I was trading email last week with Mike Henderson, one of my blogging colleagues. I mentioned to him that even if you discount Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper’s Arizona Fall League performances, it seems that almost every time you look at an AFL box score over the last two years, you see the names of Nationals prospects leading the way. Last year’s Phoenix Desert Dogs won their division, a team that featured not only Stephen Strasburg, but Drew Storen, Chris Marrero, Danny Espinosa, Josh Wilkie and Jeff Mandel. Strasburg lead the league in wins and Storen led in saves. This year’s team – the Scottsdale Scorpions – has clinched their division and then went on to win the Arizona Fall League championship. Bryce Harper is the headliner of this team, but other Nationals prospects, such as Derek Norris (who was supposed to play on the 2009 squad, but sat out with a hamate bone injury), Mike Burgess, Steve Lombardozzi, Cole Kimball, Adam Carr, Sammy Solis and Brad Peacock have all made their mark in Phoenix this fall.
Perhaps it was just my perception – after all, most of the various media sources I follow are Nationals-centered. But I watched four AFL games in person this year, and two last year (see here and here), and Nationals fans had plenty to cheer about in all of the games. But rather than blindly trust my perceptions, I decided to find out.
As it turned out, finding out was a bit easier than I imagined. Of course I expected that there would be Nationals representatives in Arizona. Last year’s Desert Dogs were managed by Gary Cathcart and Paul Menhart was the pitching coach, so the Nationals front office was well- represented on the field, and this year’s Scorpions are managed by Randy Knorr, the manager of AA Harrisburg. Finding Nationals representatives wasn’t very hard – they are standing in the dugout. But for the observant Nationals fan, a look around the stands was an even better place to look. In Scottsdale we happened to look behind us and standing at the top of the section was Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein. Sitting behind home plate in a Nationals jacket and holding a clipboard and a radar gun was noted scout and noted dad, Phil Rizzo.
I asked Rick Eckstein about the the Nationals success, and whether the Nationals placed a greater emphasis on making the most of AFL. Rick said he didn’t think that the Nationals did anything really different than any other team, but that the Nationals’ success at AFL indicated the strength of the organization at this level. I then asked him about the decision to send Bryce Harper to the fall league. He said that it has been a huge success – Harper has gotten the opportunity to experience a higher level of competition and be exposed to the work habits of other top prospects. On days that Harper doesn’t play, he’s chomping at the bit, pacing in the dugout, and asking questions of his fellow players and coaches, and drinking up the experience.
When I talked to Randy Knorr about the how well Nationals players were doing in AFL, he didn’t necessarily agree with my premise that the Nationals players always seem to be leading the way. In fact, the Scorpions have a great team, and perhaps Knorr was not in a position to single out Nationals players when he manages a team with players from five different organizations. But as the results of the AFL championship game pointed out, it was Nationals players who were leading the way.
Another indicator of the Nationals influence in Arizona is demonstrated in a rather roundabout way. The Scottsdale Scorpions were comprised of players from five teams – The Nationals, Orioles, Rockies, Giants and Diamondbacks. There was always a strong contingent of Diamondbacks fans at the games, and they remember Mike Rizzo from his days with the team. Many of the fans I spoke with saw Mike Rizzo at a number of the early AFL games, as well as Pat Corrales, who was working with the team.
At one point when I was speaking with Randy Knorr, he made the point that one goal for the Nationals in 2011 was to stock the AAA roster with predominantly Nationals prospects. In past years, the team has had to fill the AAA roster with a lot of minor league free agents, and Knorr pointed out that this was an indication of the strength of the Nationals farm system. This is changing, and Knorr thought that the AFL performances over the last two years are an indication of how things are changing within the Nationals organization.
As much as the Nationals organization wants you believe that the Nats aren’t doing anything special in Phoenix, it is hard to argue with the results. Last year’s Desert Dogs went to the final game and this year’s Scorpions won the championship. Nationals coaches managed the teams, and the front office had an everyday presence in Phoenix. You could argue that a lot of the organization’s attention to AFL had to do with their high-profile top draft picks participating in the league, but it has been all of the Nationals players that have been making an impact on the field, not just the Harpers and Strasburgs.
Most Nationals fans focus on what happens in the Major Leagues, and certainly that is the metric that matters the most. But I think it may be hard for many of us to understand how badly pillaged the farm system had been and that it takes many years to turn that around – and that success in the majors is highly dependent on a healthy farm system.
If Arizona Fall League is an indicator, perhaps the Nationals luck is about to change.