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Stain to strength: How the Washington Nationals and Johnny DiPuglia turned around the franchise’s international operation

After a scandal that rocked the franchise, the Nationals’ international scouting department has become an organizational backbone under Johnny DiPuglia

Photos by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

“I played baseball since I was probably five years old,” Johnny DiPuglia, the Washington Nationals’ Vice President and Assistant General Manager of International Operations, told Federal Baseball earlier this month. “I ended up ending my career after one year at junior college and then I decided to start coaching at the high school level at a school called American Senior High School which was a pretty predominant school in South Florida.

“So I started coaching there, started 1988. And then a gentleman named Marty Maier who was the assistant scouting director for the St. Louis Cardinals and he asked me if I wanted to do some associate scouting for him with no pay, just to give him information on different guys and I did that.

“Then I was hired part-time in 1990 for $100 salary, then ‘91-’92 also part-time, then went full-time with the Cardinals in 1993. Did one year of coaching in the minor leagues also with a gentleman named Roy Silver in the Appalachian League.

“It wasn’t very — it didn’t warm my heart, I liked the scouting part, and I stayed doing that since then, so this will be my 33rd year.”

SLUG: SP/nationals DATE: 02/26/2008 CREDIT: Sarah L. Voisin Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The The Washington Post via Getty Images

Moving on from scandal

Turmoil would be a kind way to put where the Washington Nationals were in the early months of 2009.

On the field, they were about to begin their second-straight 100-loss campaign. Off the field, a dark cloud was hanging over the organization, but in particular, it was darkest over their international scouting department.

On February 17th, Sports Illustrated released an article detailing how Nationals prospect Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez, was actually Carlos Alvarez and four years older than the team believed, which resulted in the firing of special assistant to the General Manager, José Rijo.

Then, not even a week later, then-GM Jim Bowden was under federal investigation for bonus skimming, and he subsequently tendered his resignation on March 1st, though he denied what he said were “false allegations, insinuations and innuendoes by the press,” as quoted in the New York Times, and no charges were brought against him.

Assistant General Manager at the time, Mike Rizzo, stepped in as the Interim General Manager and was thrown into the fire with the tumultuous situation.

Step one, the new interim GM had to head to the Dominican Republic with Assistant Director of Player Development, Mark Scialabba, and essentially evacuate the team’s facility in San Cristobal as it was owned by the recently-fired Rijo.

But perhaps the most important step for Rizzo on the international front was to find a new man to lead the operation out from the striking scandals they had just been hit with.

Enter, Johnny DiPuglia.

At the time, the DiPuglia was in a fairly safe spot with the Boston Red Sox. He was part of an operation that had been a consistent international conveyor belt that churned out international prospects such as Hanley Ramirez and Aníbal Sánchez.

Obviously, the chance to lead his own scouting team and be the head of the franchise’s international operation was a big appeal. However, the most important factor for DiPuglia was the man that he would be working for in the nation’s capital.

“The number one attraction, for me, was to work with Mike Rizzo,” DiPuglia explained of his decision. “A gentleman that I respected from working in baseball in the past.

“He’s a person that lets you do your job, well-respected, not a high-maintenance general manager, simple, lets you be your own personality, which I like.”

The mutual respect between the two was evident, as there was a clear reason that Rizzo and the Nationals targeted DiPuglia as his most important hire for the Nationals.

Throughout his career to that point, the long-time scout had been through more than his fair share of turbulence. That gave him plenty of experience to call upon in what was his biggest challenge yet, joining an international system in disarray in need of new guidance.

“I was used to rebuilding,” DiPuglia explained. “I rebuilt the Cardinals’ Latin America program in ‘96, I went to the Giants, took over from the Luis Rosa scandal in ‘98, and went to Boston and also helped build that Latin America program.

“So it was challenging, but I like those challenges.”

Challenge was an understatement. DiPuglia was taking over what was likely considered the worst international operation in the major leagues given the lack of talent that had been generated by it to that point as well as essentially taking over with a blank canvas.

The Washington Nationals baseball academy in the Dominican Republic

A new focus

With a revamped staff in place, it was time for DiPuglia and the Nationals to get to work and their new Director of International Operations wanted to make sure that character was a key point of emphasis for the team’s new international scouting regime.

“My main focus is the education and the development of the young man, which is the most important thing,” DiPuglia said.

“If you educate, if you develop the young man, and he has a talented baseball skillset, there’s a chance that he can get to Double-A.

“If he gets to Double-A and performs, there’s a very good chance he gets to the big leagues.

“I take a lot of pride in developing in the young man and giving him a skillset of presentation with another human being, handshake, look a guy in the eyes, the way he dresses, the way he conducts himself with other men and women. And that’s, to me, what I’m all about.

“Obviously, signing a big leaguer is very important but I like making those young men better human beings.”

It’s a mindset that DiPuglia shares with Rizzo, the man that attracted him to the job with the Nationals in the first place, valuing a player’s personality and makeup ahead of their ability on the field.

“That’s probably something that we share in common,” DiPuglia said. “But that’s something I’ve always been instilled with. That’s the way I was raised.

“My parents were very strong on discipline, on appearance, education, treat people with respect and that’s just the way I carried it on to the baseball field.”

The biggest obstacle to start off with wasn’t on the field with the young players beginning to scout and develop them, it was off the field.

After the Gonzalez and Bowden scandals, the Lerner family were understandably a bit more cautious with the resources they allocated to the development of the team’s international system.

“Changing the mindset of ownership that not everybody in Latin America is out to steal from you,” DiPuglia said when asked what the main challenge was initially.

“There are good people working down there that are sincere, responsible, and letting them know that Johnny DiPuglia and staff are responsible people trying to get them to a point to win a World Series championship which was our main goal since we got here in 2009.”

Eventually, DiPuglia and his team would earn ownership’s trust and repay it handsomely.

Washington Nationals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Turning the corner

Not long after things started to turn around for the Nationals on the major league field in 2012 with their first playoff appearance since the team moved to the nation’s capital in 2005, the franchise also began to make significant progress in their international operation.

Early on, DiPuglia and his staff had to make the most of the team’s limited resources.

Ownership was still hesitant to invest too much in a system that had burned them just a few years prior, so the team’s international scouts had to keep an eye out for diamonds in the rough.

One of those players was Victor Robles.

The center fielder was the first real success story for the Nationals’ reformed international pipeline and epitomized the early burgeoning nature of the program at the time.

Robles wasn’t on many outlet’s radars when the 2013 international signing period opened, but his physical gifts stood out to DiPuglia and his staff, even if they were a bit untamed in their nature.

“At the beginning, we did have to sign guys that were under-the-radar,” DiPuglia said.

“Robles was $225,000 which might seem like a lot of money, but in the reality of things down there, that isn’t a lot of money because guys are getting a lot more than that, especially if they’re high on the radar players.”

Once the pipeline started flowing, with Robles one of the early headliners, it began to get easier to convince not only ownership that the Nationals were an operation on the rise in the international scene, but players that they were courting for their signature too.

“Obviously, you had to gain the trust of ownership,” DiPuglia explained. “But you also had to gain the trust of the agents and the buscones on the field that the Nationals were willing to spend high bonuses on players.”

“In the beginning, that wasn’t a factor because we had to gain the trust of ownership. But once they knew that we were serious contenders for players in that market, then it made things a lot easier.

“Pretty much all those guys down there know who I am, know who my staff are, we’re respected in the field.

“It was just a matter of getting ownership’s trust to open their wallets so we could sign players for a little more money.”

The results for DiPuglia and the Nationals’ international operations have been excellent.

Since DiPuglia took over the team’s international operations, Washington has had 14 players who have been signed and developed by the Nationals play for the team in the big leagues.

Those players are: Rafael Bautista, Abel De Los Santos, Wilmer Difo, Luis García, Yadiel Hernández, Reynaldo López, Yunesky Maya, Raudy Read, Victor Robles, Jefry Rodriguez, Adrián Sanchez, Pedro Severino, Juan Soto, and Wander Suero.

Only two of those players, Soto and García, had a signing bonus of at least $1 million — that said, Maya got a four-year, $8 million major league contract out of Cuba — while most of the rest of the players only signed for five figures, demonstrating some of the incredible scouting that the Nationals were able to do to find big-league contributors from off the radar.

That list also doesn’t include the likes of Kelvin Gutierrez and Jose Marmolejos who the team signed but who made their big league debuts after being traded away from the organization.

It wasn’t an instantaneous process for the Nationals to go from the system in turmoil they had in 2009 to churning out those players at an impressive frequency. So, when did DiPuglia know that things were turning around for the franchise on the international scene?

“Day one,” DiPuglia responded. “Once we put our boots on the ground, we knew.

“I have a lot of confidence in my ability and my staff’s ability that we were going to turn things around because that’s been our resume everywhere I’ve been.

“So I knew once I was able to go out in the field and scout, with a Curly W, we were going to be able to turn it around.”

Salem Red Sox v Potomac Nationals

The crown jewel

By 2015, two years after the team had inked Robles to his $225,000 bonus, the biggest bonus that Washington had given to a player since the Gonzalez scandal was $900,000 to Anderson Franco in 2013, but they would beat that this year.

Nationals ownership was now prepared to start dishing out bigger international signings bonuses, allowing DiPuglia and his staff to pursue some of the bigger fish in the market.

One of those fish was Juan Soto, who rated as the 25th best international prospect.

Soto didn’t possess the same physical raw tools as Robles. His arm was fringe-y at best, he ran an ugly 40-yard dash, and didn’t necessarily have the feel for playing the outfield.

He didn’t even pop up on the team’s radar as a hitter when they first went to scout him.

“We saw him when he was probably 14 and a half years old as a left-handed pitcher,” DiPuglia remembered. “Obviously, there wasn’t a lot to be excited about it there.

“And then my staff, Modesto Ulloa, Fausto Severino, and Casey McKeon who also was going down there, we were on a trip and we saw him in the outfield and he still wasn’t a guy that lit you up out there.”

Then Soto got a bat in his hands, displaying the same exceptional Baseball IQ and eye at the plate that has turned him into one of the best players in baseball, and the rest is history.

“We really liked what we saw at the plate,” DiPuglia said. “The way he could manipulate the bat, foul pole to foul pole, line drive, very highly educated skillset on how to become a good hitter.

“We followed him and he got better and better and then to the point where we got a verbal deal in Fort Lauderdale at the stadium for the amount of money that we signed him for.”

The money was $1.5 million, a new record signing bonus for the Nationals at the time.

The previous bonus record holder for Washington on the international market? That would be the $1.4 million that they gave to Carlos Alvarez, formerly Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez.

It’s poetic in a way that Soto, by far and away the team’s greatest success to come out of its revamped international department, would be the one to eclipse the record held by the player whose scandal caused the department to be torn down and built back up again.

The rest is history for Soto.

He received his big league call-up on May 20th, 2018. He homered on the first pitch of his first MLB start, going on to have one of the best seasons a teenager had ever had in the majors. And just a year later, after another fantastic season, he helped make more history.

2019 World Series Game 7 - Washington Nationals v. Houston Astros Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The biggest stage

Just over 10 years after the Gonzalez scandal rocked the Nationals franchise, they were competing for MLB’s biggest prize, the World Series, against the Houston Astros.

The season itself mirrored the journey of the Nationals’ international operations. It started in disarray, with a well-noted 19-31 start to the season, but by chipping away little by little, they were able to build themselves back up and get closer and closer to the end goal.

For Soto and Robles, the two prized graduates of the team’s revamped international system, they basically made the long journey from the Dominican Republic to the World Series together.

“I just walked my oldest daughter down the aisle to get married in November,” DiPuglia explained, “and watching our young players play in the World Series was just as exciting as that moment. So it’s a pretty high pedestal to watch those young kids that you’ve known since they were 14/15 years old play at that stage and obviously perform very well.

“It was a very emotional moment. Emotional moment because you put a lot of sacrifice and a lot of effort into that particular seven-game series. But yes, it was very rewarding.”

And after Game One of the World Series, in which Soto had a monster day going 3-for-4 with a home run onto the railroad tracks in Minute Maid Park, and a booming double off the left field wall, DiPuglia posted a video of how the team’s Dominican academy reacted to one of their own.

“We’re a very big family in our department,” DiPuglia explained. “We all back each other, we all support each other. If something happens with a family member... we all rally amongst each other.

“When I saw that video, it was sent to me by one of the people at the academy, I wanted to share that with the world, how close we are, how much of a family we are in the Washington Nationals’ scouting department, and player development department also.”

Soto and Robles both routinely return to the Dominican in the offseason to train for the upcoming campaign and visit the younger players.

For the players at the academy to see players who they idolize and have come through the same program that they are currently in shine under the bright lights on the biggest stage in the sport, it was no doubt an incredible and emotional thing to see.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Maintaining the standard

The Nationals haven’t been the only major league franchise to reap the rewards of putting an emphasis on their international scouting department though.

Soto might be the one with the ring, but some of the brightest stars in the game have come through the same international signing period. That includes Soto’s close friend and NL East rival, Ronald Acuña Jr., as well as the new $340 million man out in San Diego, Fernando Tatís Jr., all three of whom could well be competing for National League MVP honors.

Because of the potential for teams to find and develop the next Soto, Acuña, or Tatís, are teams pumping in more money than ever into their international academy systems?

“Oh, most definitely,” DiPuglia answered. “If you go to the Dominican Republic and see some of these academies that some of these clubs have, I mean they’re bonafide Taj Mahals.

“And the reason why is because you can get production with the players that have gotten up there especially at an early age. So there is definitely a lot of focus on the Latin American market within the 30 clubs in Major League Baseball.”

With the added competition, while it might be easy to say that the Nationals should get even more aggressive in response, DiPuglia wants to stay true to the same philosophy that turned them into one of the best international pipelines in the majors in the first place.

“Not necessarily,” DiPuglia said when asked if he would get more aggressive in response to the extra competition. “We stay neutral, we stay consistent, we try to evaluate the best we can.

“We’re obviously not going to hit on everybody, but when there is that one diamond in the rough we’ll be aggressive, and now that I know that ownership is willing to back us, it makes our job a lot easier.”

Though DiPuglia’s approach has not changed on the international scene despite the success that the team’s international operation has had over the last decade, that success has provided them with the freedom to begin making major moves again.

During the 2019-20 international signing period, the team inked top international pitching prospect, Andry Lara, to a $1.25 million signing bonus. They then signed defensive whiz, Armando Cruz, to a $3.9 million bonus — the joint-highest bonus the team has given out, tied with Yasel Antuna — during the 2020-21 signing period. And there’s another on the way in the 2021-22 signing period with Cristian Vaquero reportedly in agreement with the team.

As a team that generally picks in the lower half of the draft, the Nationals need to make the most of their strong international operation in order to stay competitive moving forward.

That also affects their current standing in various prospect rankings as well. In general, international prospects take longer to mature and develop because of their young age compared to players drafted, so their potential isn’t as clear when they join the system.

If some of the young international prospects that are already in the system, as well as the recent big-money signees, can develop, the Nationals may be able to resurrect their farm system and keep their contending window alive a little bit longer.

Regardless of whether that happens, the turnaround of the international system has been a huge boon for the Nationals, for which DiPuglia and his staff deserve a lot of credit for their work.

“I think the Washington Nationals fans should be proud of what we’ve done and we’re proud of them supporting us,” DiPuglia said.

“Hopefully, we get out of this COVID thing and we can see everybody in the stands because we have more players coming and they’ll be excited about them.”