VIERA, Fla. - He's 31, hasn't played regularly in the majors in 2006 and last played in Japan, where the cultural experience far outweighed anything he did on the field. But Chad Tracy once slugged 27 homers in a single season for the Diamondbacks, where the man who drafted him is now the Nationals' general manager. Plus, he hits left-handed and is versatile enough to play both the infield and outfield corners.
Not so long ago, Tracy would have bristled at the notion of being a bench player. But he's come embrace the idea of a reserve role because is what's going to get him onto a major league roster, whether it's the Nationals or someone else's.
"I've kind of accepted that role now," said Tracy, a career .278 hitter in seven major league seasons. "I used to fight it and think that I should be an everyday guy. Now, I've accepted that that's what I'm going to do for this club."
After hip and hernia problems limited Tracy to 40 games with the Hiroshima Carp of Japan's Central League in 2011, where he signed a $1.3 million guaranteed deal, Tracy knew his options for returning to the majors would be limited when GMs saw his .235 average, single home run and only 19 RBIs. But Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who drafted Tracy in the seventh round back in 2001 when he was with the D-Backs, remembered the slugger who hit 47 homers and drove in 152 runs from 2005-06 and signed Tracy to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training.
Tracy might fit in nicely to manager Davey Johnson's reconfigured bench, which emphasizes offense rather than speed and defense. Johnson has been pleading for left-handed power off the bench, and Tracy hits from that side of the plate. Because the Nationals' outfield picture is unsettled - Johnson isn't sure whether left-handed-hitting prospect Bryce Harper will start the season in D.C. or in the minors, which will dictate how many reserves he can carry - Tracy is no more than a long shot to break camp with the club.
But he's definitely put himself into a position to be noticed. It's all going to come down to making the most of the opportunities he's given, and that's where Tracy offers something most of the other bench alternatives don't: power.
"I feel like I can contribute off the bench in that pinch-hit role, give you a solid at-bat. ... That at-bat is usually a big at-bat somewhere in the game, and usually late in the game against one of their better arms in a bigger situation," Tracy said. "I feel like it's a lot harder than playing every day. It's a tough job."
There's a good chance Tracy won't crack the 25-man roster. The Nationals could ask him to accept an assignment to Triple-A Syracuse, where he'd play more regularly and be ready should a need arise.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't feel like I had a shot," Tracy said. "As far as competition goes, competition brings out the best in you. You have to compete on that field every day. That's just what you do. You can't ever let down or someone will take your job. I'd like to play in the big leagues, but I'm not ruling out playing in Triple-A. I'm going to take it one day at a time and figure it out as it comes to me."
Tracy's at a career crossroads, where he knows he's no longer an everyday player, but he's not ready to hang up his cleats just yet. He figures carving out a niche as a dependable guy off the bench beats heading home to Glendale, Ariz., and starting on his post-baseball days.
"There's not a whole lot of people who can actually do it, so if you do stand out and have some success, teams are looking to sign you every year," he said. "You can turn a six-year career into a 15-year career."