On the afternoon of April 7, Roy Clark was tracked down while traveling through the Blue Ridge Mountains en route to the northwest corner of Georgia and the city of Rome.
Clark, the Washington Nationals assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel, was on a business trip of sorts.
“I’m on my way to Rome to see our Hagerstown team open up tonight,” Clark said, referring to the South Atlantic League season-opener between the Hagerstown Suns and Rome Braves, Class A affiliates of the Nationals and the Atlanta Braves, respectively.
The game marked the much-anticipated professional debut of the Nationals’ top prospect Bryce Harper, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 MLB First-Year Player Draft. The event drew attention from all across the nation.
“Yes, Bryce happens to be there,” Clark said with a chuckle. “It’s going to be quite a circus down there.”
Clark spent last spring, his first with the Nationals, keeping track of outfielder Harper and the Nats’ other early round picks in the 2010 Draft, including left-hander Sammy Solis (second round), shortstop Rick Hague (third), and right-hander A.J. Cole (fourth).
Washington was able to sign all four of those players, along with its next nine selections.
The Nationals have the No. 6, No. 23 and No. 34 picks in this June’s Draft, and Clark and his staff have been doing their homework and logging the miles to formulate a plan.
“We’ve got multiple first-rounders and we got a sandwich pick, so it’s been a very, very busy spring for not only myself but our entire scouting staff,” Clark said. “I think it’s narrowing down, at least for our first pick. It’s narrowing down a little bit, but you don’t know for sure, especially at 23 and 34. You just don’t know what’s going to be out there.”
Clark went to work for the Nationals in 2009 after 20 years in the Atlanta Braves organization, the final 11 as the Braves’ scouting director. His run in Atlanta was storied, as he was instrumental in the Braves drafting and signing dozens of star players over two decades, from Chipper Jones to Jason Heyward.
The Braves won 14 straight National League division titles from 1991 through 2005 (there was no division winner in 1994 because of a players strike) and didn’t often get high picks in the Draft. The Nationals had the No. 1 pick in 2010 – Clark’s first year with the organization – and used it to draft the phenom-in-waiting Harper.
Clark had only one No. 1 overall pick in all his years with the Braves.
“I remember back in 1990 we picked first and took a guy by the name of Chipper Jones, so I had been there before,” he said.
Clark developed a professional relationship with Perfect Game USA during his years with the Braves and has continued that association now that he is with the Nationals. He counts the PG National Showcase, PG WWBA National Championship and PG WWBA World Championship as among his must-sees.
“They’re so important – the Perfect Game events and the way that (PG President) Jerry Ford and his staff put on the showcases and the tournaments, they’re absolutely a necessity – and have been for me for many, many years,” he said.
Clark added that he’s always been a “huge” supporter of what Perfect Game does, and then related a story about one missed opportunity.
“Last year, something came up and I missed the Perfect Game National for the first time in probably 10 years. And I was just lost,” he recalled. “One of the things that’s so beneficial for me – now and as a former scouting director – at that event they’ve got the better kids, just about all of them, from throughout the country that are the top kids for the next Draft.
“We, as the Washington Nationals, start getting ready for the next year’s Draft the day after this one ends,” Clark continued. “The day after the 2011 Draft, we will start getting ready for 2012, and the Perfect Game National is the main event right there.”
Clark has long maintained a steady presence at the PG WWBA 18U, 17U and 16U National Championships at the East Cobb Complex in Marietta, Ga.
“The ideal for me is to see the (PG National Showcase) to identify the guys I want to really bare down on the rest of the summer,” he said. “Fortunately with Perfect Game, especially the (WWBA) tournaments that they have in Marietta, most of the top guys will come in there and play real games over the course of a couple of weeks with the wood bats against most of the very top pitchers in the country.”
Clark noted that the Braves organization has traditionally drafted a lot of the best players from the state of Georgia, and when he worked for the Braves there was no better place to see those players than at the PG events in Marietta.
He recalled a specific benefit was provided when the Braves were keeping a close eye on Heyward, one of those prized Georgia kids they took with the No. 14 overall pick in the 2007 Draft. Heyward has just started his second season as the Braves starting right fielder.
“What is so beneficial is that not only are (the hitters) facing the top competition, but they actually get pitched to,” Clark said. “In all the years that I saw Jason Heyward in the Perfect Game events, not once did I ever see him get intentionally walked. In high school (games), you might go in there and try to see him and he never swings the bat; they never pitched to him.
“That’s why it’s very, very important for us as a staff to heavily scout those events.”
Clark and his Nationals scouting staff spend the summer and fall scouring for talent at Perfect Game events. The spring is spent traveling the country taking in as many amateur games as possible in addition to time spent in minor league spring training camps.
“We’re doing everything,” Clark said. “Where ever the players are – whether it’s high school, junior college or college – we’re going to be there. The tough part is … that this time of year it seems like all the better (college) pitchers are throwing on Fridays. The high school guys, a lot of them are Tuesday-Friday, Tuesday-Friday.
“You’ve got to look at the Weather Channel and make sure everybody’s healthy, and hopefully you get to the right guy.”
The Washington Nationals finished 81-81 in 2005, the franchise’s first season in the nation’s capital after spending from 1969 through 2004 as the Montreal Expos. The Nats have never won more than 73 games in a season since that inaugural campaign, and have finished in last place in the National League East five of their six seasons in Washington.
The Draft is an organization like Washington’s lifeblood. With back-to-back No. 1 picks in 2009 (right-hander Stephen Strasburg) and 2010 (Harper) and three more first-round picks this year, the Nationals are trying to build their farm system.
It should be noted, however, Strasburg was already in the Major Leagues in his first season in professional ball before getting hurt and requiring Tommy John Surgery. Some people think Harper could make his MLB debut late this season without spending much time on the farm.
“We’re trying to be better this year than we were last year,” Clark said. “What we have to do is start with the grassroots, and that’s scouting. What we want to do as a scouting department is fill our system up with prospects and turn it over to what we think are very, very good quality player development people, and then have them do their thing. And then (General Manager) Mike Rizzo and (Manager) Jim Riggleman can do their job at the Major League level.
“It’s no secret what we’re trying to do. Our goal is to out-work and be better prepared than any other scouting organization. That’s our goal.”
Players on the Nationals’ active Major League roster who attended numerous PG events while in high school include All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, shortstop Ian Desmond, rookie standout second baseman Danny Espinosa, and right-handed relieversTyler Clippard and Drew Storen.