Each offseason, a handful of Nationals prospects get the opportunity to work on their skills and gain valuable playing time experience in winter league competition in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
Do the Nationals just send whichever players they want to these teams? Or does the player decide when and where he plays?
There is a winter league agreement that’s the governing document between Major League Baseball and the winter leagues that mandates how many of these players will be employed on each of these teams and how much playing time they can play in each game.
“We can send as many of our own players as we like,” said Nationals director of player development Mark Scialabba. “But there is a cap on the number of import players that a team can have.”
Players like Matt Skole and Brian Goodwin playing in Mexico would be considered import players. Dominicans Rafael Bautista and Wilmer Difo would be native players while playing in their home country. But catcher Jhonatan Solano, a Colombian playing in the Dominican league, would be an import player.
Scialabba said the winter leagues are highly competitive and aren’t designed just to fill time between a minor or major league season and spring training.
“These jobs are not easy to get,” Scialabba said. “Because of the restrictions, there are a finite number of jobs. The winter league club has to want the player. It is a very competitive environment. Their main focus is winning. It’s not about development. It’s purely, ‘We want to win’. We are going to form relationships with these general managers. These teams and their scouts in these native countries are going to help.”
The general managers of these teams covet native players, Scialabba explained.
“They want their native players to play,” Scialabba said. “They want to very much promote the players from within their country and then supplement them with players they need, like starting pitchers they feel can help them.”
So how do the players get matched up with winter league teams?
Years back, the Nationals had discussions centering around former prospect Chris Marrero. Winter league clubs needed a first baseman, and the Nats had a Triple-A first baseman in Marrero. That’s how they started to put the deal together.
“Matt Skole, two years ago, they didn’t know Matt Skole,” Scialabba said. “Last year, he hit 24 home runs, played first and third, had a great year. Then it’s easier for Matt Skole to get a job.
Skole played this season with Naranjeros of Hermosillo in the Mexican Pacific winter league.
The Nationals had a relationship with Hermosillo in Mexico. Former major leaguer Derek Bryant, the player personnel director there, mentioned Skole in conversations with the Nats. Goodwin and Rafael Martin are also with Hermosillo.
Most of the time, a winter league club will reach out with a need for an infielder or a pitcher and they will inquire about who the Nats have available. Scialabba said relationships and trust with these clubs from past considerations helps to bring the two together.
“We have a connection with a team,” Scialabba said. “They will call us and see who we have available. We will recommend certain players. But at the end of the day, they have to agree to take on that player.”
Scialabba points to the experience that Goodwin had in Venezuela two seasons ago as part of why the talented outfielder is where he is today. Last season, Goodwin got a shot with the Nationals, playing in 22 games.
“Two years ago, we pushed hard to get Brian Goodwin on a (winter) team,” Scialabba recounted. “We sat down with Brian and explained the benefits and what this could do for his career. He was on board. He was open to the idea. Spoke to his agent. They were supportive as well. That’s how that opportunity came about. But he didn’t get a job right away. We sent out the information to all the clubs that he was a first-round pick, an outfielder that can play all three positions, (who) really hadn’t stayed healthy long enough to see his potential through.
“So we finally get him a job with a team in Venezuela that one of our scouts, Ron Rizzi, is close with, and he took off. He was very good for them. They wanted to keep him the whole year, but most of our American guys usually try to come home around the holidays if they start from the beginning. If they start after the holidays, then they will play the second half. He had a great year, great opportunity there. Margarita really changed his career path because of that opportunity.”
Most of the winter leagues begin around the second week of October and run until this time of year. The playoffs begin in January. The Carribean Series follows after playoffs, with league champions from various countries competing in a tournament.
Scialabba said some players will play the first two months and look to accrue around 120 plate appearances, then head home around Thanksgiving. For others, it can be a financial windfall after their minor league season has been completed, and they will play an entire winter season.
“Some guys will get paid a lot of money to do it and make a much higher salary in winter league then they made back home and play the whole time,” Scialabba said. “So it’s a case-by-case basis and how these jobs come about that sometimes decides length of play.”
Most of the discussion of winter players centers around position players. You will also see a lot of work for relievers. But Scialabba said the Nationals are extremely careful with how many starting pitchers they allow to play winter ball because of innings allotments through a taxing season.
“The hardest commodity to find down there is starting pitching, so they are constantly calling us asking about starting pitching,” Scialabba said. “We like to be risk averse with our starting pitching. We don’t like our starters to go down there unless they absolutely need innings.”
Scialabba said the Nats communicate from the outset with each of the winter league clubs that have their prospects. They go over games to be played, plate appearances, defensive positioning and innings limits.
“That’s when the relationships come in to play,” Scialabba said. “There are certain restrictions we can place on a player. Can we restrict a player from actually playing? Yes, we can, based on different factors per the league agreement. That could be based on fatigue: like pitcher reaching certain number of innings in a season or if a player played in a certain number of games and had a certain number of plate appearances.
“During the season we can discuss usage parameters. We can say we don’t want this pitcher to go back to back or pitch no more than two innings. Or if it’s a starting pitcher, we can restrict to no more than six innings, or when he reaches 45 innings, he can come home after that.”
What is interesting to this dynamic is how much the Nats can mandate how an import player is used versus a native player.
“You have less rights with the native players,” Scialabba said. “A lot of times, it’s up to that player. You have to have that discussion with that player and how much he wants to play. We can have that discussion with the GM and the manager and where we want them on the field. Sometimes, they have to do what’s best for their club. Their jobs are on the line, too. It’s very much a situation where the relationship we have with the club is very important.”
Coming up: What did Skole and other Nats players do to improve their games this winter league season? Is there more to winter ball for these players than just getting more at-bats or innings? What else do they learn about competition and baseball? Check back Monday for the second part of our look at the winter leagues.