yet," said team president Stan Kasten, who could not identify the players because their records are still being vetted by Major League Baseball's office, a standard process for international signees. "We will soon. We have especially one guy we're very excited about who's very close to the bigs."
Oh, and what about Smiley himself? He played in 2009 in the Dominican Summer League, but he hasn't appeared in the U.S. since becoming, officially, Carlos David Alvarez Lugo.
"I can't get into it," Kasten said when asked for an update. "All I will say is, that case remains open. His future remains open, with question marks. And I wouldn't rule out your still seeing him. Even this year sometime."
"In the United States?" I asked.
"Yes," Kasten said. "I wouldn't rule that out. But there are many other things going on around it, and that's really all I can say right now. It's a piece of a much larger problem, as you know. [Gonzalez] got the most attention, because I wasn't willing to keep it quiet. I thought everyone needed to know about it. But a lot has happened in the last year throughout baseball, and much of it because of the attention that was finally brought to this problem because of the Smiley case. His case in particular though still has layers to it. That's all I can say. But I did give you that! Stay tuned. Do you need a 'stay tuned' at the end?"
Okay, enough of that.
Here's a Q&A with Mike Rizzo that should bring everybody up to speed on the latest in the D.R.
Q: So I understand from Stan that you have a new facility secured now for the upcoming season down in the Dominican?
Yeah, Boca Chica.
Q: What's the arrangement? Are you renting this facility?
We're leasing the academy in Boca Chica short-term until we get into our full-time permanent facility sometime in June, maybe middle of June or July or August. We may play the full Dominican season in the temporary facility, but there's a chance the permanent facility will be ready sooner.
Q: So how did you guys find this one?
It's operated by Abel Guerra, and we're leasing it from him. It's a new academy; I think it's one or two years old. And we have that on a temporary arrangement until we get into our full-time permanent facility, which right now we're working on. We're doing full-time rehabilitation of that whole facility right now -- the permanent one. And that should be ready ... well, it's hard to tell exactly when it will be ready to occupy full-time, because they're totally redoing two fields. It's two full fields, five covered batting cages and eight pitching mounds. Dormitories, cafeteria, weight room. Blah blah blah, the whole shooting match. But it's hard because they're scraping the whole field and putting two brand new surfaces in. So it could take one month or two months or three months depending on the grass or the rain. I can't be that specific.
Q: The facility you guys will be using temporarily and the full-time permanent one -- are they close together?
Yeah, very close.
Q: So I take it the permanent facility already existed beforehand and you guys are just refurbishing it?
It already existed. Not in bad condition, but it needs to be refurbished and cleaned up and all that stuff. And we're gonna put our colors and our logos on it and all that stuff. It's an existing academy that we're going to refurbish and call our own.
Q: Will it be owned by you guys?
No. We're going to lease it. But it will be our own. Permanently.
Q: How much time do you think it takes before you guys are truly at the level you and Stan might have envisioned [in 2006] for the Dominican operation?
I think by the end of 2010 we should be where we want to be. Because we've put resources into it, not only refurbishing a permanent academy but also with a permanent staff, a full-time staff and full-time top flight employees, the Johnny DiPuglias of the world. And we've got the resources to sign players. It's only a matter time before he gets them. And we have signed players. We're going to announce the signing of players internationally. So by the end of this season I think we should be caught up.
Q: How far back do you go with [new international scouting director] Johnny DiPuglia?
I've known him for a long time. We did not overlap in Boston, no, but we've been scouting together for 20 years.
Q: So why was he chosen to run things in the Dominican?
Well he brings a wealth of experience. He's been successful. He also brings a unique perspective to it because he's been a successful scout in the U.S., too. I mean, he signed Rick Ankiel and a lot of American players, too. So when he tells me, 'Rizz, if he was in the draft he'd be a solid third-round pick,' he has the experience to say that. So he brings unique leadership. He brings a unique background and skill set.
Q: I know it can still be a great bargain to find talent down there in that $20,000 or $25,000 signing bonus level. But do you anticipate any of the high-end signings that you see right before July 2?
You know, I'm not going to discount anything. But it's never been my M.O. In all the years I've been doing the international thing, on only two occasions have I spent more than $500,000 on a player.
Q: In what cases?
Tony Pena. He was with the Diamonbacks, now he's with the White Sox. That player. And a player named Jerry Gil, who made it to the big leagues with the Diamonbacks but never turned out to be the player I thought he'd be. So Tony Pena and Gil. I think you can get good bargains if you scout right. I signed Alberto Gonzalez for $25,000. I signed Carlos Gonzalez, the hot shot with the Colorado Rockies now, for $100,000. So I think there are bargains there without putting $3 or $4 million into one player. I think the big reason for having the academies, you can house 50 or 70 players and watch them grow. And you can see who turns out to be the players of the group.
Q: What impact, if any, does the possibility of a worldwide draft have on the way a team might invest itself down in the Dominican?
I don't think we've figured it out yet, how it's gonna work, if there's gonna be a decrease in activity down there or not (in the event of a worldwide draft). But it is an issue with teams and with developers who are building academies.
Q: Stan was saying he's found that even developers have less desire to build down there now.
Exactly. And we were set to build a new academy until the builder was affected by the uncertainty of this worldwide draft.
Q: So just for readers who might not know the background here, is there a simple answer for why the worldwide draft would make teams hesitant to build huge operations down there?
Yeah. Because if you say that international players will begin being drafted now, same category as anybody, so let's say you have a 50-round draft. How many rounds will be U.S.-based where the kids go into the traditional minor leagues? And how many are gonna be left to go into the Dominican Summer League and the academies? I think that is the main question. Are you really going to need a facility? Our new academy, we'll be able to house 75 players. Are you gonna need that big of a place to house that many players? When there are 50 rounds in a draft, the question is, are you going to need such a big place?
Q: Do you have any guess on the odds of a worldwide draft?
I don't know. That's something you'll hear more about in the ownership meetings. I think it's an ownership question.
Q: So it's been a year since everything hit the fan in the Dominican with you guys? What would you say are the lessons learned? What do you take away from all that?
Lessons learned, I think that the main lesson -- to be a front-line organization you have to consider the international market. That's a big piece of your developmental system. You have to be active in that market. You have to sign players from that market, because the statistics say that almost a third of your players are coming from outside of the domestic draft. So you'd better be active in it. You'd better have the training facility. You have to be in that part of the game to have complete success. And I think we're coming to the realization that we've finally got our feet on the ground there. We've got a facility that we call our own. We've got ourselves a guy at the top of it that is well respected and very successful at doing it. And we have the resources to sign the players we want. So it's been a 180 since last year. And I think we're finally heading in the right direction, and I know when you sit down and talk to me next year we'll be head and shoulders above where we are now.
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