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Spring Training Dish: Nationals Camp
by Chris Kline
Editor's note: Assistant editor Chris Kline is spending three weeks of spring training coverage in Florida's Grapefruit League. Today's stop: Nationals camp. Coming Tuesday: Braves camp in Orlando.
VIERA, Fla.--In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Montreal Expos were considered one of the best in the business at developing homegrown talent.
Budget cuts and the franchise's uncertain future devastated that farm system as the team headed into the 21st century. Now, they're trying to re-establish that reputation under general manager Jim Bowden, his assistant Bob Boone and new farm director Andy Dunn.
Dunn has only been on the job for a few months, but the minor league front-office veteran has been using every resource around him in the organization as he becomes acclimated to his new position.
Dunn moved from the business side to player development during the offseason, but he's already familiar with the system. While he was instrumental in getting RFK Stadium baseball-ready for the Nats' inaugural season last year, he studied over minor league game reports, scouting reports and anything else he could get his hands on.
He also has worked with a long list of GMs throughout his career, including Dave Dombrowski, Frank Wren, David Littlefield, John Boles, Omar Minaya and now Bowden.
"I've had a lot of opportunities to be around some great people," Dunn said. "And I always tried to shut up and just listen to everything they said from the beginning. They've all been an influence on who I am today in various ways."
We sat down with Dunn to talk about the state of the system, what the organization is trying to stress among players in camp, the return of lefthander Mike Hinckley and the rumor that Kory Casto was moving off third base in the wake of Ryan Zimmerman's arrival last season.
Baseball America: Is there a specific area of concentration on pitchers and position players within this system this year?
Andy Dunn: One thing we're stressing with the pitchers is fastball command. We want to get guys to maintain velocity; we want guys with strong arms. We want strong arms, but we want guys who command pitches, and that's what we're working on throughout the organization from the bottom up. If you're going to move in our system, you've got to have fastball command. That's not anything earth-shattering, but we don't want to see guys lose velocity; we want to see them at least be able to maintain it deep into games and have better command. That's what we really need in our system.
BA: What about position players? Anything in particular you look for or you're expecting from them this season?
AD: We're got a whole lot of new field staff, and one guy I've been very impressed on his instruction on aggressiveness on the basepaths is Tony Tarasco. Tony's working hard with that. We want our infielders to be aggressive on ground balls. I had a meeting with our staff yesterday where we were stressing more athleticism throughout the organization. I don't want to be station-to-station. We want to put guys in motion. The first thing we're trying to do is doing things the right way--we're going to work on moving runners, we're going to work on all the little things in order to teach our players how to play the game the right way.
We're going to try to get this thing back the way it used to be before, where this organization had great player development. They produced players. The mentality we're trying to set in doing things the right way is one thing, but we're going to try to create a winning attitude. There's nothing wrong with winning some ballgames. I don't understand when the term development became an excuse for losing. So we signed a bunch of guys in the offseason, and I felt we needed to slow down the system a little bit to let guys play and let them develop a little bit. But also bring some guys in that can help us win.
For instance, you look at (Triple-A) New Orleans. Right now you can project we're going to have (Tyrell) Godwin and (Brandon) Watson in the outfield. Well, I wanted to bring in a veteran guy with experience and a positive attitude, so that's why we brought in a guy like George Lombard. He's going to be important to us.
We're trying to set the tone that we're going to play hard and anything less than that is unacceptable. The work and the positive attitude we have in camp right now--and some guys have told me it's a little different (that previous seasons)--we're going to be competitive. We're preaching competitiveness regardless of the situation.
BA: I kind of like the catching depth in the system with Erick San Pedro finally returning, and guys like Devin Ivany and Salomon Manriquez. I also like Agustin German's quickness and agility behind the plate. How do you feel about catchers in the system?
AD: We did conditioning tests when guys came in so we could get an idea of what we had to work with, and the catchers were the best guys we had. You've got to be a man if you want to catch in this organization. When you really look at it, you've got Bob Boone, Randy Knorr, Bob Henley and John Stearns (as minor league coaches)--that's a great group of former catchers who have a pretty good idea what it takes to improve.
A guy like (Manriquez), who doesn't have a tremendous amount of experience, but he can play. Being around John Stearns this year will help him out a ton this year. They all understand that the staff is there to help them in any way they can.
BA: So there have been reports about the double play combination in Double-A Harrisburg this year being Ian Desmond and Kory Casto, with Casto moving to second base. What will the situation in Harrisburg be this year?
AD: Well, they'll both be in Harrisburg, but they'll both be on the left side of the infield. We're going to keep Kory at third right now. Kory's a hard worker; he's a professional and a great person. He's a special guy, not just because he can play, but because of the attitude and the effort. You could tell Kory Casto he's going to catch and at the end of the day, he's going to be a pretty good catcher.
We made the decision to leave him there and let him continue to build on his success at the plate. We need to let him hit. I'm not saying he's going to play second base in the future, I'm not saying he's going to play third base in the future, but we need him to continue to hit. He's athletic enough to play multiple positions, but we're going to let him focus on third base for now.
BA: But with Desmond, he only spent half a season in the Carolina League and didn't really hit (.256/.325/.384 in 219 at-bats at Potomac). I know everyone raves about the glove, but will he be able to hit in the Eastern League?
AD: We think so. He's made some adjustments and people really like him over in big league camp. He joined the big league team again today and that experience is going to really help his confidence. He's a confident kid, and he's going to need that this season heading to Double-A. It's going to be his biggest challenge, but we feel like he's up to that challenge.
BA: Mike Hinckley really struggled in the Carolina League last year. What are the expectations for him in 2006 and where do you see him starting the season?
AD: We're just getting him back from big league camp, but we want him to get back to the Mike Hinckley that we've all raved about. He's just got to pitch and have some success again. Right now we have him slated on the (high Class A) Potomac board, but that's not to say he can't pitch his way out of it. But I have no issues with starting him there.
One thing we're stressing to our guys is they've got to play themselves out of a level--that they're not just going to automatically graduate out. And Mike's numbers last year weren't indicative of him playing his way out of that level. It's not a punishment, but we want to see Mike have success. Once he starts having success--and I have zero reservations that he won't come back--I think he'll be fine, but he'll probably be starting in Potomac.
• A big surprise early in camp has been outfielder Justin Maxwell. The fourth-round pick out of Maryland last year has shown a solid line-drive approach at the plate, and has been hitting with authority to all fields. "We've had a limited look on Maxie, but everything you like, you love," Dunn said. "You love the makeup--he's the first guy in, last guy out. He approached conditioning tests at the beginning of camp like it was an NFL combine. He's a tremendous athlete who has a chance to be a special player." The Nats would like Maxwell to start the season at low Class A Savannah, but there is a chance he could be held back in extended spring training and report to short-season Vermont in June.
• While the high Class A Potomac rotation certainly appears interesting with Hinckley, Collin Balester and Clint Everts among the candidates, the rotation will be missing righthander Daryl Thompson until at least May. Thompson had minor surgery to clean up his shoulder last July and just recently started a throwing program. He will begin the season in extended spring training.
• On the flip side, first baseman Larry Broadway has made huge strides in regaining strength in his knee--and injury that has haunted Broadway since early last season. When he returned, he was wearing a bulky brace to keep his knee stationary, even wearing it during his stint in the Arizona Fall League last October. But Broadway has full strength in the knee again, the brace is gone and he's back to incorporating his lower half in his swing.
• Righthander Andre Enriquez is one of the more intriguing arms in the system, and he has been impressing club officials early this spring. When he's in full condition, Enriquez's fastball regularly sits around 92-95 mph, and he's already in that range this spring. The 21-year-old has become physically stronger and the club feels more velocity is likely to come as he progresses in repeating his delivery more consistently.
"He's very raw, but there's a ton of upside," Dunn said. "He's a big, strong, athletic guy with a lot of life on his fastball. He's slotted at Savannah and the staff really likes him. He's a guy who has that rawness about him, but he shows flashes of good feel for pitching and he has quality stuff. The main thing I like about him is that aggressiveness. He doesn't nibble. He just goes after guys and it's rare that you see someone that fiery, that young."