The Nationals have done a very good job in their scouting over the years in the Dominican Republic, especially recently with the signings of Victor Robles, Juan Soto and Wander Suero. Suero was signed in 2010. Robles inked his deal in 2013 and Soto in 2015.
Nationals vice president and assistant general manager of international operations Johnny DiPuglia has spent many years scouting and fostering contacts in the Dominican and Venezuela, way before a lot of other teams started to get into the act.
“It is hard to find guys down there, especially now with all the competition because people want you to sign the next Juan Soto,” DiPuglia said. “I probably won’t be able to sign another one like that ‘til I’m alive because those are few and far between players. Just like Atlanta, ‘Go sign me another Ronald Acuña Jr.,’ or San Diego, ‘Sign me another Fernando Tatis Jr.’
“Those things don’t happen very often. We have probably been the most productive team in baseball in the Dominican signing players in the last 10 years because we go about it in a simple basis. Just go out there and scout and try to sign the best player (and) make sure we get the makeup right. Thank God ownership last few years has come through and given us the finances to sign players.”
The Nationals are careful and diligent with these prospects, making sure all the paperwork is in order and the kid passes his physical examinations.
“We will not sign a player, obviously, without the physical, without the steroid test and without getting a five-year visa,” DiPuglia said. “If you don’t get a five-year visa we don’t move forward in the contract. Because if you get a one-year visa and you re-file for it the next year, the U.S. might deny him the visa because there is some fishy things about the identity. If the U.S. gives them a five-year visa, then I think the identity is pretty confirmed.
“You have to have documentation to allow the U.S. Embassy to move forward in giving you a five-year visa, which they are not easy to get nowadays, especially after 9/11. If we get the kid on a five-year visa then we are on solid ground on the identity.”
The Nationals’ Dominican baseball academy works to help prospects get the proper nutrition and strength training they need to get a shot at moving on to instructional league or Rookie-level ball.
“Pretty much the meals are all the same for everybody, but we will adjust the portions according to the body types,” DiPuglia said. “Some kids put on a lot of weight getting in there when they start eating. Some of these kids’ plates are like the end of the world. They have their protein shakes and then they have their weight program. Everybody is on a different program depending the stature of the person.
“Some of these plates you say, ‘Wow, how’s he going to eat all that?’ And some you have to take some of that away because their bodies get a little bit out of proportion. Some of them stay skinny and you want them to eat more. Some of them might have parasites in their digestive system that we have to address. Some of them might have bad teeth so we will get them on braces.”
The Nationals also put their newly signed prospects into English-as-a-second-language classes so they can communicate in English and Spanish once they get to the States.
“Shortstop Jose Sanchez from Venezuela graduated from Rosetta Stone (last week),” DiPuglia said. “The other day we had another kid graduate. The kids that are staying at the hotel in West Palm Beach, I have been trying to push them so they can graduate while they are there because they really weren’t doing a whole lot. I have been on top of them for that.”
The club makes a big deal about these graduations too, celebrating how hard these kids worked to learn the language while playing baseball.
“We have like a graduation for them when we are running,” DiPuglia said. “We aren’t running now because of the pandemic. But we will put a cap and gown on them. We will do the graduation march song and all the kids will be downstairs and they will say a speech in English and we will hand them their diploma. It’s a pretty unique thing.”
DiPuglia noted that the Nats have around 14 Venezuelan players housed in a West Palm Beach hotel during the coronavirus pandemic because club officials did not like the conditions the players would have been under had they been sent back to their native country.
“The gym at the Marriott has been open for a couple of weeks now, so they are allowed to do that,” DiPuglia said. “They opened the pool too, so that helps a lot.”
Rehab and Dominican Republic pitching coordinator Mark Grater, Triple-A Fresno pitching coach Michael Tejera, Dominican Summer League strength and conditioning coach Santo Del Rosario and low Single-A Hagerstown hitting coach Jorge Mejia lead the coaching staff there, staying in constant contact with the players. The coaches make sure the players all get the proper nutrition and strength and conditioning needed to stay in shape. Plus, the players are in class to work on learning the language.
“It is a tough one for them because we are not playing baseball,” DiPuglia said. “I am sure they would want to be home with their mom and dad or their girlfriend. I know it is a difficult time for them, especially at their ages. A lot of the kids are 18 or 19 years old.”