More on the Nationals in the Dominican Republic
Someday, maybe, we'll be able to talk about the Nationals' efforts in Latin American without the Smiley Gonzalez fiasco as context. It remains, and likely will remain for a good while, a lesson, a warning and a hurdle to overcome. If nothing else, it exists as a constant reminder that the only thing certain in the Dominican Republic is the uncertainty.
I went to the Dominican Republic for three days last week to learn about the Nationals' new operations there. The first story, along with a magnificent photo gallery by Ricky Carioti, can be found here. Later this week, if all goes to plan, I'll have another story dealing with some of the loose ends from the case.
I was surprised by how little effect the Smiley case had on the people who run the academy. On a day-to-day basis, it really isn't an issue. Broadly, they have to wait longer for the more-thorough MLB investigations ushered in by the Smiley fallout, and they still have to work hard to convince ownership to provide resources. The staff there plugs along, happy to have a home. They're too busy with what's going on now to think about the controversy that happened before most of them got there.
The biggest difference for the Nationals between now and much of the past two years is that they have a home. The stability led to more respectability and a more appealing product for players who might sign. Their complex is "not the most luxurious," international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia said. He's right about that. The dorm rooms are like something you'd find in an army barracks, and everything is spare, even the office chairs. But "we have everything we need to get the job done."
DiPuglia's influence, a bit overlooked in today's story, has seemingly delivered what General Manager Mike Rizzo hoped it would when he chose him to reinvent the Nationals' Latin American operations. He speaks flawless English and Spanish and, after two decades scouting in the Dominican, he's got unparalleled connections. There's one thing you notice quickly -- there are no strangers in Dominican baseball circles. Everyone knows everyone.
DiPuglia's ties -- and his history -- have helped the Nationals attract players. He came from the Boston Red Sox, whose deep pockets made him a favored face to see among the island's buscones, the men who train and broker deals for players. "When Johnny comes," scouting coordinator Moises De La Mota said, "[the buscones] are all over the place."
The Nationals still aren't spending much in the Dominican, still focusing most of their attention on bonuses of less than $100,000. But, it seems, they're at least a presence. I went with Fausto Severino, the Nationals academy coordinator, as he scouted a game in the Dominican Prospect League, which is organized by buscones to showcase their unsigned players.
At the game, four buscones approached him. One of them wore a Nationals t-shirt and asked Severino in Spanish, "You get the shipment yet?" He wanted more equipment for him and his players. The handouts keep buscones happy, Severino explained, and help spread the team's brand.
Severino had spent most of day securing visas for Nationals players who will be attending spring training in Florida, either on the minor league or major league side of camp. His job entails a lot of roles, which can be summed up into, basically, making sure the academy runs smoothly. He also scouts on the side. He's worked for the Nationals for about a year, and he understood what awaited when he arrived.
"I knew there was the instability," Severino said. "From the beginning, it was a challenge. You had to regain the trust of the island."
But now the Nationals have a home, with a weight room and an English teacher. They just signed two players for $130,000 and $150,000. The first, catcher Raudy Read, 17, is a player the Nationals think will have the bat to play every day. The second, outfielder Randy Novas, 16, is a purported five-tool player.
One of the most interesting things I saw down there -- and I saw some fascinating stuff -- was the tryout the Nationals held. They brought in 37 players. De La Mota and his team of scouts would test them in the 60-yard dash, have the pitchers throw in the bullpen while fielders did infield-outfield drills and then play a game. The buscones who had brought their players sat under shade along the left field line and watched.
They whittled players to six and invited them to another tryout. As they announced which players would return, De La Mota did something curious: He walked away, like he could not care less. De La Mota chatted up players and buscones and showed interest, it could inflate their value. De La Mota wanted the buscones to believe their players made him indifferent.
"It's like playing poker," he said. "You don't show your emotions."
Signing players, for De La Mota, is also about aggression. With the Nationals' limited budget, his goal is to identify a prospect as early as possible, not only so he can shield the find from other teams, but also to keep the buscone's price down.
"Offer first, be aggressive," De La Mota said. "I'm not going to wait for someone else to see the guy. I'm going to sign him right now."
The Nationals have plenty of work left to do, and are not yet where they need to be or want to be in the Dominican. But they believe have a sound base of operations, that they've laid the necessary groundwork. "Johnny," De La Mota will sometimes tell DiPuglia. "You're working miracles down here, man."
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