This was always going to be an important offseason for the Nationals. Not in terms of signing big-name free agents or making a big splash on the trade market, but in terms of making significant changes and improvements on the minor league side to start this first full year of the rebuild off on the right foot.
They have already signed a handful of veteran players to minor league deals to potentially help the major league roster and add depth to the upper levels of the farm system. They signed a top prospect as part of an initial 10-player class when the international signing period opened over the weekend. And in about a month, they'll restart their scouting of college and high school players in preparation for their No. 5 overall pick in this year's First-Year Player Draft.
And they took another important step yesterday when the team announced their 2022 minor league player development staff, which includes new roles, new faces and old faces in different roles.
These changes have been anticipated for a while, as they were hinted at by general manager Mike Rizzo during his end-of-season session with reporters on the last day of the regular season.
"We're certainly going to make some changes in the player development and scouting ranks, just to get some new ideas and some fresh looks and some fresh sets of eyes in there," Rizzo said on Oct. 3 to a group of reporters in the Nationals dugout before their season finale against the Red Sox. "And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Ten or 12 years with the same staff shows the cohesion, and then when you make some nice tweaks to get a new set of eyes and some new ideas is never a bad thing."
The tweaks have been made: 14 new roles and more than 20 new members in the organization, as the player development department is totally revamped with a strong focus on the lower levels of the minor league system.
The new roles include a developmental coach at each minor league affiliate (Triple-A down to the Rookie-level Florida Complex League), an assistant pitching coach for the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League, a second senior advisor of player development, a director of player development in technology and strategy, lower level hitting and pitching coordinators, a quality control coordinator, an athletic trainer, a mental skills coordinator and a nutritionist.
An important position to note there is the director of player development in technology and strategy, which will be filled by David Longley.
In this era of sabermetrics and advanced analytics, teams have more access to useful information than ever before. New technologies, including slow-motion capture cameras, swing trackers and virtual reality, provide new data to players to help them make even the smallest adjustments for major improvements.
But it's not just gathering the information that is helping teams across the sport. It's also how they implement and relate that information to their players. The data is useless if the player doesn't know what it means or what to do with it.
This is where we see the difference between teams who embrace and utilize this information and technology, and those who don't. It's usually a difference in sustained success (see the Dodgers, Astros, Yankees and Red Sox). And for rebuilding teams, like the Nationals, it can be an indicator for how quickly a team can develop its young players into their next competitive major league roster.
And just because this is a new title with the Nats, that doesn't mean they didn't have people already doing similar work. The Nationals have long been one of the best teams at embracing and using these advanced metrics. So fear not, a new position doesn't mean they're behind the curve.
Like Rizzo said, "a new set of eyes and some new ideas is never a bad thing."
Longley's rÃ©sumÃ© seemingly makes him a perfect candidate for this new role with the Nats. He spent the last six seasons with the Padres, the last three as their assistant director of baseball operations, and the first three as their coordinator of major league translation and baseball operations. Before that, he worked as an assistant in player development and scouting for the Yankees in 2015 and as a Spanish interpreter for the Dodgers in 2014.
Longley graduated in 2012 from Wheaton (Mass.) College, where he was also a captain of the baseball team, and he received his master of arts in Latin American studies from the University of California-San Diego last year.
Three things about his credentials stand out: he's worked in development, he's a former player and he speaks Spanish. All of these will play important factors in his new role.
First, he's already worked in a player development department. That's a pretty good start when "player development" is a part of your new title. By having worked as an assistant director of baseball operations, Longley has been trusted with his eye for scouting and ability to identify young talent, both attributes that Rizzo is known to value.
Second, Longley is a former player and captain of his team in college. Regardless of the level he reached, he's familiar with the ups and downs players go through in a typical season. He's been in their shoes and in a leadership role. He knows how they see the game and how to translate it back to them. Players young and old are more likely to accept help when it comes from one of their own.
And in speaking of translating, the third thing about his credentials to stand out is his ability to speak Spanish. Currently, 15 players on the Nationals' 40-man roster are native Spanish speakers. Eleven of the Nats' top 30 prospects were signed from the international market, including six in the top 11. The Nats just opened the new international signing period by agreeing to terms with 10 players from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Panama.
It's no secret that the Latin population is growing throughout the sport, and many of those players are quickly becoming the next superstars of baseball (hello, Juan Soto). Acquiring and developing these players have become more important than ever. And just as important is the ability to communicate new terms and technologies to them.
The Nationals have long been at the forefront of providing the necessary resources to their young Latin players. They arrange English lessons for all of their Spanish-speaking players and Spanish lessons for their English-speaking coaches and personnel.
Longley already fits the bill on that front, completing his qualifications for this new role.
It's an important role that headlines, but shouldn't overshadow, the reshaping of the minor league player development staff. Every new role will play a part in these young players' developments, from the directors to the developmental coaches to the mental skills coordinator and nutritionist.
The Nats hope these changes produce results sooner rather than later.