Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Jim Bowden/Mike Rizzo ESPN Zone Part Two
Finishing up where we left off in Part One. Our General Manager Jim Bowden and Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Player Development Mike Rizzo are sitting in The ESPN Zone in Downtown Washington, DC last Friday, September 19 meeting, greeting and chatting with Fans of Our Washington Nationals. Radio Broadcaster Charlie Slowes is hosting.
With that, here with go with the conclusion:
Charlie: How do you make decisions going through the off-season for the guys who have been hurt? I know you speak to the doctors and they let you know what the recovery is going to be like and whether a guy is going to be as good as new. But, you never know that until he gets on the field in spring training—as you were so surprised with Nick (Johnson) last spring.
Jim: As you know, we have to evaluate what the doctors say about the player coming back. And we have to look at how their injuries are going to affect their performance. Those are tough judgments to make. Obviously, the one concerning a player who has missed the entire season, or most of the season, I don’t think anyone should ever assume at this level, the player can definitely come back in the exact same level as he was before. It’s happened before. I have had Ron Gant and Eric Davis miss entire years and both of them came back and hit 30 Home Runs as if they hadn’t missed a year. That does happen, but you have to take all the information, put it together, look at it, and make your best judgment.
Question: As a full season ticket holder, I found this year unquestionably the most difficult to watch on a day-to-day basis. The Season Ticket Bill is not for five years down the line—it’s for the next year. I was wondering what specifically you are looking to do in the off season to make the team that we have now—better to watch on a day-to-day basis next year—as we build for the future.
Jim: I think one of our goals as I have mentioned before, is try to get a big bat in the middle of the lineup. That’s a priority for us. Obviously, we never stop trying to improve the pitching. It would be nice to have another starter near the top of the rotation. We would like to have a more experienced bullpen, to help some of the young kids develop. The first priority, if we could, whether it be trade or free agency, the preference would be trade, is to try to find another big lefty bat that can help get more fastballs for the other players in our lineup.
Follow up: Is Free Agency a possibility?
Jim: It is a possibility. We are going to look at absolutely everything but our preference, obviously, would be Free Agents in their 20’s that can be a part of the long term solution, not a short term fix. Not that we wouldn’t do that as well, as we want to look at everything. Ideally, we would prefer to control a player that is in their 20’s that can be a part of the solution.
Charlie: Jim, people have asked me about Willie Harris, sign Willie Harris. Signing him is not an issue, he’s arbitration eligible. I guess the confusion about that is because you signed him last year as a free agent because he was arbitration eligible but Atlanta non-tendered him and did not offer him arbitration.
Jim: Yes, that is right. We control him because of service time and he is not an issue in that he does not become a free agent. We control the player.
Charlie: Is he of great value to have based on what you saw this year?
Jim: Yes, Willie brought a lot to the table. And a lot of the things he brought to the table were not on the field. They were in the clubhouse. He’s been a tremendous influence along with people like Ronnie Belliard with the young players like Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, and Ryan Zimmerman. Willie is a very serious person who really cares about winning and preparing for a game. You know, in his ideal role he would be able to play four or five positions. He can play, 2nd, 3rd, center, left, right—he gives the manager the ability to double switch. We have had a lot of injuries to make him an every day player. He certainly brings a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm and leadership to the clubhouse and he has worked out well for us.
Question: Jim, you just mentioned that you need a left-handed power bat. You know you might not be able to trust Nick Johnson being 100% next year. You also don’t seem to have a young person in the pipeline at first base—maybe Chris Marrero, maybe not. What are you going to be doing to fill that position so you can be confident you have someone that can both hit and field?
Jim: We are looking into every option we have out there. The doctors do think Nick is going to be back. With that being said, we are searching for what’s out there. We do think we have Chris Marrero in the pipeline. He is only 19 Years Old. We think he is going to be an impact player at some point in his career. He’s not ready for next year. Certainly, his (broken) ankle, we feel, is nothing that will set him back in getting to the big leagues at a young age.
Question: There seems to be a lot of talent in the minor leagues in the outfield. Mike Daniel, Michael Burgess, I forgot some of the others. But, there is a lot of depth there and a lot of our current outfielders are really young. So, those guys in the minors, are they going to be looked at more as trade bait or would one of those guys possibly convert to the infield?
Jim: I think when we look at players and value, you can’t get enough depth. We do have depth at positions that are there to trade. That is why they are there. They are not going to play for you. Whether you trade an outfielder at the Major League Level or AA or AAA, or even Rookie Ball—we will get every option we can to get the pieces we want. One of the reasons you build up the farm system is so you can make a deal to get an impact Major League Player. You have to pay the price of trading two prospects, three prospects that you really like, that you don’t want to trade, but it gets you that impact, young player that you control. So, as far as depth goes, you never get enough depth and yet we are very blessed with a lot of outfield prospects in Dustin Hood, J.P Ramirez, throughout the system, from Rookie Ball all the way to the top.
Mike: I think that what we have become in the last 30 days very deep in the infield also. We’ve got Cristian Guzman who has been terrific for us and signed an extension for two years. And Alberto Gonzalez who we have seen flash plus defensive skills and is swinging the bat well for us—along with Anderson Hernandez. We’ve got a pipeline of middle infielders at every level of our minor league system from AAA to Extended Spring, that we believe are prospects at shortstop, and in centerfield. We’ve come a long ways in our depth. We made some astute trades to improve our depth in the upper minor leagues and our drafts have really supplemented our depth in prospects—impact type of players in our organization.
Jim: No question we have some depth. One of the things, obviously we’ve had some injuries, Cristian Guzman had two really big injuries over the last couple of years. And it was difficult when you don’t have a defensive shortstop to pick you up when you have those sorts of injuries. We feel pretty blessed if he (Guzman) were to go down again—sitting there with Gonzalez and Hernandez—two guys and even Bonifacio can play shortstop. We have three guys that can play there.
Question: Could you describe what you look at over the summer with the summer leagues. And the second part is that the draft is a long time off, who would you say would be the top three if you had to pick tomorrow?
Mike: The summer coverage is organized and covered by our tremendous director of scouting Dana Brown. He’s out and about today. He’s not with us. He is scouting games right now. His staff puts together everything. There is a bunch of coverage right after the draft (in June of each year). The Day after the draft starts preparation for next year’s draft. There are area code games, east coast showcases, the Jupiter Games, there is The Cape Cod League where we scout intensely. There is a full four-month slate of scouting that we do to prepare for the ’09 Draft. So, we are well into the beginnings of the preparation for the ’09 Draft. Going into today, it’s a long way from the draft. I don’t like to name names, but people we are bearing down on and looking at—we are going to do our due diligence on all the players we have. (Stephen) Strasburg’s name comes up. (Grant) Green, the shortstop at Southern Cal. There are a bunch of names that we feel are on the upper echelons of the draft for 2009. But, it is such a long way off, they’ve got so much more seasoning and improving to do for us—that I am going to delay the answer until we get a little closer to the date.
Question: Is there something that can be changed in the training or the regime they (the players) go through before a game to help (the series of injuries this year). And number two—how do you look at these prospects in the eye of staying healthy and conjecture what would we have been, record wise, if we did not have the injuries we had this year?
Jim: Answer to the first part. We are always looking for ways to improve. Certainly, we look at the training and physical therapy, the conditioning, the flexibility programs. We are always looking at that, always trying to find a better way, always trying to be sociable not only with other teams in baseball, but in other sports, trying to find a better way to do things. Certainly, our injuries have been very wide spread. A lot of that had to do with bad luck, but some of the injuries certainly we look at saying, he had two calf pulls, that’s not normal. What are we not doing right to cause that? We certainly look at that and what was your other question for Mike?
Question: Basically, are you looking at the prospects? Does this person look like he is going to be healthy for X number of years. And the other was a throwaway—what would our record have been had we not had the injuries we had this year?
Mike: I will let our General Manager do the conjecture answer. But, I do believe there are young players within our minor league system that we have done a phenomenal job of keeping pitchers healthy—knock on wood. Our pitching program has come to a point where we really have improved The Nationals in that regard. Position player wise, it’s good to draft athletes that are strong, flexible and versatile. When they enter the program in good shape, and each player is put on an individual workout regimen that is monitored throughout the season obviously, but throughout the winter also. We are hoping as the exit physicals after the season come into the office, we are hoping to have the beginning of spring training, instructional league and our accelerated program to have continued good success with our health all over our minor leagues.
Jim: As far as conjecture, I will tell you that in Spring Training, all of our baseball people felt, the consensus was that if we stayed healthy, and the players all performed up to what their potential was—we felt at Spring Training, we could have gone 82-80.
Charlie: Jim, when you talk about injuries, of course pitchers you monitor more closely than anything to try and keep their arms healthy in how they prepare, flexibility, the whole regimen. But, there is not really much you can do for Nick Johnson’s swinging injury, Wily Mo Pena a torn labrum, wear and tear, a swinging injury or from diving for a ball—that type of thing. Austin Kearns, who knows how long he had chips. He had five chips in his elbow—they don’t show up overnight. There are some things you just couldn’t do anything about once they are known.
Jim: There is no question about that. And certainly there are a lot of players that play hurt. You like having players that play hurt and don’t worry about injuries. But when a player is hurt in this game, whether it be a knee or a shoulder, you are not going to get a player living up to their potential because the game is too hard to play through those type of restrictions. In the case with Austin, he had five bones. The Doctors were, quite frankly, surprised and could not understand how he could actually be playing baseball. He is just a tough kid and that’s how he did it.
Charlie: If you talk to trainers over the course of the grind of 162 Game Schedule, it’s hard to find a player who isn’t hurting or having something nagging him over the course of the year. What people don’t realize is how tough the game really is. The grind it puts on the body.
Question: I am sure you are very pleased with how The Potomac Nationals did this year. I’d like to hear some reflections on how you feel about player development at the upper levels of AA and AAA. And also, if you can share some names of players at those levels who you think have a more legitimate chance of making the team next year—who have not made an appearance yet on the Major League Roster.
Mike: We are so proud of development people—Bob Boone and Bobby Williams have done an outstanding job of putting together not only the champions at Potomac but also our Gulf Coast League Team lost the final game of its championship at that level. Our Dominican Summer League Team won its second straight championship in The Dominican Republic. So, we believe we have one of the top Farm Systems as far as prospects in all of baseball. We have come a long way in a short period of time. In June of ’06, we were ranked 30th out of 30 teams in Major League Baseball as far as Minor League Systems. Last year, we jumped that up to 9th and we expect to go up even higher this year. Some of the players that were instrumental in the Potomac Championship—I can let Jim expound on some of them—some late entries to our prospects such as Stephen King, Michael Burgess among a bunch of other players that were there for a majority of the season and helped out.
Jim: And also I think one of the names that we didn’t bring up because of the number innings he had pitched this year and he had some bicep tendinitis at the end of the year—was Jordan Zimmermann who is the one prospect we have the 29 teams call us on all the time. We feel his has the potential to be a pitcher that goes right into our rotation out of spring training next year. We did with him, what we did with John Lannan last year. It was tough for us not to bring John Lannan up in September (2007). But certainly based on all our medical people and all the history of innings pitched—we felt it would be more beneficial to shut John down so that this year he could go a full year in starting games—which he has not done professionally (at that time). We have done the same thing with Jordan Zimmermann—who is on a similar track record and history. But he is certainly a guy that you can see or you might want to watch come Spring Training this year.
Charlie: Certainly worked with John Lannan, he was about in uncharted territory for innings pitched and maybe threw his best game as a Major Leaguer last time out.
Jim: He did and ironically the adjustments he made—he had changed the grip on his changeup after watching Shairon Martis, our other 21 year old starter, who had pitched that brilliant game in Florida and kept on throwing that nasty change up. And John was talking to him—Shairon showed him the grip and changed to it. Odalis encouraged him to throw it more. And against The Mets, he threw a one hitter. Yeah, we were pretty proud of Balester who had thrown a one hitter a few games before that. To sit there with a rotation of three guys that are 23 and under not something that is easily done these days and certainly we are proud of their developments—knowing that Jordan Zimmerman is being added next year. This gives us four young guys under 23 to help build a starting rotation around.
Charlie: Maybe the most positive thing that has come out of this season.
Jim: There is no question that when you go through the pain and agony that all of us have had to go through to know that at the end of the year we are developing so many young players. In the middle of our lineup, we have four guys that are 23 or under in Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge, Ryan Zimmerman and Jesus Flores. So they have had to go out there and fight by themselves without veteran players who were injured to help them get better pitches to hit. And certainly it has been painful to watch them develop. But at the same time, for them to have to face those tough sliders and tough breaking balls and the location of the balls that they have had--in facing some really good pitches, will only help them develop quicker next year.
Question: Follow-ups from some questions earlier. First of all, Alberto Gonzalez, Emilio Bonifacio, Anderson Hernandez—none of the three of them have ever had On Base Percentages in the Minor Leagues higher than .340. When they all revert to their minor league numbers, who plays second base? Number two is about the injuries. Injuries happen but they happen to Cristian Guzman. They happen to Dmitri Young. They happen to Nick Johnson—every year. How do you explain away the reward contract you have given to Young and to Guzman?
Jim: Sure, I think that if you take Guzman baseball card and look at the games played his entire career, I think you will find it’s about 148 games on average per year. Certainly we had the two years here in Washington where he was hurt. But, the rest of his career that was not the story. This is a guy that wants to play every single day. He’s fifth in the National League in hits right now. He has more hits than David Wright. He plays the game hard. He’s a shortstop and certainly our feeling is that baseball guys do get hurt. His history is not that. Nick Johnson that is a different case. Certainly, his history was injured when we signed him. We signed him at a deal that was significantly below market value because we thought it was worth taking the risk in case he was healthy. That one did not work out. As far as your question on On Base Percentage, Elijah Dukes didn’t have a high OPS there either. His has been 420 since he came back from the injury and .380 for the year.
Question: That’s a six-week stretch.
Jim: We think Emilio Bonifacio has a chance to develop into a player like Luis Castillo. He’s got tremendous speed, game-changing speed. We like him from the left side. If you take his On Base Percentage from the left side and take away all the At-Bats from the right side—you will like his On Base Percentage.
Question: Tell me, how can you do that? He is a switch hitter?
Jim: Well, there is a couple of ways you can do it. You can go baseball wise and identify mechanically why he cannot hit from the right side. Are there ways that we think you can develop a player to improve his swing and his average and On Base Percentage from the right side. The answer to that is yes. Our hitting people think there are things that they can do to help him improve that. They are working with him every day to do that. We think this is a guy that down the road has the chance to be a leadoff hitter.
Question: My question is for Mike. I look at what you did in Arizona and there was a three or four year stretch where you directed the drafts there where you had the crystal ball of knowing every guy you hit on—Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds, Stephen Drew, Max Scherzer, Micah Owings—it was like one after the next. Those are the guys that are putting The D-Backs in the playoffs now year after year. And they are going to for a while. A lot of people talk about the draft as a crap shoot. I don’t believe that. I believe drafting and scouting are repeatable skills and some people are better at it than others. I see you as a future General Manager in the league. My question for you: Is that something you want to do? Do you want to be a General Manager at some point in your career?
Mike: The short answer for me is yes. I have visions of heading an organization in the future. But, I am really excited about what I do here. We got great leadership here. We are going in the right direction. It’s a great turnout here today. This organization is going in the right direction. We are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were in Arizona in their second year of existence. There are troubled times here, but we are building. We are building it the right way. We are doing the right thing. We have great, great leadership with The Lerner Family, Stan Kasten, and Jim. What we have done here since June of ’06 as far as scouting, player development, given the resources from The Lerner Family—is second to none. We are attracting some of the best and brightest minds in scouting and evaluation. Player Development side has had steady improvement and we are heading in the right direction. We are the youngest team in the Major Leagues right now. We are fast, athletic and exciting to watch. We need to tweak things. A few tweaks here and there. And we need patience from our fans, like the knowledgeable fans like here today. But believe me, as far as where we are timeframe wise—where I started in Arizona we are leaps and bounds ahead of anything we could of dreamed of over there. Short of gaining $100,000,000 in Free Agent Signings like we did in Arizona to win the World Series in ’01—we had to retool the entire situation and it is because of the draft and development we had there in Arizona that they are in the condition they are in right now. And as far as what you do with the good drafts, as far as the Major League Level goes, they either play for you or you package them in deals. And Arizona has six of their 8 starters/players were drafted and developed by that organization. The other players were obtained by trading 33 of the players they had in their system. So, We are well along the way of getting there in Washington. We’ve got a tremendous scouting and player development staff here with Washington and that is the backbone of any good organization. It’s the fundamental fun process of the leaders above you letting you implement your plan. And I can assure you that the people above us have given me and my people every resource possible in every encouraging way they could possibly give. And it starts with Jim and filters down to everybody we have in the organization. So, I appreciate the kind words. If you like what we did in Arizona, wait another year or so because we are going to better it here in Washington.
Question: Hi, I have been a season ticket holder for four years and I obviously care about The Nationals because I come here. You are talking about the fans and they are educated fans. I think, in general, The DC Fans are not very educated. There are a lot of people who are trying to like baseball that never got into it before and lived in a city where they did not have baseball. Or, you have the fans that are from New York or Boston and they expect perfection. How do you go about educating the fans that aren’t here—how important the farm system is? How to be patient? There are a lot of people out there who are not patient and are willing to give up—not renew their season tickets. How do you get through to those fans to explain what you are going to do and the progress of how long it will take. We are not going to be The Marlins. How do you go about that?
Jim: Means like coming out here and talking to the fans here, talking to the media, answering e-mails we get from fans, letters we get from fans. And we do the best we can to educate. We have been very upfront and honest from the very beginning. Stan Kasten came in as President two years ago. People don’t seem to realize it’s only been two years since he’s been here. He’s a big believer in development and scouting as he did in Atlanta. It’s how The Braves won 14 Consecutive Division Titles. You know we have been very upfront with the fans. We have not been misleading telling them how we are going about doing it. Certainly, we all understand the frustration. Everybody wants to win. But, when you do win, you don’t want to have to break the team down. You want to be able to sustain the winning—like Atlanta did for 14 years and that is the blueprint we have. In mean time, instead of wasting, as we mentioned before, we could have signed some guys for $10 Million per year for five years. They are mediocre players and paid $50 Million. Instead of that, we are putting money into the system. Sure, we have been aggressive at minor league free agents to fill in like Joel Hanrahan, (Tim) Redding, and Odalis (Perez). Rule V with Jesus Flores. We’ve been able to do that with some good scouts. But the reality is that we are trying to build the organization with the draft and through trades for young players like The Dukes’, The Milledge’s and The Bonifacio’s. We have just tried to be upfront with fans and let them know how we are getting there. We certainly think we made a lot of progress and are going in the right direction.
Last Question: You guys talk about Austin Kearns. I look at a guy like Roger Bernadina. I have been looking at this guy since he played at Harrisburg (AA) and seen him move up here. I think if you look at some of the plays he made when you first brought him up here to give him some At-Bats, to get his bat on the ball. This guy has an arm I have not seen in years. I think if you look at some of the plays this guy has made recently when you talk about defense. He has got to be a guy you put into the equation for the future. How do you look at a guy like that. I know he is going to play in the off-season to further his game. But I think this is a guy who can be a leader in the clubhouse. When you talk about a guy like Martis, these guys are close friends, from what I understand. Do you look at a guy like that and say hey we got a talent here that we can do something with and make a decision for guys of that nature to give them the confidence they need?
Jim: There is no question Roger hit over .320 at both AA & AAA this year. He stole 40 bases for the second consecutive year. Although, at times, he may have some bad jumps and angles, he runs a lot of baseballs down. He’s got a good arm. He is very athletic. He’s an exciting player. He needs an opportunity at this level to see what he can do. But certainly, does he fit in the same grouping as our other young players talent wise? Absolutely. It’s just a matter of opportunity for him.
Charlie: All right folks. Thank you for your questions and your comments. Please say thanks to Jim Bowden and Mike Rizzo. Great Questions, you ARE the educated Nationals Fans. We thank you for coming this afternoon.
After the session ended, both Jim Bowden, Mike Rizzo and even Team President Stan Kasten (watching the event) stayed around for some moments after to talk to fans on the side. This was a good discussion, the success of which will hopefully allow for more such get togethers with fans in near future. Nothing like giving everyone their chance to ask their question, or questions, directly to those in management of Our Washington Nationals.