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.