Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo talked after the club arrived in the nation’s capital for the start of Spring Training 2.0 last July about some of the rule changes MLB made for the 60-game COVID campaign and how he, players in D.C., front office employees, and scouts in the organization would have to adjust.
There were safety protocols they’d have to go through, testing, the absence of fans, and all the new rules governing behavior on the field, in the dugout, in the clubhouse, and in all of the ballparks around the majors.
Rizzo said some of the little things on the field would be hard to change.
“I think the biggest challenge of the rules is kind of curtailing old habits,” the Nationals’ GM and President of Baseball ops explained.
“We’ve all played baseball. We all spit when we play baseball, and you’re spitting seeds or tobacco or whatever. Pitchers out of habit lick their fingers before they throw a pitch.
“Those habits are going to have to change, and I think the team that can adhere to that and adapt to that best, I think has an advantage.”
One significant negative in terms of preparation, Rizzo noted last July, was that it looked at that point like advance scouts would not be allowed into parks as they usually are in order to prepare reports on upcoming opponents.
“As far as the scouting,” Rizzo said, “... I’m hopeful that MLB will allow us to scout the major leagues with our scouts.
“I think if we’re confident that media can come into a ballpark, the scouts should be able to come in also.”
While reporters were let in ballparks around the country from the start last season, scouts never did get in to do the work they’ve always done, which, Rizzo acknowledged heading into the August 31st trade deadline, affected how the club approached the possibility that they’d add talent.
“The scouting aspect will affect us a little bit,” he said.
“We lean heavily on our scouts at the trade deadline, but we will not take this any less aggressively ... on how we go about the trade deadline.
“We’re here to win the World Series this year, and that never changes in my mind or in [manager] Davey [Martinez’s] mind or in the owner’s mind.
“We’re here to win, and we’re very, very competitive, and if we see a place to improve ourselves and a deal that makes sense for us, we’re never afraid to pull the trigger.”
While they weren’t allowed in ballparks, the Nationals’ scouts did what they could to get good information to the players.
“We’ve been scouting via video and television,” Rizzo said. “But it’s obviously — it’s much more difficult to make an assessment and evaluation with those means of viewing a player. We have to really trust our scouts. We have to trust the backgrounds that we’ve had on players. Hopefully you have a history on the player you’re acquiring, not only the last couple of weeks of this season, but in the past. So we always like to make our judgements based on the gut feel of the scout, the evaluation of the scout, but also the history and the past performances of players to make any type of evaluation.
“I don’t think that will change, but there will be an added layer of non-information that we’ll have to deal with.”
In the end, the Nationals didn’t make significant moves at the deadline, because, Rizzo said, the club wasn’t playing well enough to warrant increased expenditures.
With no in-person scouting of big league players, and no minor league season, there were issues with assessments of talent heading into the deadline as well.
“We felt that to allocate financial assets and our minor league prospects to acquire somebody to help us for about 30 days, we haven’t played well enough to do that,” Rizzo told reporters.
“It was a strange deadline because we really had no current information on players other than what you see on TV,” he added. “So that impacted our decision-making process.
“Throughout the years that we’ve been here we’ve been aggressive at the trade deadline because we’ve played well leading up to the deadline.”
Asked this winter, in a December 15th Zoom call with reporters, if there has been any word on scouts returning to ballparks in 2021, Rizzo said, “I don’t have a sense on that,” but he is, obviously, hoping they’ll be allowed back in to do their jobs.
“I haven’t heard anything about scouts returning to the ballparks. I hope and pray that they are allowed to go into the ballpark, because it makes a big difference for us,” Rizzo added.
“We weren’t aggressive at the trade deadline last time just because we didn’t have current reports on a lot of players because we couldn’t see them other than on television.
“In this organization, the scouts’ eyeball view on a player is important to us, and impacted us last year, and hopefully it won’t this year.”
The scouting department has, however, already been impacted by the cuts the organization made in the front office after the 2020 campaign came to an end.
“Unfortunately, we had some casualties in the scouting sector of the organization, not as big in others because we have a very small scouting staff to begin with,” Rizzo said.
“It’s a very veteran-laden, very talented scouting staff, but it was affected last year and we’re going to have to make adjustments with the very good evaluators that we have on staff now.
“We’ll make it work. Scouts are very adaptive because they have to be and when I make a call to see said player, they’ll be seen and I feel confident about that.”
According to reports last week, MLB teams have, “received health and safety guidelines that stated teams could also permit fans to attend games, perhaps as early as spring training in February,” as USA Today’s Bob Nightengale wrote. If fans are back in, will scouts be too, or is Major League Baseball going to save the few, socially-distanced seats they have open for its fans?