Haas eager to bring old and new together in scouting department

Danny Haas believes it happened in Battle Creek, Mich., in the late 1990s, when he was an 18th-round draft pick of the Red Sox playing outfield in low Single-A and Mike Rizzo (a Midwest scout for the Red Sox at the time) was in town looking at some of the organization’s higher-rated prospects.

“He was there with his son,” Haas recalls, “and I gave him some bats and balls.”

And what did Rizzo think of him as a ballplayer?

“I hope he thinks I’m a better scout than I was a player,” Haas said with a laugh.

Yes, he does. Rizzo doesn’t really remember much about Haas’ playing abilities. He does have an incredibly strong opinion of his evaluation skills, which is why he recently hired him to be the Nationals’ new vice president of amateur scouting.

Haas’ path from that minor league stadium in Battle Creek to the man who will be in charge of the Nats’ draft room was a long one, but it was filled with successful stops along the way.

His playing career ended after five nondescript seasons in which he barely reached Double-A. But then-Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein hired him to the front office, named him the organization’s Scout of the Year in 2004 and promoted him to regional crosschecker in 2006. During Haas’ decade in Boston, the club drafted the likes of Mookie Betts, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsburg, Anthony Rizzo, Jonathan Papelbon, Clay Buchholz, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Jed Lowrie.

Haas moved to Baltimore in 2012, hired by the Orioles to be a national crosschecker and later promoted to special assistant to former executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette. During his seven years there, the Orioles drafted Kevin Gausman, Ryan Mountcastle, Trey Mancini, Hunter Harvey, Austin Hays, Christian Walker, Jonah Heim and Tanner Scott.

Next, it was onto Arizona, where Haas was a special assignment scout for a Diamondbacks, who over the last five years have drafted and developed Corbin Carroll, Tommy Henry, Ryne Nelson and Brandon Pfaadt while building a farm system that includes current top-100 prospects Jordan Lawler, Druw Jones and Tommy Troy.

So why after all that success, culminating with Arizona’s trip to the World Series in October, Haas, 47, want to join the Nationals? It starts with the guy who has been their GM since 2009, the same guy who he met in Michigan 26 years ago.

“It’s always been a bit of a personal dream,” Haas said. “I’ve known him since 1997. I was 22 years old. I played with some of the players he signed. And then he actually tried to get me with the D-backs when I was with the Red Sox. So the connection goes way back. I’ve known him for a long time. I have respect for him, what he’s done with the D-backs and with the Nats. I’m looking forward to the challenge here.”

The challenge is significant. For all their success during their run of contention from 2012-19, the Nationals haven’t had much success at all in the draft over the last decade.

Their most recent first-round pick to amass more than 5 WAR in the majors was Lucas Giolito, who was drafted in 2012 but appeared in only six games for Washington before he was shipped to the White Sox in the Adam Eaton trade.

Their most recent second-round pick to amass more than 1.2 WAR in the majors was Jordan Zimmermann, part of Rizzo’s very first draft class as a member of the Nationals organization in 2007.

With all of that surely in mind, Rizzo made the first significant changes to his scouting department in years this fall. Longtime scouting director Kris Kline and his longtime top lieutenant Mark Baca were reassigned to special assistant to the GM and West Coast crosschecker, respectively. In their place are three new hires from the outside: Haas, who will run the department; senior director of amateur scouting Brad Ciolek, who comes from the Orioles with a strong analytics background; and assistant director Reed Dunn, who began his career with the Nats in 2007 but spent the last decade with the Braves, working his way up to East Coast crosschecker.

“We’re going to let him be him,” Rizzo said of Haas’ authority as the new guy in charge of amateur scouting. “I think that when you have the track record of Danny and Brad and Reed and those guys, you brought them in to do their thing. We’re going to let them do their thing. Obviously, it’s a team effort and we’ll all have input on it, but we brought him in here for a reason.”

Haas isn’t afraid to describe his scouting methods as “old school.” He’s a former player. His father, Eddie, was a longtime scout who briefly replaced Joe Torre as Braves manager in 1985. He believes in the eye test you only get when trekking down a dusty road in the middle of nowhere to watch a 17-year-old start a high school regional championship game. He insists “makeup” is just as important, maybe more important, than raw talent.

But he fully believes in the power of analytics, which is why he’s so excited to reunite with Ciolek after previously working together in Baltimore. Haas speaks glowingly about the 37-year-old’s ability to use data to find the best available players and integrate his methods with traditional scouting.

“To this point,” he said, “we’ve been a pretty good balance.”

The entire scouting department will spend next spring watching hundreds of players in person across the country and compiling spreadsheets of information that attempts to condense everything down to useful metrics. Come July, they’ll lock themselves in a conference room at Nationals Park and they won’t come out until they’ve settled on a draft board.

There will be no shortage of opinions coming out of that room. But in the end, Haas will have the final say. He’s been doing this job for 25 years. But for the first time, he’ll be the one everyone else has to defer to when the time comes, a fact he’s slowly coming to grips with.

“We’re very collaborative,” he said. “This job has gotten to where it’s bigger than one person, for sure. So you’ve got to weigh all your voices. At the end of the day, someone has to make the call. But it’s a big process with a lot of input from a lot of folks.”

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