Nats' Latin American program has come a long way

The Nationals have been linked to top Dominican prospect Armando Cruz for nearly a year and a half now, and today they're finally expected to announce they've signed the elite young shortstop for a reported $4 million bonus.

It's a whopping total for a kid who turns 17 on Saturday, and it's perhaps the latest and most convincing evidence just how far the Nats' Latin American scouting program has come over the last decade-plus.

Those who haven't followed the organization since the early days may not fully appreciate the long and winding path taken to reach this point. Those who do know the background can attest just how bad things used to be.

For the uninitiated: In 2006, the Nationals signed a 16-year-old shortstop named Esmailyn Gonzalez and gave him a then-franchise-record $1.4 million bonus. Former general manager Jim Bowden touted "Smiley" Gonzalez as a future star who would be worth every penny the just-installed Lerner ownership group spent on him.

Then in February 2009, the truth came out. Gonzalez wasn't 16 when he signed. He was 20. His real name was Carlos Alvarez. And he wasn't nearly as good a ballplayer as everyone had been led to believe.

The scandal cost Bowden (plus longtime confidant and former big league pitcher José Rijo) his job, elevated Mike Rizzo to the GM position and forced the Nationals to completely overhaul their Latin American program.

It took years before the Lerners were willing to spend big bucks on another teenager from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. Johnny DiPuglia, a well-respected scout, was hired to take over the operation, but was restricted to low-cost acquisitions for a long time.

Slowly but surely, the Nats did see the fruits of their labor. Wander Suero, Wilmer Difo, Pedro Severino, Rafael Bautista, Raudy Read and Reynaldo López all reached the big leagues between 2015-18, though none has blossomed into a star in D.C.

Then came the big names, and the big bonuses. DiPuglia signed Victor Robles in 2013 for a still-modest $225,000. Two years later, he inked Juan Soto for $1.5 million, finally topping Gonzalez's record bonus.

Antuna-At-Bat-Suns-Sidebar.jpgSince then, the Nationals also have paid good money to sign infielders Yasel Antuna ($3.9 million) and Luis García ($1.3 million) out of the Dominican Republic.

And so far, the money appears to have been well spent. Soto is one of baseball's best and brightest young stars and due to earn a huge raise this winter in his first crack at salary arbitration. Robles was the starting center fielder on a World Series champion as a rookie, and though he regressed last season he's still viewed as a long-term piece of the puzzle here.

García made his major league debut last summer at 19, and though he was erratic at times, he showed plenty of potential and gave the organization reason to believe he's going to be here to stay sometime in the near future.

Antuna has dealt with some injuries but is still only 21, is rated one of the organization's top 10 prospects and could be big-league ready by next season.

He's joined in the top 10 by 18-year-old Venezuelan right-hander Andry Lara, who signed two summers ago for $1.25 million. And four more players signed out of Latin America in recent years currently rank among the organization's top 15 prospects: Jeremy De La Rosa, Israel Pineda, Roismar Quintana and Joan Adon.

Still leading the operation is DiPuglia, who has since been promoted to vice president and assistant GM of international operations and in December 2019 was named International Scout of the Year by Major League Baseball.

It's been a long and winding road from DiPuglia since the Gonzalez scandal 12 years ago. But the Nationals, once a laughingstock in Latin America, now boast some of the sport's best young players from the region.

And today they're expected to add yet another big name to the organization, handing out the kind of signing bonus that hardly seemed possible to fathom only a few short years ago.

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