The Nationals have given out minor league awards in the past and often those players will travel to Washington to meet with media members after receiving their honors. It's a nice way to showcase the future and give their young prospects some deserved attention.
It is not usual, however, for them to hold a press conference with a host of top front office executives on hand, as they did on Saturday at Nationals Park. It's also not common for them to bring in another player who did not win an award, as they did on Saturday.
But this year is different, as all three award winners - plus their MVP of the Gulf Coast League - are from the Dominican Republic. The group represents an increased emphasis by the Nats on scouting and signing international players, particularly from Latin American countries. This was a celebration of how those efforts are bearing fruit.
On the dais were Nationals' minor league pitcher of the year Reynaldo Lopez, player of the year Jose Marmolejos-Diaz, Bob Boone award winner Rafael Bautista and Gulf Coast League MVP Juan Soto. They represent the future, not only because they could be big leaguers some day, but in that they represent what the Nats hope is plenty more to come from the international ranks.
"I think it’s a testament to the plan," director of player development Mark Scialabba said. "[VP of international operations] Johnny Dipuglia and the staff do a tremendous job of acquiring talent. Early on we didn’t have the resources, necessarily, to sign some top players in the market but Johnny and their staff did their best job to find the best players we could pay for.
"It’s a credit to the staff and we’re going to continue to be aggressive in that market. As you’ve seen, the signing bonuses have improved. More resources have been devoted to that market and it’s a trust from the Lerner Family to [GM] Mike Rizzo and Johnny Dipuglia and his staff."
DiPuglia isn't often at Nationals Park. He's almost always on the road, sometimes joining the team when they play in Miami. But he was on hand for Saturday's press conference, which represented another feather in his cap.
"I consider ourselves down there like an octopus. I’m the head of the octopus and I got all these guys, all these tentacles finding players. Without the area scouts we can’t be," he said.
DiPuglia shared his thoughts on each player after they met the media.
On Marmolejos, who hit 13 homers and 45 doubles in 136 minor league games.: "Marmolejos was a guy that was a U.S. player and wasn’t even drafted. And we saw him in Latin America and we signed him but without his hitting coaches working with him every day, that’s why he’s the hitter he is today."
On Bautista, who was honored for his work ethic and character: "Bautista, a premium athlete guy that really didn’t have a lot of baseball skill set but you give him to your minor leagues and they develop that skill set."
On Lopez, who held a 3.21 ERA in 19 minor league starts: "Lopy was a catcher. We give him to [pitching coach] Paul Menhardt and he makes him a pitcher. He was a fastball guy and he developed a good breaking ball and a changeup."
On Soto: "Juan Soto, who me and Mark have had conversations about him skipping the [Dominican Summer League] level. He trusted me and allowed that to happen and he was able to have a very good year at the GCL because we have a very good hitting coach in the GCL... and that’s what it takes."
Scialabba expounded on Soto, who at 17 years old earned GCL MVP honors with a .361 average, 11 doubles and 31 RBI in 45 games.
"I think you have a premium bat prospect, someone that is extremely advanced for his age. Very mature. He’s someone that has very innate ability to barrel up the baseball. His bat stays in the zone for a long period of time but also leverages the ball well. He can hit the ball to all fields. He has a great eye. Understands the strike zone for a young age. But he’s also a hard worker on the defensive side of the ball. He’s made adjustments and improvements over the last year. He’s physically growing, getting so much stronger and faster. At this age in his life, where you want to build a body that can play an impact on the game on the defensive side. And we’re seeing that with him. He’s getting better and stronger and he’s got the mental makeup that you want."
Everyone in the Nats' front office takes pride in a press conference like the Nats had on Saturday. But it's also a wonderful experience for the players themselves. They get to walk around a big league ballpark and see what it could be like if they continue to work hard and reach the majors.
"You feel very motivated," Bautista said through an interpreter. "Seeing the stadium full of people gives you an exta little motivation. Seeing some of the players that you came up with playing, helping out the team, it just gives you that motivation to continue toward getting here."
"Being here is very motivational," Soto said through an intepreter. "Given the awards and trying to reach those goals to be here and help the team anyway possible and being recognized for your hard work, it’s tremendous."
Lopez isn't the only Dominican player on the big league roster today. Catcher Pedro Severino and infielder Wilmer Difo are two others and both just recently reached the majors.
Difo, in particular, has become a success story that others want to follow.
"It’s been a long journey. We’ve talked about this, five years ago when we were just in the Dominican Summer League. We’d see the team and we’re like, one day we’ll be there," Marmolejos said. "One of my closest friends from here, Wilmer Difo, we’d talk about it, and now to see him there, see that he accomplished it, it’s a blessing. You can see that you can get there too. So, it’s like dreams coming true."
"I saw a lot of players get some awards, some recognition, then when I saw Difo 2014, and I said I want to get those awards too. I want work hard, play good, and now it’s a reality," Bautista said.
Between Lopez and the others highlighted on Saturday, as well as star outfield prospect Victor Robles, the future is bright for the Nationals when it comes to signing and developing international talent.
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