Amid lockout, prospects learning "Nationals Way" in camp

They've been assembled in West Palm Beach, Fla., for the last week, wearing Nationals uniforms, taking the fields outside The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, throwing bullpen sessions, taking batting practice, having fielding and defensive fundamentals pounded into their heads.

They're just not big leaguers. Or, more specifically, part of big league camp.

As the lockout drags on and owners and players careen towards a do-or-die moment Monday that could result in the postponement of opening day, minor league spring training is just getting underway. As if taking place in an alternate universe from the labor drama playing out each day only 12 miles to the north in Jupiter, Nationals prospects, coaches and executives have been doing exactly what they do every spring: preparing for the upcoming minor league season.

Officially, minor league camp begins Thursday for pitchers and catchers, then March 10 for all position players in the system. For the last week, though, a sizeable group of top prospects and veterans who aren't on the club's 40-man roster have gotten a jump start on things with an early camp that team officials believe will set a new tone after last year's roster and player development staff overhaul.

"We have a ton of new instructors here, so it's an opportunity for them to get to know these kids in a slightly more relaxed environment before everyone starts competing for roster spots," said De Jon Watson, a seasoned assistant to general manager Mike Rizzo now entering his first season as director of player development. "So it's a chance to work on our leadership building, really set the tone for what kind of camp we want to have, what brand of play we're going to bring to the table this year and what it's going to look like here when we get the full population of players."

The-Ballpark-of-Palm-Beaches-curly-W-sidebar.jpgWatson, who simultaneously spoke Saturday with reporters both on site in West Palm Beach and back home in D.C. via Zoom, more than once used the term "brand" and also referred to establishing "the Nationals Way" during his 22-minute session. They may sound like buzzwords, but they could be as important to this organization's rebuild as any young player who has been acquired in the last 12 months.

In electing to sell eight veterans for 12 prospects at last July's trade deadline and embark on a full-scale rebuilding project, the Nationals also elected to overhaul a farm system that has lagged behind the rest of the sport in recent years and hasn't produced as many reliable major leaguers as anyone would prefer.

Watson, who spent eight years running the Dodgers' vaunted farm system from 2007-14 and then spent 2017-21 as one of Rizzo's many special assistants (with an emphasis on scouting), took on this new assignment in November, replacing Mark Scialabba, who is now assistant GM for player personnel.

Watson's first task: reorganizing the player development staff, whether moving familiar names (Bob Henley, Randy Knorr) into new roles or hiring established names from the outside to join the group (Dave Jauss, Bill Mueller, Coco Crisp, Joe Dillon, Jose Alguacil, Joel Hanrahan). All told, the Nationals added 14 new positions and brought in 20 new staff members from other organizations.

"Banging my head against the wall trying to find the right guys, and making sure the right guys were available to see if we could bring them into the fold," Watson said of a hectic first month on the job. "It was a ton of conversations with current staff members, friends within the industry, just utilizing that phone book we've had so long being in this great game. Just reached out to people that I really trusted to get some really good names added to the mix."

Once the staff was in place, meetings commenced and a plan was formulated. The key: establishing a program for everyone, one that would be consistent throughout the organization. In other words, establishing a "brand," a "Nationals Way."

"I think it's really important," Watson said. "From the first day they get into the organization and you have your first orientation meeting, you really have to start talking about how we're going to play, and how the Washington Nationals play the game."

So, what is the Nationals Way?

Watson mentioned a pitching approach that involves "being more aggressive in the zone and attacking the strike zone." He mentioned an offensive approach including "doing damage when we have the opportunity to do damage." A proper baserunning approach, especially when and how to go from first to third. And "playing with no panic" when in the field.

"I think it's a learned skill that we try to implement at every level," he said. "We're going to make sure that we're being disciplined about there being no little things in the game. It's about execution and being able to manage a game under control, and being relentless in our pursuit."

It's not something that's going to happen overnight. A farm system that most publications ranked 30th out of 30 organizations in baseball in 2021 enters this year up a few slots. Recent high-ceiling additions like first-round pick Brady House and international phenom Cristhian Vaquero (who will spend his first season as a pro at the Nats' Dominican academy) will help, as will returning blue chippers Cade Cavalli, Jackson Rutledge and Cole Henry.

But more talent is needed. And those who are already here need to make significant strides in 2022.

The good news: For now, they get all the attention in West Palm Beach. The entire staff is there to work with them, with no major leaguers allowed on the premises until who knows when.

And even if the Nationals aren't facing the Mets at Citi Field on March 31, the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings will be facing the Toledo Mud Hens on April 5. And the Double-A Harrisburg Senators, high Single-A Wilmington Blue Rocks and low Single-A Fredericksburg Nationals all will open their seasons April 8.

Even for those minor leaguers who should be in major league camp right now, there will be baseball soon enough.

"We're going to make sure they're prepared," Watson said. "So when they open the gates and open the doors for the other side, they're ready to go as soon as they come in the room."

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