Like a Bad Penny

Brian Oliver weighs in on the Nationals farm system

Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.

I may have walked away from NFA last September but I didn’t stop following the minor leagues, and Sue was nice enough to offer me a place here to dip my toe back into the prospect pool one more time.

As Sue has mentioned, it’s the time of year for the prospect guides and I happily received my copy of the 2011 Baseball America Prospect Handbook last week. Fortunately for me (and my grading/lesson plans), there have been a couple of “snow” days and a pair of teacher workdays allowing me to dive into the BA Handbook.

The guys at BA do a tremendous job putting together a tome that discusses more than 900 of the top prospects in MLB, complete with scouting reports and projected ports of call to begin the 2011 season. As most who know my inclination is towards seeing how the Nationals are doing from a player-development point of view.

Back in 2005, BA ranked a threadbare Nationals system #26, led by the likes of Mike Hinckley and Larry Broadway. In 2006, Ryan Zimmerman allowed them to move up to #24, but aside from the anomaly of 2008 (BA was crazy to let the drafting of the left-handed firm of Detwiler, Smoker & McGeary cast that much influence on rankings [#10 overall]), the Nationals have been in the bottom third of the BA talent rankings for most of the last decade.

This year, the folks at BA have moved the Nationals to the top half of the class (#14 overall) and this time it’s with some merit. They have done a nice job of restocking and rebuilding a farm system torn apart by MLB ownership and mismanaged by Jim Bowden’s reign of error. Scanning the top 30 (or 31 if you ordered directly from BA… hello Sandy Leon), it has a nice balance of bats and arms, some close to the majors (Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos), some a year or two away (Derek Norris and perhaps Bryce Harper) and some (hopefully) a bit further out (A.J. Cole and Eury Perez).

Though, it is still a work in progress.

It’s that work in progress that I wanted to investigate. I scanned the Handbook with a focus on trying to uncover what makes the top organizations the top and where the Nationals fell in terms of that measuring stick. BA was kind enough to provide us with source of talent for all 30 organizations and it’s that I chose to compare.

They initially break out homegrown versus acquired. There’s really not much to surmise there (aside from Toronto making out well in the Roy Halladay trade). Most teams’ top prospects are homegrown and the Nationals are no exception with 28/31 prospects homegrown (not to mention nine of their top 10).

What is clear to me is that the Nats need to improve their performance internationally if they want to run with the top organizations in MLB. Only four of the top 31 Nats are homegrown and international compared to the top 10 franchises (Kansas City, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Toronto, New York [AL], Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago [NL], San Diego & Colorado). With the exception of the Cubs, none of the top organizations have less than seven international prospects.

While the focus the Nationals have had internationally has restarted after Smiley-gate, they still have a long way to go to establish a healthy and steady international pipeline. Mike Rizzo and company stepped up in 2010 signing Yunesky Maya, but that needs to be replicated and amplified from this point forward. They really need to crank up their presence internationally.

This does not mean they need to throw millions of dollars at one player. What it means is they need to do is invest the cost of one season of Jason Marquis ($7.5 million) into getting their Dominican academy up and running, set up a presence in the Pacific Rim, and look to get quality from quantity. Sign a couple of dozen players in the $20-100K range and see who they can develop. This is critical to long-term success because there are only a finite number of draft picks each season while the number of international free agents is only capped by roster space.

Additionally, the Nats are casting their lot with college players in the draft. While a more known commodity when it comes to projection, this normally comes with a reduced ceiling of what they can become. It’s a choice between an older player who may max out as a slightly above replacement level player versus a younger player who could turn into a key part of a winning organization. Yes, the risk of flameout increases with younger players, but this is where top organizations show faith and trust in their player identification — and more importantly, their player-development personnel.

The jury is still out on the Nats’ player development. Guys drafted in the top 10 picks out of college should make the majors for at least a cup of coffee. The Nats need to show us that they can turn on a pipeline that will continually crank out guys for the 25-man roster, and not just #5 starters, middle relievers and bench guys. The Nats need to get a pipeline in place that develops starters consistently… not just for Nats Park but also to move in deals to address weaknesses.

Let me close with this: It’s fantastic to see the Lerners write the big checks for the draft. Please keep that up and understand that the best way to put the Nats in a position to compete on a regular basis is to continue that investment and increase it internationally. Keep exploiting the First Year Player Draft by drafting and signing the AJ Coles and Robbie Rays of the world. It’s a system that can be used to replenish a farm system.

Next, show consistency and results in the player development process. I’m happy to see the Espinosas and Desmonds succeed, but it doesn’t stop there; there needs to be a steady stream of bats and arms at the ready. Rizzo, Doug Harris and their staff have done a solid job of standing up a minor-league organization over the last couple of seasons but there is much more work to do.

Author: NFA_Brian

Brian Oliver is better known as the driving force behind the late (and greatly missed) Nationals Farm Authority website, providing the Natmosphere with a (badly needed) voice of reason and calm. Brian was voted the "Favorite non-professional Nationals writer" by the DC-Internet Baseball Writers Association in 2010.

28 thoughts on “Like a Bad Penny”

  1. Great to read your take again. It is an analysis like this that should shut up those who think we no longer have a right to complain about what MLB did to this team. I have heard, “C’mon, you’ve had 6 years!” Beyond the fact that the winter before the 2007 season was the Lerners’ first chance, one must recall that a deliberately neglected farm system cannot be replenished in a few years, especially when you don’t have Major League talent to trade for it.

  2. So good to hear your “voice” again. You have hit the nails on their heard with your opinion on developing players once they are in the organization and to improve the NATS’ footprint in the international scene. Good luck with your teaching. Hope to hear from you again soon.

    1. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”.

      Let me add my voice to those who are happy to hear from you yet again, Brian. Sue_D is doing his utmost best to keep us in-line & informed, but it’s always a pleasure reading a post from the original voice of reason on the Nationals minor-league scene. Hope the teaching gig is still all you hoped it would be, and remains that way for many years to come.

  3. Brian, awesome to read this. Sue has been doing an amazing job. Definitely so needed in the Natmosphere.

  4. Brian, nicely put…They have done a nice job of restocking and rebuilding a farm system torn apart by MLB ownership and mismanaged by Jim Bowden’s reign of error.

    True true true and sad sad sad when you think about what was there in 2005 and the 1st round duds of 2007. I also like your analysis on international players which is so behind after SmileyGate.

  5. I am passionate about this topic. I firmly believe the most underrated part of this game is scouting. Now listen as a old time scout I am bias, but hear me out. Good scouts are hard to come by and good scouting directors are even more scarce. Show me a team with good scouts and I will bet dollars to donuts that the farm system is strong. I have seen teams go from bottom 5 to top 5 in prospects. Its starts with scouts from every level. Watching guys develop from the High school level. or being able to see something that noone else sees. It is very complex but once you have the knack and once you see beyond the popular opinion, you can really build a team. Now here is what seperates the average teams and good teams. PLAYER DEVELOPMENT. What does a team do at the rookie level, what kind of instructions are these young men getting and what kind of talent at the coaching level starts these guys out. I have watched mini camps my entire live and I can tell you 1st hand , the difference between teams is night and day. Now if you all truly believe that pitching is the game, then just take a look at your pitching coordinator. See how they run things and see how the try to develop talent. I can tell you that most young men coming into camp , from the 1st rounder to the 30th round kid , has talent. Some have played SEC, ACC, ball and some have just graduated HS . But I can tell you from experience that each of these young men are use to being successful, and the job of the coaches is to get the most out of eac and every young man.

    I love spring training, I love watching guys come back from 4 months off and seeing what they have done personally to get ready for the season. Did they get stronger, gain or lose weight . Work on their game. Its easy to see after the first week. Those are the guys you spend your time with. Those are the guys who get your system to the next level.

    Every scout has their war stories. But if you want to develop players , then have the best teachers from rookie to AAA working these young men

  6. Thanks Brian! Your takes are always a good read. Y’all come back now, ya hear! Thx again for your sacrifice as a teacher. As I parent of a senior (Southlakes), it’s much appreciated.

  7. Couldn’t part of the challenge be that the Nats *scouting* internationally is worse? They simply may not have as many people on the ground in the Dominican, although I suspect that they are working hard to build an infrastructure that will allow them to develop more guys than just Eury Perez. An even larger problem may be that the energy that we have to spend on rebuilding the Dominican may be sucking energy away from other potential academies to develop in Venezuela or other Latin American countries or from scouting in what seem to be “frontier” areas like Korea or elsewhere. You and others probably know more about this than I do; for the moment, I’m just a guy that looks at a lot of box scores.

    Eury Perez is probably worth some kind of case study analysis to find out how we bumped into him, how he developed, and how much of his success can be replicated.

    Hope your teaching is going well, and as always, please let us know if there is anything that we can do to help. You have given so much to our community here in the Natmosphere; if there is anything that we can give in return, please do not hesitate to ask for some small space in the Natmosphere to ask.

    1. BA highlights that the Nats actually signed two of their top 31 (Adrian Sanchez & Sandy Leon) on the same scouting trip to Venezuela … a trip by Rizzo and Dana Brown. It seems they have someone who knows that market.

      The Perez study is interesting to see where he came from, who he was signed at the same time as, and who ID’d him

      1. What’s going on here? All of these metaphors this morning? First, Goessling compares the catching battle to the end game in Odysseus … and now this? 😉
        And JimBo? Look at how well Cincinnati under Jockety has done since JimBo left?

        Hmm add Yuniesky Maya to the above list and you get at least three guys, currently in the system, identified by Rizzo … there’s “old scout”, (and his dad) Mel. Then it begs the question: When is Roy Clark going to the Dominican? He’s the guy who is good at identifying the high school/prep school type players?

        I think what Mel and Brian touch on is pretty important: Player Development. JayB is right in his tirades about that. Its what Dayton Moore addressed first when he got into KC’s system. Friedman too. Upon hiring Roy Clark have to believe Rizzo must be a big believer as well … but it still needs upgrading?

  8. Brian Dan Brown worked under Omar Minaya while with the the nats . So the DR connection is there. During the off season the Tornoto BlueJays Names Dana Brown Ass GM .

  9. 2008 (BA was crazy to let the drafting of the left-handed firm of Detwiler, Smoker & McGeary cast that much influence on rankings [#10 overall]),

    Guess they learned. Even with Harper, Cole, Ray and Solis they still only made it to #14. And KLaw has them at 19. KLaw’s Nat’s sleeper is AJ Cole who is a high school pitcher. Hopefully, history won’t repeat itself.

  10. Can’t tell you how great it is to have so many sites to read!! Thanks Brian and I am glad you and “sue” can tag-team this to make it even better.

  11. Good to see your work again Brian. I missed your perspective. I hope the pipeline to International players cranks up soon also.

  12. Brian,
    You forgot to mention the years before #26 when they were #30 for 3 or 4 years in a row. Truly, a fallow system then, and it’s a long road back.
    This will be the best year ever to be a Nats minor league seamhead.

  13. Thought this was kind of interesting … and perhaps worth the cut-and-paste here from BA’s Ask_BA and Jim Callis:

    I’ve been hearing that the upcoming draft is especially deep. Is this because of talent? Or is it because with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement coming for 2012 and the belief that signing bonuses will be limited in the future, high school prospects who ordinarily would go to college will be more likely to turn pro? Or some combination of both?

    The 2011 indeed is deeper than usual, and that perception comes solely from the ability and not the signability of the players involved. The college pitching crop is exceptional, starting with potential No. 1overall picks UCLA’s Gerrit Cole and Texas Christian’s Matt Purke and top-10-caliber talents in Texas’ Taylor Jungmann, Connecticut’s Matt Barnes, Vanderbilt’s Sonny Gray, Georgia Tech’s Jed Bradley, Virginia’s Danny Hultzen, UCLA’s Trevor Bauer and Texas A&M’s John Stilson. The college hitters are better than usual, headlined by the draft’s best prospect in Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon and outfielders George Springer (Connecticut) and Jackie Bradley (South Carolina).

    There are plenty of attractive high school prospects as well. As with the collegians, the prepsters stand out most for their pitching: Archie Bradley (Broken Arrow, Okla., HS), Daniel Norris (Science Hill HS, Johnson City, Tenn.), Dylan Bundy (Owasso, Okla., HS), Henry Owens (Edison HS, Huntington Beach, Calif.), Dillon Howard (Searcy, Ark., HS) and Jose Fernandez (Alonso HS, Tampa). The high school hitting class is also solid, led by outfielder Bubba Starling (Gardner-Edgerton HS, Gardner, Kan.), shortstop Francisco Lindor (Montverde, Fla., Academy), outfielder Josh Bell (Jesuit College Prep, Dallas) and catcher Blake Swihart (Cleveland HS, Rio Rancho, N.M.).

    High school players do figure to be more likely to sign this year, not so much because they fear mandated draft slotting but because the teams do. Clubs figure this will be their last chance to spend whatever they want on the draft, which also could make it their last chance to sign talented high school players who slide past the first or second round. Teams spent a record $194.8 million on draft bonuses last year, including $75.1 million on 76 above-slot deals for high schoolers, and those numbers are only going to go up in 2011.

  14. Brian….
    While I echo those who praise your “return,” I will simply thank you for your contributions via NFA and hope that your success in the blogging world continues in the academic arena…

  15. Always great to hear from you Brian. He helped provide answers to many questions about the farm system to those with many a question (well, in my case, had nary a clue).

    Eury Perez was a part of the last pre-Smiley-Gate class of Caribbean signee, with Marcos Frias, Hendry Jimenez, Francisco Soriano, Sandy Leon and Adrian Sanchez But it had Dominican retreads (guys previously dropped by other ML Dominican Summer League teams – usually past “prospect” age). With Smiley-Gate, we finally stopped signing retreads. Unfortunately our Venezuelan pipeline disappered – 1 Venezuelan signee in two years, when we had 16 the previous 3 yrs.

    So our system (stateside) is now feeling the brunt of that dry spell in 2k8 & 2k9. We felt it last year in trying to rush a few new signees into the GCL when they should have spent a year in the DSL. The good news was the Caribbean pipeline came back with a vengance last year. 26 Dominicans! 6 Venezuelans! Even a Colombian! (I exclude Martin & Maya since both of them did not require much of a scouting infrastructure to sign.) Just hope there is some quality (Wirkin Estavez?) in that quantity.

    1. Really, really helpful comment. Thanks for the information. I don’t follow stuff below Hagerstown that closely and I’m glad to have the info on Perez.

  16. Speaking of IFAs, I believe that we’re still trying to solve the mystery of Cleto Brazoban. Vidal Paredes was signed at the same time, and I also can’t find a trace of him, but Brazoban got much more hype. Anyone?

  17. So the prodigal son returns, eh? Very nicely done Brian. Your work is certainly missed and will likely be felt even more once the season cranks up. I stayed up late tonight doing a quite pathetic job of analysis provoked by some of your excellent points.
    1) Number of Intl Signees & HS players on teams’ Top 31. In your analysis, you wisely compared the Nats’ performance to the Top 10 Organizations as listed by BA. I wholeheartedly agree with this comparison. However, just for kicks, I took it one step further and compared the Nats to the 8 playoff teams from last year….figuring that being deemed as having a Top 10 organization according to BA is one thing, but winning a division, pennant or WS is another. Surprisingly (or not), only 4 playoff teams are in the Top 10 Orgs. A quick rundown with teams listed in their BA Organizational Talent Rankings shows (Intl / HS & combined total): #2 ATL – 7/2=9 (an anomaly?), #3 TB – 8/14=22 (they must have a scout at 20% of all HS’s in the USA), #5 NYY – 9/10=19, #6 CIN – 12/8=20, #11 PHI – 7/13=20, #13 MIN – 9/9=18, #14 your Washington Nationals – 4/7=11, #15 TX – 12/11=23 (23 of 31…74%….are you kidding me?!), and your WS Champs coming in at #23 SF – 7/7=14. What this analysis shows is that with the exception of Atlanta, the Nats record in bringing in International and HS talent is significantly behind when compared to playoff teams – much the same as when compared to the Top 10 Orgs. The playoff team having the closest amount of International prospects (an aspect Brian is especially attuned to) in their Top 31 to the Nats’ 4 is SF and PHI each with 7, or almost double what the Nats have. The cream of the crop (CIN & TX) have 12, or three times what the Nats have.
    2) Getting your Top 10 Draft Picks to The Show. I cringe at the thought of researching the other teams’ performance, but taking Brian’s point and pulling up his trusty old ‘Draft Tracker’ (now being maintained quite well by this site!) we can see the Nats’ performance (Still with team / MLB appearance): ‘05 – 3/2, ‘06 – 5/0, ‘07 – 9/2, ‘08 – 7/1, ‘09 – 9/2 and last year 10/0. These numbers reflect the recent departures of Morris and Burgess. The totals out of 62 Top 10 Draft Picks (Nats had 2 S1’s in 07) are 43 Still With Team (69%) and 7 Cups of Coffee (11%). Considering their propensity for taking college players over HS, I don’t feel the 11% metric is anything to write home about. However, I do not know what other teams’ success rate are; this would be nice to know. But it would seem to indicate that the development aspect needs to be tightened up a bit. Which leads me to…..
    3) The importance of scouting and player development. Souldrummer, Mel and Brian all nailed this point already, but this area is crucial. Interestingly enough, it is somewhat difficult to find out exactly how many scouts each team uses. I know some are listed in BA Directory, but not all of them. I personally know of one in my area who scouts for the Phillies and was responsible for a couple of their picks last year and he’s not even listed. All teams list about the same # on their official MLB websites (around 12 or so in scouting and player development combined). Another poster brought up a great idea of using the E Perez signing / development as a case study. While I agree this would be the easiest way to learn what the Nats did right, I would suggest that what really should be done is to use the scouting / player development models of TX & CIN as the true ‘role models’. Dig into what they specifically did (ie, # of scouts, # of games attended, status of international academies, # of players scouted, # of players signed, experience level of scouts, etc, etc, etc). Basically, those steps that those teams took led to bringing in 12 of their Top 31 from the international arena. Conversely, you look at those steps that the Nats did that led to them bringing in only 4 and that difference, or gap, is what needs to be addressed. This challenge is made even more difficult I would imagine by the relative secrecy or confidentiality that teams seem to shroud their scouting / player development efforts in.
    Anyway, I’m done blabbering.
    Thanks again to all previous posters….some great comments and very insightful. Your knowledge and analysis continue to impress.

    1. “This challenge is made even more difficult I would imagine by the relative secrecy or confidentiality that teams seem to shroud their scouting / player development efforts in.”

      This bears mentioning because it’s not a frequently told story. When Michael Lewis was doing his book Moneyball, he was researching both the A’s and the Twins. I remember very clearly him doing a radio interview in which he said his decision to turn the focus on the A’s was made in part because somebody broke into his office and stolen his PC and notes when he was about a third of the way through the book.

      Now, that could be purely coincidental, but Lewis had already made a name for himself with “Liar’s Poker” and it’s really not that implausible that another organization (or even the Twins themselves) decided to hire a “plumber” or two. Dare I remind folks of the late King George and Mr. Winfield?

      Anyway, thanks for the long comment — I do read them all and can be swayed because the site is merely vanity without serving its visitors. Should you decide that you want to write a guest post about this, I can be contacted at enfieldmass-natsprospects[at]yahoo[dot]com.

      And thanks again to Brian for this post. Usually filling someone else’s shoes is hardly a problem when you wear a size 13, but Brian is a metaphorical Bob Lanier.

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