A very good friend of mine and one of the top environmental lobbyists in town, Athan Manuel, happens to be the brother of Baseball America editor John Manuel. Two weeks ago, while playing softball with Athan, I asked him half-joking if he thought John would do an interview with me for the blog. He said, “Sure, you can certainly ask.” So I fired off some questions and to my great surprise John replied, and, fresh from recent interviews with Nationals AA manager John Stearns and one of the team's scouts, John had some real up-to-the-second insights.
You can show your appreciation to Athan by sending off a donation to the Sierra Club, his organization, and to John by subscribing to BA, if you haven’t already.
So with that, here’s part one of the exclusive FJB interview with BA Editor John Manuel.
FJB: Tell us the latest at Baseball America, and give us the best 2-3 reasons to become a subscriber to BA magazine and the website?
JM: The latest at BA is our Best Tools surveys going up, and as I'm answering your questions I'm just getting ready to watch the first game of the Olympic baseball tournament. We're ready for Prospect season coming up, this is by far the best time to subscribe as we'll start ranking the top 20 prospects in every organized minor league, plus top 10 indy ball prospects, and then top 10 prospects by organization online (with top 30s in our Prospect Handbook).
FJB: You rated the Nationals’ 2007 draft the best in MLB and their overall system the 9th best minor league system in baseball. This year, Ross Detwiler has regressed, Josh Smoker and Jack McGeary have been mediocre, and Chris Marrero had a season-ending leg injury. On the other hand, Jordan Zimmermann has probably exceeded expectations and Collin Balester has performed admirably since his call-up. In retrospect, so you think you overrated the Nationals’ system? If you had to guess right now, should we expect to see the Nationals rise or fall in your next ratings?
JM: No, I think the whole minor leagues are down, it's hard to find organizations other than the A's (who had to completely punt their MLB team to do it) and the Marlins (who have been awful for a long time) to find organizations that are having real strong years in the minors. I do wish more Nats high-profile prospects were having big years to make our list look better but Leonard Davis re-emerged as a prospect, Michael Burgess has reached high Class A, Roger Bernadina put it all together, Zimmermann has had his year . . . in general though you're right, it's a middling season for the system.
FJB: At the deadline, the Nationals made several moves. They released Felipe Lopez, Paul Lo Duca, and Johnny Estrada, while trading Jon Rauch for Emilio Bonifacio and Jhonny Nunez to the Yankees for Alberto Gonzalez. The consensus among fans here seems to be that the releases were addition by subtraction, the Rauch deal was underwhelming return for a very good reliever, and the Gonzalez deal was probably inconsequential in the big picture. What do you think?
JM: I don't understand giving up a live arm like Nunez for a fringy player like Gonzalez, who won't hit enough to be a big league regular. Rauch for Bonifacio, I agree, was not the best deal, not as good a deal as you'd expect considering how much people overpay for middle relief. Getting rid of that dead weight was a good thing, though it's rough to watch Nats games and see Ronnie Belliard playing first base.
FJB: If the Nationals do not sign Aaron Crow, a lot of Nationals fans who have been patient and supportive of the rebuilding effort may throw in the towel. On the other hand, we would get a high compensatory pick next year. Is it fair to conclude that if we don’t sign Crow that we are just cursed with a terrible, cheap, short-sighted owner? Or should we give them the benefit of the doubt?
JM: Crow will get signed. I don't think you're cursed with a bad owner but with a GM who is not up to the challenge. It's a tough situation, MLB tried to kill this franchise . . . not easy to come back from. Not making excuses but it wasn't the same situation as others had... Bowden has to be judged against a different standard, but even by that standard, I would give him a failing grade.
FJB: Would Mike Rizzo be an upgrade over Jim Bowden as GM?
JM: All I can say is I don't consider Jim Bowden to be the answer for the Nats. He's had some chances and took over a tough situation but he hasn't handled it terribly well -- lots of retreads, lots of losses, not enough hope. Rizzo's track record as a talent evaluator is strong, and moreover I respect his process from when he was scouting director. I do not respect Bowden's constant turnover process as a GM.
FJB: A few years back, Kevin Towers said that he doesn’t take Jim Bowden’s calls and that he doesn’t think many other GMs do either. Can that possibly be true, or was Towers just spouting off?
JM: Definitely can be true. I asked a GM about Bowden during all-star week, he basically confirmed that Bowden has burned a lot of bridges with his peers.
FJB: Give us your take on Dana Brown.
JM: Nice guy, works hard, did a great job early in his tenure holding together an impossible situation. MLB didn't want the Expos to exist and he had to run a draft in that situation, with a tiny budget, with eight scouts, and he still got some players (such as Chad Cordero, who was excellent before breaking down). Then Dana had to share the draft room with other strong-minded scouts such as Chuck LaMar (a crosschecker last year, '07) and Rizzo, and he handled that well. I respect Dana and like him personally.
FJB: GM Jim Bowden and Special Assistant Jose Rijo have been implicated in the FBI’s ongoing Dominican Republic bonus-skimming investigation. Whether Bowden and Rijo are guilty or not, and we are all innocent until proven guilty, how widespread do you think these kinds of shady practices are in the DR? Is this a situation where everyone knew and most people were in on it?
JM: There's a lot of rumors but not a lot of hard facts. I think shady practices are EXTREMELY widespread in the D.R., and we wrote about the Nats' practices there in the fall of 2005, when Bowden tried to send the organization's instructional league to Rijo's hotel in the Dominican. They sent about 60 players there and basically had to abort after about a week because the hotel wasn't ready and players were concerned about their security (referenced in part in this Washington Post article). The White Sox' Dave Wilder was busted by U.S. customs coming back from the D.R. and apparently was skimming bonuses, and he's taking a lot of people down with him.
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Come back tomorrow for part 2 of the interview with John, when he’ll give us his insights on what to expect from some of the Nationals’ top prospects as well as players in transition on the big club.
And he answers the burning question on my mind… when can we hope to see The First Great Nationals Team?