Front-office overhaul gives Washington Nationals new respect
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; D01
The decision that dictated Jay Robertson's 28th year in scouting and led him to the Washington Nationals was based, like so many other decisions in his sport, on a gut feeling. Robertson talks to younger scouts all the time about gut feelings. Much as scouting measurements translate into radar gun readings and batting averages, the sum -- at least among some baseball lifers -- is more a cryptic art. Good scouts trust that which they cannot describe.
"In our world," Robertson said, "we substantiate a lot through stats and statistical analysis. But sometimes, even in life, you have to go with your gut."
Last October, Robertson, let go after eight seasons with the Texas Rangers, needed a new employer. And the Nationals, after operating for years with a bare-bones front office, needed employees. Washington's new general manager, Mike Rizzo, with his own deep roots as a scout, still held a preference for guys with gut feelings. Given approval from the Lerners to expand his support staff, Rizzo had the chance to reconstruct his front office, creating hire-by-hire the unit whose opinions, arguments, biases and preferences would determine the future of the organization. For all the free agent signings to come, this was the most important part of Washington's offseason.
Veteran evaluators like Robertson don't stay unemployed for long, though, and when Rizzo called Robertson on a Sunday morning in late October, it was almost too late. Robertson had already committed "95 percent" to another team. He talked to Rizzo mostly as a courtesy.
And then he started listening. There he was, pacing through his garage in Surprise, Ariz., and the GM on the other line kept giving Robertson reason to nod. Rizzo, according to Robertson's account of the conversation, talked about the importance of the major league product: It's how we're judged, Rizzo said; We can't hide behind progress at minor league level. Rizzo wanted a front office of opinions, diverse preferences. He wanted guys who could be treated bluntly, guys who liked debate. When Rizzo got into the finer points -- talking money, car allowance -- Robertson raised his hand.
"Mike, stop right there," Robertson said. "I'm on board."
Having now made almost a dozen hires, the Nationals, for the first time since relocating to the District, have a complete front office -- fully stocked and respected. Though Rizzo's August appointment as permanent GM green-lighted the overhaul, only after the season ended did everything take form. This winter the Nationals hired two new assistant GMs, Roy Clark and Bryan Minniti; two new senior advisers, Ron Schueler and Davey Johnson; a new director of baseball operations, Jay Sartori; and a new director of player development, Doug Harris. They promoted a new director of scouting, Kris Kline, who replaces Dana Brown (now with Toronto). And they created several scouting positions that didn't previously exist, adding Robertson and Kasey McKeon, among others, all while expanding a department that had been ridiculed throughout the industry for its skinflint resources.
In previous seasons, the Nationals required even their lead scouts to cover both the amateur and pro levels. Manpower was so scarce, it left the team with a flimsy database of scouting material on the other major league clubs.
"There was a perception out there that [the Nationals] were running a skeleton staff in scouting, development, and so was that really that important to them?" Robertson said. "You need some identity, and I think they were void of that. That's what Mike has changed in the last six months."
The Nationals, beginning their sixth season in Washington, draw rightful criticism for waiting so long to fortify their organization behind the scenes. Until this offseason, of course, Washington always had a reason to hesitate. For a while the team didn't have its ownership in place. Then it waited on the revenues of a new stadium. Then it dealt with the various complications caused by former general manager Jim Bowden, who last spring resigned in the wake of a federal investigation. When the Nationals finally started hiring at the end of the 2009 season, the momentum surprised even Rizzo himself.
"I think the [recruiting] momentum started when they announced that I had the job," Rizzo said during a recent interview in his office. "There was a lot of well-wishes in the industry, because I was a guy who came from where everybody else started and ascended to the general manager's job, which was a good story, and along the way it wasn't an overnight thing. It took me 28 years to get here.
"People were happy for me. And then, with my years of experience in the game, I knew who I wanted to go after. A lot of people want to come here. And there is a momentum. There's a synergy here that's attracting people. If you'd told me coming off a 59-win season that we would have all this interest from people, it's really remarkable. People in the industry get it. They see what we're doing."
By mid-November, with most of the hiring complete, Rizzo convened a four-day, staff-wide meeting at Nationals Park. The group analyzed every player in the organization and discussed all viable free agents. The first day alone, the front office bunkered down in a conference room for more than 10 hours. Robertson would later say that he hasn't had more fun in "10 or 15 years."
Two schools of thought
Baseball tends to perceive a fault line between old school and new school methods of player evaluation, a divide between the guys who love gut feelings and the guys who love numbers. Robertson falls on the old-school side. He's 52 years old. He started scouting with Philadelphia in 1983. He spent roughly a decade alongside John Hart in Cleveland. He impressed Rizzo over the years because he rarely gossiped with other scouts and seemed to show confidence in his own opinions. "I'm not the most congenial scout," Robertson said. "I'm going out there to beat your butt."
Several of Rizzo's recent hires talk about scouting as if it's an endangered species, and in turn they describe Washington as the one place it's protected. ("Your typical GM now, they're all Ivy League," Schueler said. "They haven't been through 15 years of backbreaking scouting. And that's what impresses me about Mike. He's been there and done that.")
Still, Rizzo is quick to point out, while Washington's front office skews old school, it has no unanimity. Clark, the assistant GM, earned his reputation as a talent evaluator while running Atlanta's drafts for 11 years -- but unlike Rizzo, who favors college talent, Clark tends to draft high school players. Meantime, Johnson calls himself a pioneer of sabermetrics. Even in his playing days with the Orioles (1965-72), he experimented with a simulation program that revealed Baltimore's optimized lineup.
"I've always used computers and numbers to give me another way to look at talent," Johnson said.
As much as Rizzo recruited experience -- Schueler, for instance, spent a decade as a GM with the Chicago White Sox -- he's also assembled a young group of office-based advisers. Minniti, previously of the Pirates, is 29. The team's chief sabermetrics expert, Adam Cromie, is 26. Sartori, the new resident expert on contract legalese and arbitration, is a 30-year-old with a background in investment banking.
Since those mid-November meetings, Washington has had its most productive offseason. And Rizzo correlates the free agent signings with the front-office additions. Minniti helped drive the Matt Capps signing. The Nationals felt comfortable signing Jason Marquis in part on the advice of McKeon, who knew the pitcher from their time together with Colorado. Robertson gave a hearty recommendation for reliever Eddie Guardado, whom he knew from Texas.
According to Rizzo, the Nationals are now operating at a higher capacity.
"When there's a question about evaluating a player, I guarantee you someone on our staff has a book on the player that we're talking about," Rizzo said. "Each guy we brought in has 25 years or so of experience in the game All these guys have been through every facet of baseball operations, and it shows when you pick up the phone to call them. You get information about the player you want to see. When I log into my computer, instead of one report I'll see six from [scouts] who have seen this guy somewhere along the line. So it's manpower and brainpower."