Mike Rizzo returns as Nats’ scouting department evolves

Now that Mike Rizzo has signed a multiyear deal to keep running the Washington Nationals, he has an entire scouting department to address, starting with two of the most important jobs in his front office.

Amid a handful of changes this month, along with at least 12 scouts not having their contracts renewed, Johnny DiPuglia resigned and Kris Kline moved from head of amateur scouting to one of Rizzo’s special assistants. DiPgulia and Kline are two of Rizzo’s closest friends and confidants in the sport. Replacing them will be a major task, as the choices for each job will set a new course for how the Nationals both draft and approach scouting in Latin America. Rizzo told reporters Wednesday that Washington will consider both internal and external candidates.

“Changes happen every year, every team goes through it and this is the time of year there is changes being made,” Rizzo said on a video call, which began shortly after the club announced his extension without specifying its length. “You know, we took a deep dive into how we could be more effective in all of our departments. We’ve had a little bit of an organizational restructuring. Some people are going to be reassigned, some people are going to be replaced, some people are going to have a little different job descriptions.

“But suffice it to say, our objective is to strike a balance in our scouting and player development and front office systems. We’ve made huge investments in manpower and brainpower and technology over the last couple years. We want to utilize that to the best of our ability and really take that to the next level.”

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If this sounds even somewhat familiar, it’s because Rizzo offered similar thoughts about the Nationals’ player development after the 2021 season. Then, the club had either fired or reassigned every one of its coordinators. It also let go four longtime coaches. By November, when Rizzo discussed the moves at the general managers meetings, he was looking for a new farm director, eventually landing on an internal candidate in De Jon Watson.

The latest changes are more wide-ranging. So far, six special assistants — who effectively function as pro scouts — and four members of the international department were not renewed. And the biggest changes, of course, are DiPuglia resigning and Kline moving into a new role. But what’s similar is how Rizzo framed the restructuring and staff changes.

One of his quotes from the fall of 2021, on what the Nationals needed in a player development overhaul: “New ideas, outside-the-box thinking and new technology and people to handle the new technologies, to move around some of the people that we have.”

Another quote from Wednesday, on if these moves are the scouting version of the recent player development facelift: “There’s different ways of scouting. I’m a scout’s guy, I’m a scout. I was a scout for 25 years before I got into the front office, and I think that they’re vital to the organization. And we will be utilizing them greatly like we always have been, but there is going to be a balance. There is going to be a hybrid and a marriage of all the different aspects of evaluating players.”

The player development upgrades didn’t happen all at once. The first wave, ahead of the 2022 season, included 16 more people in hands-on player development roles. Perhaps the most significant was David Longley, who arrived from the San Diego Padres to be the team’s first director of player development technology and strategy. With Longley, the player development leadership circle became a mix of voices from inside and outside the organization: Watson, who moved over from pro scouting; John Wulf, promoted internally to be Watson’s assistant director; Longley from San Diego; and Ryan Thomas, who maintained his title of director of minor league operations.

Under their guidance, the operation has started to modernize and catch up with more progressive teams. Ahead of this season, the Nationals added Hawkeye technology at Nationals Park and each of their affiliate stadiums, including at their facility in West Palm Beach, Fla. Over the winter, the club added a performance analyst at each of its affiliates to better process and utilize an influx of information. And it also brought on an assistant director for Longley, a biomechanics expert in the minors and a few additional roles beyond that.

So if this is a loose template for the current restructuring, it will be a layered process. It will take time. Rizzo hammered Wednesday that not everything will be flipped on its head. But to reach a “higher level” in scouting, as he put it, and improve the club’s results in the draft and Latin America, Rizzo will appoint new leaders and embrace more sweeping change.

Given the current pieces, the Nationals could theoretically take the next step if ownership commits to spending again in the coming winters. A reimagined scouting staff, though, will be much more about sustainability than immediate results, especially since most young players join an organization and stare down at least a few seasons in the minors. And as Rizzo showed in an eight-year run of success that ended with a title in 2019, depth, when accumulated correctly, can help in a lot of different ways.

“We’ve always used information,” Rizzo said. “Now we’re gathering information in different ways. … There is a warehouse of information, and I think what I have learned is that I defer to the people who are [skilled at] deciphering this information, dissecting it and then feeding it to me. With that dissected and filtered information, I think we can make better decisions.”

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