Jim Bowden and the Nationals
NFA: Let’s start with any easy question, why do you hate the Nationals … and America and all that is good in the world
Law: I hate all teams with equal fervor.
NFA: Seriously, how do you respond to the claims that you harbor a grudge against the Nationals and more specifically, Jim Bowden?
Law: When someone sees criticism and shouts “bias” or “hate,” it either reflects a lack of intelligence or an unwillingness to confront the reality that their favorite team may not have that bright of a future. I praise good moves and criticize bad moves. Jim Bowden has made a lot of bad moves, so he gets a lot of criticism.
NFA: In your time working for the Blue Jays, did you have any interaction with Bowden? Have you has much interaction with Bowden since moving to ESPN? If yes, how would you describe it?
Law: I’ve talked to Bowden once in my life, on Draft Day 2008. He called to dispute something I’d written - that he and the scouting staff were at odds over who their first pick would be. He said that that was untrue, and that ultimately Mike Rizzo and Dana Brown would make the call. It was short and cordial.
For whatever it’s worth, I didn’t believe his explanation, both because I’d heard from too many sources that they were in on players like Zach Collier at 9 (Bowden could have ordered him from his usual outfielder-fetish supplier), and because very few GMs would be hands-off with the ninth overall pick when the prior year’s #1 pick was struggling.
NFA: There have been reports from numerous folks in baseball both on (Kevin Towers) and off the record that he can be a challenge to deal with. What traits does he show that are positive? Negative?
Law: I’ve heard he’s a pain in the ass to work for, very hard on his employees, likes to direct blame away from himself. I know several GMs who hate dealing with him because he consistently asks for far too much in trade and seems to enjoy being difficult; I’ve alluded in the past to one GM who swore he’d never deal with Bowden again after one egregious trade demand. I don’t know how you can translate these things into positive or negative traits; from a distance, all I have are anecdotes.
NFA: What are your feelings on Dana Brown and/or Mike Rizzo? Are either guy realistic GM candidates moving forward?
Law: Rizzo is - I’m concerned that his association with the two-ring circus in Washington has tarnished what was, at one point, a promising career towards GM-hood. His name didn’t come up in Seattle or Pittsburgh, for example, and I think if he’d been in the same role for a club that was doing better on the field, he would have had more interest. Rizzo and Brown are both good evaluators - Brown signed both Ian Snell and Joe Beimel as late-round picks when he worked for Pittsburgh - although I have to say, I don’t know how the heck Dana remembers his thoughts on players. I have never in my life seen that man write anything down at a game.
NFA: From what you know, would you be willing to provide an overall assessment of the competency of their scouts?
Law: No. I’m not in a position to evaluate their scouts.
NFA: I have heard rumors that the Nationals might be too focused on statistics in evaluating their minor league performances. Is there any truth to this? How much weight should the typical team place on the raw numbers versus the actual physical/mechanical development/improvement?
Law: I have never heard this criticism of Washington; the Nats certainly seem like a team that’s not using statistical analysis at all. A player development director has to consider both aspects when deciding when to promote a player - performance and readiness for the next level. A player can dominate A-ball but not be ready for AA because he doesn’t recognize breaking balls well enough, or because he doesn’t command his fastball well enough. That’s where player development plans come into play - before the season, the director, the player, and the player’s manager or hitting/pitching coach all sit down and discuss the goals for the player’s development for that year, including what areas require development. You can’t hold a kid back because his slider is too inconsistent unless you told him in March that developing consistency on his slider was key, and then spent April and May and June working with him on the slider, having him throw it even when it’s not the right pitch for the situation because he’s working on something like staying on top of the ball or keeping his arm up while throwing it.
NFA: You had the Nationals #29 in your most recent organizational rankings, Baseball America had them at #21 and John Sickels grades place them in the 15-20 range, what do you think explains the differences?
Law: Different methodologies. I go out and see as many players as I can. I don’t really see how you can say that this system is out of the bottom third; that’s excessively optimistic on some of the low-level prospects. I do know that BA has been higher on McGeary than I have; I saw McGeary twice in high school, including his last outing, and he was sitting at 83 in the 5th inning and got knocked around. There wasn’t an out pitch, wasn’t great physical projection, and wasn’t the plus command he was supposed to have. One national guy told me he hated hearing about McGeary’s polish, and reminded me of Nichols’ Law of Catcher Defense when he said that people only complimented McGeary’s “polish” because he didn’t throw hard. (Nichols’ Law states that a catcher who can’t hit will be presumed to be good defensively.)
NFA: What can a team can realistically hope to accomplish in three drafts? Not best case scenario, but most likely case scenario.
Law: You can restock a system in three drafts - so three good drafts for Washington could or would put them into the top 10. One good draft is probably going to leave them in the bottom third, but three drafts down the road they could have prospects at every level, with low-minors depth and a few top guys in AA and above.
NFA: What do you consider the Nationals greatest organizational strengths & weaknesses?
Law: The weakness is that they just don’t have a lot of prospects. Everyone other than Zimmerman has a pretty big flaw. Everyone points to how bad the system was three years ago, but you know what? That’s plenty of time to restock a system. Their drafts have been fair. They haven’t flipped veterans for prospects. They’ve done less than nothing internationally.
A year out from the ‘07 draft, Detwiler and Smoker are in doubt, Zimmerman’s a great prospect, Burgess is still all-or-nothing but did pass the A-ball test, and Derek Norris is promising. That’s it - the draft looks unlikely to produce anything else unless you believe in McGeary, who, by the way, still hasn’t gotten out of complex ball and is going to be limited to 60-70 innings a year while he’s still going to college in the offseason. Two years out from the ‘06 draft, the best player is probably Sean Black, whom they didn’t sign and who should go in the top two rounds this June. Other than Marrero, who himself is no lock to even be an average big-leaguer, there’s very little of promise from that draft. Maybe it’s too early to write off Stephen King, but once he moved off of shortstop his odds of hitting enough to have any major-league impact dropped substantially, but still, these two drafts just haven’t been very productive, and losing out on Crow means the ‘08 draft’s upside just had its head cut off.
They’ve got some good athletes in their lower levels, and they do have a pair of very promising catching prospects in Norris and Adrian Nieto. They had pitching depth, but the poor years from Detwiler and Smoker set that back.
NFA: Taking into account that things can change dramatically between February and June, what do you anticipate the Nationals will do with the #1 overall selection? Is it a lock they’ll take Stephen Strasburg if he’s the best player available?
Law: Yes. Unless Strasburg gets hurt, he has to be their pick. Anything else would be an epic fail.
NFA: Given the fact that the Nationals will not have a safety net for their #10 pick, how much do you believe this will influence their choice? Will it still be best player available or will signability dictate that selection? Who are three guys you think are most likely to be on the board there?
Law: If they take Strasburg at 1 and decide that they have to go slot at 10, I don’t really have a problem with that. The draft board could take care of it for them as well - I wouldn’t be shocked if a very good prospect who will take slot was there at 10. There are only a couple of guys with major signability concerns right now - Strasburg, Crow, Green, Tate. They should all be gone by 10 except maybe Tate, and Tate is risky enough that passing on him may be justified. But good players have gone at or just above slot in that range in recent years - Jarrod Parker at #9 in 2007 comes to mind.
I know there’s a ton of speculation in that last paragraph, but four months out we’re living in a land of hypotheticals. I’m just saying don’t kill the Nats on principle for going slot at 10 if they take Strasburg at 1. Outside of the top two or three talents in a draft, the most expensive guys aren’t necessarily the best players available.
NFA: Best player available is always the best option in the draft, but assuming you have one player from high school and one player from college who grade out equally, does history show that one choice is better than the other?
Law: No. You get a faster return on your investment from the college guy, but the best high school prospects are reaching the majors inside of four years now, and outside of the top few college guys in each draft, the upside is largely on the high school side. We tried the all-college approach in Toronto at the GM’s direction, and you’ll notice that they’ve moved away from it after four all-college drafts resulted in a depleted system.
NFA: What are your thoughts about the revelations about the real name & age of Esmailyn Gonzalez? Was it surprising to you? Who do you believe should shoulder the lion’s share of the blame?
Law: That’s on Washington. They can blame MLB all they want, but their process was so fouled up - Rijo owns the complex, Rijo is buddies with the buscon, they cut out the agent, they paid several hundred thousand more than anyone else - that the responsibility is clearly on them. Clean up your process - and that means firing Rijo and getting out of his complex, for starters - and you won’t have these problems.
NFA: Have you had the chance to read Stan Kasten’s comments on the story (Note: I asked this question prior to all of Monday’s news and quotes)? Does that sound like anyone within the Nationals organization should be concerned?
Law: I was on the call and asked him to comment on the alleged overpayment relative to the #2 bidder and on the claims that they cut the player’s agent out of the process, but he declined to do so. (He complimented the question, which is a pretty good tactic.) His anger should be directed at the people in his organization who fell victim to the fraud - to say nothing of anyone who was in on the fraud. These kids and their buscones have every incentive to cheat the system; it’s the team’s responsibility to get it right.
As for the second part of your question … I can’t believe Rijo still works there, and at some point, Bowden has to be held responsible as well. It’s a bad team, a bad system, and by the way there’s a steady flow of bad press for off-field issues. And he hired Rijo.
NFA: The Nationals are very high on Jordan Zimmermann, what are your feelings on his ceiling? What role do you think he’ll settle into?
Law: They should be high on him - he’s their best prospect and he has progressed very quickly for a guy coming out of Division III. I think he’s a mid-rotation starter, upside of a #2 because he commands everything so well. He doesn’t have a single knockout pitch, something you’d hang a 65 or 70 grade on, but his slider is above-average and his curve and changeup are not much below it.
NFA: Does Chris Marrero have enough bat to stick at first base or is he a DH-in-making?
Law: Well, if he doesn’t have the bat to stick at first, he’s not a DH - he’s a non-prospect. I don’t love his swing, and he’s unathletic and slow. If he doesn’t start to show significant offensive progress this year, his probability drops substantially and he’d probably be out of their top 5. When I redid my Nats top 5, I contemplated bumping Norris up ahead of Marrero, but I decided to give Marrero the benefit of the doubt for one more year. I think I’m going soft.
NFA: What are your feelings about Michael Burgess? Is he young/talented enough to improve his plate discipline? How do you see him developing?
Law: It’s not just plate discipline - he has a big, long swing, and he’s never going to be a high-contact guy. He’s young enough to start drawing more walks and end up a .260/.350/.520 guy, which is still pretty valuable, especially with the added value from his arm in right field, but his upside is going to be limited by the contact issue. That’s the half-full look; the half-empty one is that better offspeed stuff in AA eats him alive.
NFA: What are your thoughts about 2008 draft pick Destin Hood? Can you provide a thumbnail scouting report?
Law: Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote about him before the 2008 draft: “His swing is clean but he gets started early and doesn’t let the ball travel. He’s also pull-conscious, since he does show some raw power with metal, but doesn’t see the ball on the outer half of the plate. Hood plays short in high school but has no shot to remain there and will move to left field in pro ball. Should he sign this summer, he’s got a chance to end up a middle-of-the-order bat because of his power, but issues making contact will probably limit him to the six or seven hole.”
The Nats have already moved him to the outfield, but I don’t think we know anything more about his bat than we did in May.
NFA: Many assessments of Josh Smoker stop just short of calling him a bust, is there any truth to this thought? How much does the news about bone spurs in his shoulder influence your opinion of his potential moving forward?
Law: Call me when his velocity comes back. We don’t know if bone spurs were the cause of the velocity drop, and until he’s back up to 89-92 (or better), he’s barely a prospect. It’s a shame - I liked the pick at the time, since he had decent velo with plus sink, and they picked Atlanta’s pockets with the selection.
NFA: Keith, thanks for the time and candor.
Love him or hate him, he has strong opinions and is not afraid to share them.