David Huzzard: The Nationals and international free agents

The Nationals and international free agents go together like fire and Frankenstein, or at least that is how it has been in the past. Few Nats fans will forget Yunesky Maya, who was once touted as the third-best arm in the system behind Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. I don’t think we even need to compare those careers to know that Maya was nowhere near either of them in talent. Then there is Katsuhiko Maekawa, and if that name doesn’t sound familiar, don’t feel bad. The 29-year-old left hander the Nats signed to a minor league deal in 2008 never made it stateside. He found himself in legal trouble and was never able to acquire the proper work visa.

And finally for the Nationals’ bad luck in the international market, there is Smiley Gonzalez, who was really Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo and four years older than he claimed. This is a common scandal with international prospects, but what was uncommon was that assistant general manager Jose Rijo and general manager Jim Bowden were accused of skimming some of the bonus money the Nationals paid for the prospect. This led to the Nationals’ reputation in the Dominican being shot, the firing of Rijo and the resignation of Bowden.

The first duty of Mike Rizzo when he became the interim GM was to head to the Dominican Republic and secure a new training facility for the Nationals. Not much has been heard from the Nationals on the international front. They have prospects who were international free agents, and a couple of them have even made it to the majors in Eury Perez and Sandy Leon. But neither are top prospects and at this point it doesn’t look like either is going to stick with a big league club.

As dismal as the past has been for the Nationals and international free agents things are starting to turn around. The Nationals agreed to terms with five international free agents yesterday, the first day teams are allowed to sign such players. For those of us that pay attention not just to the major league club, but to every corner of the organization, July 2 news for the Nationals is a rarity. The Nationals are in no way devoid of international talent in the system. Last year’s 49-9 Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Nationals were buoyed by international prospects like Jefry Rodriguez, Randy Encarnacion and Diomedes Eusebio.

The Nationals are an organization built on player development, and adding prospects to the system through any means necessary is important, but a pipeline of international free agents is just another way to do it. Limiting the organization to the draft is never going to add enough talent. The Nationals haven’t done that but they’ve rarely made splashes in the international market and when they have it hasn’t gone well as evidenced by Maya and Gonzalez. The Nationals have added some talent by flying under the radar and many of the international prospects that helped the Gulf Coast Nationals to great success have picked up where they left off with the Single-A Hagerstown Suns or short-season Single-A Auburn Doubledays.

Rodriguez, 20, has the highest ceiling of any of the Nats’ current crop of international prospects. He struggled in his first four games with the Suns, but since the opening of the New York-Penn League, he’s helped the Doubledays by posting a 2.76 ERA in three starts. Rodriguez is a 6-foot-5, 185-lb. right-handed starting pitcher with a plus fastball and power curve. As with any power pitching prospect, his movement through the system depends on the development of his changeup, but he is an intriguing prospect to watch. After Rodriguez the only other real standout through the first 18 games of the New York-Penn League season is Jose Marmolejos-Diaz. The 21-year-old 6-foot-1 185-lb. left-handed first baseman has produced a slash line of .314/.419/.451. Minor league stats can always be deceiving, especially when it is a small sample size.

While the Nationals’ luck with international free agents has been anything but good, there is some talent starting to emerge in the system, and they added to it with a few July 2 signings. A Washington franchise has enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since the 1933 Senators improved upon their 93-61 record in 1932 by going 99-53 and losing the World Series in five games to the New York Giants. The secret for the current Nationals to continue their winning ways is to sign and develop new talent and getting involved in the international free agent market can do nothing but help.

David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our regular roster of writers.

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