The international signing period opened on July 2, and since Mike Rizzo assumed general manager duties in March 2009, he’s been tasked with improving the Nationals’ image in Latin America and building a better international scouting presence.
Rizzo recently sat down with MASNSports.com Nationals beat writer Ben Goessling to discuss the team’s international efforts this year:
Ben Goessling: You guys have signed a number of (international) players already at this point. Tell me a little bit about them and how the crop looks overall.
Mike Rizzo: Several of the players, we’re really excited about. We’ve signed 31 international free agents this season at different price points and that type of thing. We’re really excited about our six or seven top guys that we think have great ceilings and great developmental aspirations for them. We went hard after high-ceiling skill players. We signed several middle infielders and a lot of power arms. That’s really what we focused on down there - skilled, athletic, middle-of-the-field players and power arms
BG: This has obviously been an area of focus for you guys for reasons we all know about. How are things in Latin America at this point, and how long of a process is it to get it to where you want it to be?
Mike Rizzo: I think it’ll take several years to get it to where we want it to be, to get the inventory of players in the academy. But suffice it to say, this has been an exceptional year for us internationally. First and foremost, we put together a terrific staff down there. We hired a high-profile director of international scouting, Johnny DiPuglia. He came from the Boston Red Sox, where he signed the Hanley Ramirezes and the Miguel Cabreras of the world. We’ve allowed him to grow and put his stamp on the situation down there. Along with that, we’ve hired a full staff of scouts, not only in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, but throughout the world. We’ve got several scouts in Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, Curacao, throughout Latin American and the Pacific Rim. Combine that with the fact that we have a brand-new academy in Boca Chica that is fully Washington Nationals, with two full fields, covered batting cages, a state-of-the-art academy that can house up to 75 players. Although this is just a starting point, we think we’ve got a good foundation of something that’s going to be long-term and really allow us to get into that arena where we can really start churning out prospect after prospect that will help us in the major leagues.
BG: What still needs to happen to get you to where you want to be?
Mike Rizzo: I think we have to put in the time, find the elite players and start making inroads to get some of the more elite players. My philosophy has always been (down in Latin America), you go after - because they’re so far away from the major leagues, and they’re so young, that if you’re true to your philosophies, and go out and beat the agents to the players and beat the buscones to the players, you can get there before the rest of them and sign them for a reasonable amount of money. Really, the basic for Latin American academies is to have a quantity of players you can put in there so that when you sift through everything at the end of the day, you come out with a few jewels.
BG: Is that the main point of the academy, to get them in your system before the buscones get involved?
Mike Rizzo: The academy is there once they’re signed; they go there, and that’s where they play, live and develop. Don’t forget, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and many of the other countries we scout, they’re not as affluent as we are. We get players that are malnourished, dehydrated, and just not taken care of by doctors and dentists. We more or less transfer their whole life. I’ve signed people from dirt floors; they come to the academy, and that’s the nicest place they’ve ever lived. It really transfers their whole lifestyle. Even though a lot of the players don’t make it to the major leagues, you can feel good about yourself saying you have improved their life. You’re allowed to bring in potential guys you want to sign. There’s specific rules for the length of stay and that type of thing. We utilize it for that, also. You bring guys in that you go out and beat the bushes for, and send them to our academy, where you can take an extended look at them. It’s not like in the States; you can’t see them play in area code games, or the high school season, or college season. These players are scattered all over, they’re independent, and they very rarely play in a structured environment.
BG: For people who aren’t familiar with the rules, can you explain a little more about how the system works? Say, for instance, there’s a guy that you’re interested in, and they’re in the Rangers’ academy. How do the rules of engagement work there, if they’re not signed yet and they’re in somebody else’s academy?
Mike Rizzo: If they’re in somebody else’s academy, there’s time restrictions. Once they leave there, you can talk to them, you can bring them into your academy to work out, or you can sign them, if they’re not under contract.
BG: What’s the key to beating the buscones to the players and preventing some of the things we’ve heard about in the past (like Esmailyn Gonzalez) from happening?
Mike Rizzo: You do it by having a bigger scouting staff, where you can be in more places at once. You get them at an age where they’re playing youth baseball, and that type of thing. You locate them first, you evaluate them and you build a relationship with them. When they’re age-eligible to sign, you kind of have a jump start on the process.
BG: In the time you’ve been here, was there not enough of a scouting infrastructure to get things done?
Mike Rizzo: You’re always looking to improve things. When I ran the international scouting with Arizona, we had upwards of 12 to 14 scouts, and here, we had probably half of that. And it all stems from the top. My Latin American guy was Junior Noboa at the time (in Arizona), and he’s such a well-respected, fundamental baseball guy that it all flows from him. Now that we have Johnny DiPuglia (in Washington), he’s the same thing. He’s been doing it for a long, long time. He’s got the reputation. He’s signed a lot of really good players. All the rest of it will just flow from him. He’s going to put his mark on it, his stamp on it, and we have to trust him enough to allow him to do what he does.
BG: You’ve talked a lot about what you’ve done in the Dominican, and mentioned what you’ve done in Latin America. How are you guys doing in the Pacific Rim and into Asia?
Mike Rizzo: As far as the Pacific Rim goes, we’ve made inroads there. We’re scouting all of the professional leagues. Bill Singer is our coordinator of Pacific Rim scouting. Kasey McKeon has vast experience going over there. We’re going to send them over there to scout the Japanese major leagues for major league free agent prospects. But they also see the amateur stuff over there and make recommendations there, too, which is a much more difficult signing process.
BG: How soon do you expect to be able to sign guys straight out of Asia - or are you there now?
Mike Rizzo: I think we’re there now. I think we’ve got enough of a database on guys that we could use. I think to do that, to reach out there, the player you get has to really impact your team. It has to be a special type of player that you couldn’t have acquired here. I really think that’s an important part of it, because the culture’s so different. It’s such a difficult transition for them, culture-wise, that if they’re not a difference-maker type of player, then I think we’re a little better staying where we’re more familiar.
Below is also a list of the Nats’ top international signings from this year:
1. Rafael Martin (Mexico, RHP, playing AA-Harrisburg, AA All-Star team).
2. Jean Carlos Valdez (DR, age 16, SS, DSL All-Star team)
3. Miguel Angel Navarro (DR, RHS, 16)
4. Randolf Oduber (Aruba, LF, 21)
5. Wirkin Esteves (DR, RHS, 18, DSL All-Star)
6. Dennis Samuel Lellis (DR, RHS, 17)
7. Anthony Darleys Marcelino (Venez, RHS, 17)
8. Edgar Francisco Gonzalez (Venez, CF, 17)