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Nats Make Uninspiring Player Development Hire in Watson

De Jon Watson is reportedly the Nats' new head of player development.

More than any free agent signing or trade acquisition the Nationals make in the upcoming years, the medium- and long-term future of the franchise is dependent on who is hired to turn around arguably the worst player-development system in Major League Baseball.

For nearly a decade now, the Nats have drafted abysmally, have rarely developed Major League contributors internally and have generally fielded some frankly embarrassingly weak rosters throughout their Minor League affiliates.

General manager Mike Rizzo has publicly said a renewed focus on player development is the key to turning the Nats back into a contender in short order.

On Monday night, news started leaking that the Nats have tabbed the person in charge of rebuilding this sunken ship.

Former Nats beat writer Brittany Ghiroli’s tweet briefly left some uncertainty over whether De Jon Watson, a special assistant to Rizzo since 2017, was being reassigned to a general role overseeing the farm system or if indeed he was going to be the new head of player development.

Washington Post beat writer Jesse Dougherty quickly confirmed that yep, Watson is the new sheriff in town.

To briefly sum up Watson’s credentials, he served as a Dodgers assistant general manager of player development for a decade, receiving credit for the drafting of Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger. Considered a rising star, the d-Backs hired Watson in 2015 to be their vice president of baseball operations. That went extremely poorly, largely due to two high-profile busts in international signings Yasmany Tomas and Yoan Lopez. Watson then joined the Nats in 2017, where he was operated practically invisibly since.

In analyzing the Watson hire, the disappointing thing isn’t so much who was hired. Perhaps Watson is motivated, has fresh ideas and will deliver results. But the process is frustrating if not predictable. Many fans were hoping the current state of operations would finally lead Rizzo and ownership to look past their own fence line and maybe see what someone from a successful player-development operation (Rays, Dodgers, Brewers, etc.) could do. It didn’t happen. Instead, the Nats did what they always do when things aren’t going well: move a lot of personnel who helped contribute to the failures into new roles within the organization just to say, “We did something!”

In fact, the Nats had already gone to that well before the Watson hire, removing Randy Knorr and Bob Henley from the Major League coaching staff and giving them roles in player development, while also transitioning Double-A Harrisburg pitching coach Sam Narron into a pitching coordinator position.

From an organizational standpoint, it reeks of a front office still high on winning the 2019 World Series instead of one self-aware that it has overseen the transformation of the best farm system in baseball in 2011 into the worst a decade later. Regarding Watson individually, he’s been here since 2017 and you never hear his name. Has he been credited with anything that went well? Has he been blamed for any shortcomings? Sometimes, it hasn’t even felt like he has been a part of this thing. What has he been doing, and what made them think this is the guy to cure what ails them? It’s confounding on the surface and fans should be skeptical of this hire because there’s so much riding on it.

Now, in the interest of fairness, perhaps there is more to come. Beyond the Watson hire, the organization needs more support in all aspects of player development. They need to rethink the scouting operation that has yielded the lowest (b)WAR via the Draft since 2012. They flat-out just need more coaches at all their affiliate clubs. They need technology and analysts to utilize it and turn it into tangible improvement. If – and there’s ample reason to be skeptical – the Nats commit money to increasing their resources in these areas, then Watson may well prove to be a good fit for the job. Don’t hold your breath, but hope.

Ultimately, it will take years to determine if Watson can rebuild this operation. He has a nice head start thanks to exciting recent draft picks Cade Cavalli, Cole Henry and Brady House, as well as the players acquired in the Nats’ July sell-off. But his hiring is indicative of a troubling trend within the organization and it’s perfectly fair to be alarmed.

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