Final installment in a series on how the Nationals are focusing on improving nutrition in the minor leagues. Read the second part here.
The Nationals' minor league system has grown in talent and strength the last few seasons due to shrewd and strategic draft selections. The organization has also made sure those top draft picks are fed well, can build strength with the very best from every other team and do so on a level playing field.
In the third installment of Eating Right, we focus on the building of each athlete in the Nationals system from the moment he is selected and begins his journey to the major leagues.
Playing baseball and playing well is crucial to that ultimate goal. Strength and the proper nutrition are critical to getting there.
Landon Brandes, a former minor league third baseman in the Cardinals organization, has been the strength and conditioning coordinator in the Nationals' minor league system since 2009. He says strength and nutrition have to work hand in hand to build the best baseball player.
"Nutrition is probably the most important aspect of the assisting in what I try to do in developing these guy. The strength training and conditioning aspect is hugely important," Brandes said. "You can have the greatest strength program, but if you don't follow it up with the proper nutrition you are not going to see the results.
"When it is all said and done, they are going to make a decision on what they want to do, but we try to give them the right information and educate them and hopefully lead them in the right direction, so they make the best decision for themselves and for the organization."
Brandes was with the Dodgers in 2008 before arriving with the Nationals the following season. He said the proper nutrition has been a Nationals mandate at all levels of the organization.
"We take care of them with pregame spreads and postgame spreads and post-workouts (food choices and availability) and all that stuff," Brandes said. "There has been a huge advancement in that area and it leads to big-time development in the minor league system - not only in baseball development, but physical development as well, making them bigger, faster and stronger athletes.
"There has been a huge increase in the performance of the players. I think that is why we have made significant and positive strides with the organization. It isn't the reason why we made playoffs last year, that is not what I am saying, but it all works together."
Brandes said the Nationals give the players options as to what they need to eat at every restaurant they might go to on the road or after games. But when they are in house, they feed them well.
"We try to make it as healthy as we can, but also as tasteful," Brandes said. "We are not just going to give these guys cardboard and tell them it is the healthiest thing out there. We want the guys to enjoy what they are eating. That is important."
Players like Sammy Solis and Aaron Barrett confirmed the types of food, menus and abundance of choices have been very noticeable the past few seasons.
Last month, Brandes directed the inaugural Nationals prospects strength and conditioning camp in Viera, Fla. Brandes said it was a huge success and he hopes the team hosts one again next season.
"It was the first time, obviously, that we did it," Brandes said. "I couldn't have asked for it to go any smoother then it did. I couldn't have asked for any better results.
"The point of the camp was to educate the guys as to what intensity they need to be working at in the offseason. We brought (sports nutritionist) Leslie Bonci in for individual player meetings. I really wanted to make it fun for the guys, not just intense. That really was one of the primary goals."
Brandes said the Natioals set up Olympic-style events to test the speed, agility, strength and conditioning of each player.
"In the offseason, that is when they crank it up to maximize their offseason gains so they can get bigger and faster for next season," Brandes reasoned. "We made some competitions throughout the camp. There were 20 players and we split them up in four different groups of five: each team had team colors of red, black, white and blue.
"We would track each day how much weight each team lifted as a total for that team. We would add up every single exercise and every single rep. We would have team standings and individual (rankings). We had a specific formula that we would use for the individual weight lifting challenge, because the guy that would weigh 150 lbs. is going to be at a disadvantage for the guy that weighs 250 lbs. That is called relative strength.
"It came down to that final day when guys were pushing each other and challenging each other and there was some trash talking in the clubhouse, which also made it fun. We also made a speed agility obstacle course that we changed each day. We would add up each teams total time for that day."
There were three competitions: team conditioning, team weight lifting and individual weight lifting.
Here were the final top point-getters for individual relative strength:
1. Dominican second baseman Wilmer Difo (6-foot-0, 175 lbs.)
2. Right-handed pitcher Lucas Giolito (6-foot-6, 225 lbs.)
3. Right-handed pitcher Jake Jojansen (6-foot-6, 235 lbs.)