Washington Nationals tap Dominican Republic pipeline

Every baseball fan knows that the Dominican Republic contains a rich vein of major league talent. Unfortunately, for too long the Washington Nationals were unable to tap that vein.

It all goes back to Smiley Gonzalez.

In 2006, the Nationals signed Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez, a 16 year-old prospect, for $1.4 million. Or so they thought. Actually they had signed a 20 year-old named Carlos Alvarez.

Alvarez faked his identity and his age to induce the Nationals to offer him that contract. A 16 year-old who plays like a 20 year-old is a coveted prospect. A 20 year-old who plays like a 20 year-old is not.

The exposure of the Smiley Gonzalez fraud in 2009 left the Nationals’ Dominican Republic presence in shambles. The Nats fired general manager Jim Bowden and Jose Rijo, the former big league pitcher in charge of the team’s Latin American operations. They dismantled their program in the DR and started from scratch. It took about five years before their new baseball academy began producing quality prospects.

The first two to emerge were Wilmer Difo and Pedro Severino. I first saw them in 2014. Difo was playing “low A” ball for Hagerstown. Severino was at “high A” Potomac.

Severino, then 21, was the best defensive catcher I’ve ever seen in “A” ball. But I wondered if he would ever hit well enough to make the majors. Fortunately, he has slowly progressed as a batter. Now 24 years old, Severino hits well enough to be a quality backup/borderline starter in the majors. If he continues to improve, he’ll be a solid starting catcher.

Difo was terrific at Hagerstown in 2014, but was already 22 years old. A top prospect who has been with an organization for four years, as Difo had at the time, normally will be playing at a higher level by age 22.

But Difo made up for lost time after 2014. In late 2015, the Nats called him up. He had a longer sniff of major league baseball in 2016, and last year played in 132 games, batting .272. When the Nats are fully healthy, he’s a utility infielder due to the quality of the top players. But after more than 200 big league games, it seems clear that Difo is a starting caliber player.

Neither Severino nor Difo is ever likely to be a star, though. The first prospective star to emerge from the Nats’ new academy was outfielder Victor Robles. He’s a classic “five tool” player (excels in hitting, hitting for power, running, fielding, and throwing) who has consistently made top 20 major league prospect lists the past few years.

I first saw Robles at Hagerstown in 2016. He was electric. His only flaw was correctable — he’s from the run until they tag you out school. But then, so was the young Bryce Harper

Robles made it to the majors in late 2017 at age 20, the youngest player to debut in the big leagues last season. He was neither overawed nor overpowered. This year, unfortunately, he’s out injured.

Ironically, Robles was an afterthought signing. In 2013, the year the Nats signed him, they spent $900,000 on third baseman Anderson Franco, compared to $225,000 for Robles.

Franco is in his second year at “low A” Hagerstown. His bat is finally starting to show life, but he has a long way to go. Fortunately, he’s only 20. (It would be unkind and unfair to apply Casey Stengel’s famous line: “that fella Greg Goossen over there is only 20. In ten years he’s got a chance to be 30”)

Following right behind Robles in the DR pipeline is Juan Soto, a corner outfielder. Soto’s overall game is solid, but he’s not “toolsy” the way Robles is.

At the plate, though, Soto’s ceiling seems to be at least as high as Robles’. Plus, he bats left-handed, making him a good candidate eventually to replace Bryce Harper, should the superstar leave Washington when his contract expires at the end of the season.

Soto blew me away the two times I saw him at Hagerstown last season. Unfortunately, late in the second game he was injured scoring on a close play at the plate. His season was all but over after 23 games. In them, he had batted .360 with an on-base plus slugging percentage of .950. He compiled these numbers at age 18.

This year, Soto started at Hagerstown but had been promoted by the time I got out there in late April. That tends to happen when your on-base plus slugging percentage is 1.300, roughly .250 higher than anyone else in the league.

I caught up with Soto at “high A” Potomac in time to see him belt an impressive home run. Before I could see him again, he had been promoted to AA Harrisburg despite “slumping” to an on-base plus slugging percentage of 1.256.

I planned on seeing Soto again during Harrisburg’s next visit to Bowie, Maryland. However, the Nats called him after just eight games in Harrisburg. Now we can see him in Washington, D.C., at big league prices.

When he called up Soto, Mike Rizzo, Washington’s general manager, cited Soto’s ability to pass up pitches that aren’t in the strike zone. This goes against the stereotype of Dominican Republic players as free swingers. The saying goes, “you can’t walk yourself off the island.” In other words, if you want to impress major league scouts enough to make the jump to the U.S., you had better be up there swinging.

I wonder whether this adage still holds true. Scouts now fully appreciate the value of bases on balls, and I’m sure the baseball academies run by big league teams stress this to prospects. Young DR players may not be able to walk their way into an academy, but I suspect that walking can help you move up the ladder from there.

Soto struck out as a pinch hitter in his first big league game. But in his first start, he homered in his first at-bat.

Soto thus became the youngest player to hit a homer in the major leagues in six years. He is also the first teenager to hit a big league home run since Harper. But Harper was a little older when he hit his first homer in 2012.

Soto’s home run was well received by the Nats prospects back at the academy in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. You can watch the video at the end of this post. I loved it.

In his next game, Soto displayed his knowledge of the strike zone, drawing three walks. He had a hit in his other plate appearance. As I type this, Soto’s batting average is .292. His on-base plus slugging percentage is 1.017 (Harper’s is .909).

Soto seems also to possess an excellent “make-up.” He appears to fit in well with the team. After he hit his home run, he amused teammates by imitating Harper’s hair flip in honor of the celebrated star. During interviews, he displays wisdom beyond his years. The interviews are conducted without a translator. Soto speaks English pretty well.

No one thinks Soto will maintain his present clip. Pitchers will likely develop a book on him. Nonetheless, Soto’s future seems sparkling.

Meanwhile, a new set of Nationals prospects from the Dominican Republic is moving through the pipeline. Two 18 year infielders are starting at Hagerstown — Luis Garcia (born in New York City but raised in the DR) and Yasel Antuna. Garcia cost $1.3 million; Antuna cost $3.9, breaking Smiley’s record.

Both struggled mightily at the plate early in the season, and Antuna is struggling still. But Garcia, the younger of the two, has been on a tear lately. Last night he went 5-5 with a walk. His batting average is up to .274. And he only turned 18 a week and a half ago.

From the 2012 season on, the Nats were one of baseball’s best teams, but repeatedly came up short in the post-season. I can’t help but wonder whether things would have been different if, say, two quality home grown Dominican players had been on these teams.

Before long, the Nats should have more than two.

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