At the top of our priorities list for this off-season was fixing the Washington Nationals development system. This type of endeavor does not get fixed overnight. Fortunately, it turned out that this was on top of the list for general manager Mike Rizzo, also. An almost complete revamping is underway in a change of personnel in the player development hierarchy. It was actually named as our No. 2 priority just after an extension of Juan Soto and before the No. 3 priority of fixing the bullpen.
Last week, Rizzo named De Jon Watson as the Director of Player Development as they moved Mark Scialabba from that position which he held since 2013, to a different position in Rizzo’s front office. What might have looked like a shuffling of the deck chairs on a sinking ship is actually much more than that. Yes, Watson was in a different position in the Nats’ front office, but he held this same position in player development with the Dodgers before he joined the Nats back in 2017 as an Assistant GM under Rizzo.
Scialabba joined the Washington Nationals in 2006 and served as Director of Minor League Operations from October of 2009 through November of 2013 when he received a promotion to Director of Player Development with duties on all aspects of Washington’s player development operations including contracts, roster management, budgets, and player personnel decisions. In December of 2019, Scialabba was then promoted to Assistant General Manager of Player Development.
If you excluded every first-round pick and top international signing from the equation, you could not come up with a name of a player who the system developed into an everyday player in the system. Besides that, there were high draft choices who stagnated in their development, only to see them prosper in other team’s systems.
Sure, the system produced stars like Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and Anthony Rendon, but with the exception of Zimmermann who was chosen at the top of the second round in 2007, the rest were all top picks, and considered “no-brainers” as future stars. From the international amateur signings came Soto, but he was the equivalent of a first round pick. Trea Turner came to the Nats via a trade, but he was basically fully developed by San Diego’s farm system before he was sent to the Nats in mid-2015, and Turner was also a top first round pick.
So yes, the failures in developing those non-blue chip draft picks has been costly to a Nats’ system that has even struggled to produce relief pitchers internally. Developing bench players and relievers are the low hanging fruit in the player development process compared to trying to promote starters and turning them into stars.
Before Scialabba took over, the Nats most successful internally produced reliever was Craig Stammen, and the system acquired Tanner Roark in 2010 as a struggling pitcher from the Rangers’ system and he was turned into a successful starter. But you just can’t point to a star in the mix.
Some would say the system produced players who were traded. Yes, but none of them were stars with the Nats. In a brief MLB stint with the Nats, Steven Souza Jr. was traded to Tampa in the 3-team deal that brought Turner and Joe Ross to the Nats. Unfortunately for Tampa, Souza never hit above .247 and after three seasons they traded him to Arizona. You would have to ask Scialabba who his successes were, but on the surface, there were too many failures which have been discussed ad naseum in the past here.
When you lack success inside your system, it usually becomes costly to keep making trades and signing free agents which is one reason the Nats payroll was the largest in the Majors from 2015 to 2018. Watson has his work cut out for him.
In player development, Watson has extensive experience with many players he can take some credit from his past years with the different teams he has worked for. With the Dodgers, there were dozens of players who became starts while he was in charge there. A short list includes Clayton Kershaw, Joc Pederson, Nathan Eovaldi, Corey Seager, Ross Stripling, Miguel Rojas, Dee Strange-Gordon, Julio Urias, Yasiel Puig, Scott Van Slyke, A.J. Ellis, Yimi Garcia, Victor Gonzalez as well as others.
“I am thrilled to move De Jon into this role as the Director of Player Development,” said Rizzo last week. “He has been an integral part of our success the last five seasons and has a documented track record of success in player development. He has a thorough understanding of our Minor League system and has the knowledge and experience to know what it takes to help players reach the Major Leagues.”
To give you some background, Watson has an extensive résumé with scouting and player development experience going back to 1991 with the Florida Marlins when he served as an area scout before the club won its first World Championship in 1997. Watson was a former Minor League player in the Kansas City Royals system for five years as a large-bodied first baseman before turning to scouting and player development.
Watson has kind of done it all and led the Los Angeles Dodgers player development system from 2007-14, serving as their vice president of player development for three years (2012-14) and before that as their assistant general manager for player development for five seasons (2007-11).
With this move, Watson, 55, kind of is going back to his front office roots, and the challenge is enormous as there were failures on multiple levels for years. Last year the Nats farm system was either rated last or second to last by every evaluator. After the July 31 trade deadline, the system improved after acquiring several minor leaguers after Rizzo traded Turner, Max Scherzer, Daniel Hudson, Jon Lester, Brad Hand, Yan Gomes, and Josh Harrison. That infusion of youth moved the farm system to a ranking of 23 by Baseball America, but with Josiah Gray moving from prospect status to rookie, he will no longer be factored into the farm rankings. The Nats top prospects at the moment are Keibert Ruiz (ranked 13th overall), Cade Cavalli (16), and Brady House (62). You would think there is only one way to go with this — and that is up!