VIERA, Fla. - With Rafael Soriano’s visa issue in the past and all their position players having reported, the Nationals now have all 53 of their guys in camp.
The physicals have all been taken, the eye and dental exams complete. It’s time for the first official full-squad workout of spring.
It’s a chilly 40-degree morning here on the east coast of Florida, and before the Nationals take to the fields for bullpen sessions, batting practice and various drills, manager Davey Johnson will step before the team and say a few words. Johnson doesn’t feel he needs to hold many team meetings, and when he does address his players, Johnson is often sarcastic and loose. But he plans on giving a short speech this morning to officially kick off camp.
“It won’t be a real long one,” Johnson said. “It’ll be more for the guys who don’t know how we’re going to operate around here. ... It’s not a club that needs to be motivated or rah-rah. We’re kind of all grinders. We’re going to put in an honest day’s work.”
The other day, I had someone here at Nats camp ask me which player I was most interested in watching this spring. One name immediately sprung to mind: Micah Owings.
Nats fans might not know much about Owings just yet. Baseball fans, those who follow the game closely, might know the 6-foot-5, 220-lb. Owings as a pitcher, one who went 8-0 with a 3.57 ERA as a reliever in 2011. This spring, however, the 30-year-old, who sports a career .283 batting average in the big leagues, comes in to camp with a completely different mindset. He’s looking to compete for a job as a position player.
It’s a transition that few have made, a major league pitcher trying to become a full-time player in the field. But Owings certainly has enough skill with the bat to give it a good run.
The polite, soft-spoken native of Gainesville, Ga., owns Georgia’s high school home run record with 69. He hit .313 with 30 home runs and 106 RBIs over two seasons at Georgia Tech, and then after transferring to Tulane, led the team in home runs (18), triples (three) and slugging percentage (.733) his senior season.
He had a 1.033 OPS in 64 plate appearances with the Diamondbacks in 2007, and one August night against the Braves that season, Owings went 4-for-5 with two home runs and six RBIs.
“He has a lot of pop,” said Chad Tracy, who played with Owings from 2007-08 and specifically remembers that game in Atlanta. “In pitchers’ (batting practice), we’d go out just to watch him hit. The home runs he would hit would fly all over the field. The guy’s got tremendous power.”
All the while, Owings was also pitching at a high level. He’s considered transitioning to more of a position player for a couple years now, but Owings never completely jumped in and attacked it with 100 percent focus.
In 2007, the year that Owings won a Silver Slugger, the Diamondbacks thought about playing him at first base a little bit. In the spring of 2011, again while with the D-backs, Owings attempted to double-dip, throwing his side sessions off a mound and then taking early ground balls at first base on days that he wasn’t pitching. He ended up earning a role as Arizona’s long reliever that season.
Last season, Owings went into camp hoping the Padres would use his bat a little more, but that didn’t end up happening. He again earned a job as a long man before suffering an elbow injury that required surgery and limited him to just six big league appearances.
“All along, as you can see, I’ve been nudged more and more,” Owings said. “A lot of people are pointing to (the injury as the reason for the change in roles), but it was before that. I kind of made my mind up that I wanted to pursue (being a position player) a little more, and now, that’s my main focus. This has been the first spring that I’ve put hitting into my focus all spring.”
Ask Owings questions about where he sees himself defensively, even whether he’d consider pitching a bit if the Nats asked him to, and you’ll get the same answer: Owings says he comes into camp completely open-minded.
“Wherever I can fit to help this club. I just want to utilize my abilities,” Owings said. “I think the last couple years, I felt a little bit handcuffed, so it’s been freeing for me to go down this path already, to pursue it and see what happens. I know it’s going to take an adjustment, but I’m willing to put forth the effort and see where it goes.”
Owings says he had offers this offseason from teams who wanted to sign him strictly as a pitcher. He told his agent, however, that he wanted to take a new route and see where his journey as a position player would take him. He drew a good bit of interest as a hitter, but saw the Nats as the best fit, where he could reunite with general manager Mike Rizzo, who drafted him in Arizona.
For now, the Nats plan to give Owings some time at first base and also have him take fly balls at the corner outfield spots. While he can hit the cover off the ball, he’ll need to improve his defense to have any shot of joining the big league club any time soon.
If the Nats ask him to throw a bullpen session or two to keep his arm fresh, as well, Owings will do it. He knows his ability as a pitcher adds to his value and he could be a guy to pitch in extra-innings or throw an inning here or there to help a tired bullpen.
“I’m open-minded to that (but) that’s not where my focus is,” he says. “I think over the years, it’s been pitcher/hitter. Now it’s got to be more position player/hitter.”
The Nats don’t currently have much of a need for another bat on their bench, and they aren’t lacking for corner infielders at the high levels of the minors, either. Tyler Moore could be the team’s first baseman of the future, and Anthony Rendon, Chris Marrero and Matt Skole all are in big league camp looking to make a positive impression, as well.
But if Owings is searching for proof that this transition is, in fact, possible, he’s needs to look no further than former Nationals outfielder Rick Ankiel, a former top prospect as a pitcher who goes into Astros camp this year with six years of experience as a position player in the big leagues.
Owings sought out Ankiel last year, and the two had a phone conversation in which Ankiel’s first words were, “Just do it. Do it.”
“He knew what I wanted to talk to him about,” Owings says with a smile.
Owings also mentions his former roommate while at Tulane, Brian Bogusevic, who pitched in the minor leagues before becoming a position player. Bogusevic played 146 games for the Astros last season.
“I look at those two guys as that motivation,” Owings said. “They’re athletes. A lot of pitchers don’t get credit for being athletic. But I think those guys kind of set an example that it can be done. And I look forward to being with them in that mix for other guys coming up that want to pursue that part of the game.
“In a sense, it’s a clean slate. My drive is to get back to the big leagues. I don’t even want to say ‘back.’ I’m almost taking it like a 20-year-old coming in that hasn’t been through it. That kind of drive to get there and to help the club.”