VIERA, Fla. - If 12 years in the big leagues have taught Jamey Carroll anything, it’s that in the game of baseball, the little things are big.
Sometimes it’s noticing a pattern of how an opposing pitcher works you as a hitter. Maybe it’s spying that an outfielder is favoring his arm a little, and that he might be ripe for trying to take an extra base. Or just anticipating how a game might play out and when he might be needed as a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner or defensive replacement.
All of those things might go unnoticed to the untrained eye, but not to Carroll, a 40-year-old who has returned to his organizational roots - he made his major league debut as a MontrÃ©al Expo in 2002 and played with the Nationals in 2005, their first year in D.C. - in hopes of prolonging his big league career.
“Well, I’m 5-9 on a good day,” he says with a laugh in the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium. “Hopefully pushing 170 in weight. I don’t run the best, I don’t have the best arm in the world. So I had to find a way to compete and stay at this level and I understand that. I’ve had to do whatever I can and I think, for me, there had to be something that’s going to help me stay on a ballclub and be a reason for a ballclub to keep me. Guys are bigger, faster, stronger. But I also love the game, I enjoy it. I try to use whatever I can to compete at that level and help the team win.”
Carroll is hoping to stick with the Nats as a reserve infielder, and his career .339 average in 146 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter is intriguing to a club built to contend and hoping to improve its bench. But he doesn’t think it feels strange to return to the Nats (nee Expos), not after changing uniforms five times since those days at RFK Stadium.
“In a sense, it’s a new place,” he explains from the stool in front of his locker. “Anytime you go into a new job, it’s always a little awkward, because you’re not sure what to expect, how everything is laid out in front of you. But you do it so many times, you kind of have an idea what to anticipate.”
He’s been around enough to know that keeping his head low, doing his job and always being ready are the best things he can do if he wants to make the club after signing a minor league contract in January with an invitation to major league spring training. But he’s also a realist, and he knows he might only have another year or two left in his big league career.
Making the Nats is the focus right now, but he’s not oblivious to Father Time.
“Now, at this stage of my career, you start trying to come up with a plan for what the next chapter is,” Carroll says. “And I’m not naÃ¯ve to the situation. I understand that sooner or later that other life’s going to come, and you plan. You plan for everything else. You plan for your road trip, you plan for your dinner at night. You plan, and I’m not afraid of that.”
But what’s his plan? Is it being a father to his 6-year-old twins? Or is it staying connected to the game he loves that’s been his livelihood?
Talk to Carroll’s ex-managers - notably former Nationals skipper and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, ex-Dodgers manager Joe Torre and current Twins field boss Ron Gardenhire - and they’ll tell you that Carroll is and always has been an astute student of the game. That uncanny ability to see inside the game? Carroll has it, and his thoughts on diamond strategy and his knowledge of baseball’s intricacies make him a perfect potential future manager.
Carroll’s heard the chatter, too, and considers it the ultimate compliment. But is he interested in managing? In either transitioning from player to minor league manager, perhaps with an eye on a big league dugout? He’s certainly got an impressive resume and substantial baseball acumen.
This isn’t the first time he’s pondered the question.
“Everybody’s ready to put a fungo in my hand,” he smiles. “I’ve looked at it this way: I’ve played with a lot of good coaches, from managers to infield coordinators, and I think I’ve learned a lot that would be tough to go home and sit on. But at the same time, I do have a family - twins that are 6 years old - and that might be the perfect time to go and be a dad. It depends. It depends on what the situation is. But it’s intriguing, definitely.”
His status as a heady veteran has resulted in younger players seeking him out, and Carroll has become more comfortable with the role of mentor. A few years ago, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
“For me, it’s a part of having the confidence and understand the game and be able to share that,” he says. “You don’t want to be a guy - I don’t want to be a guy - that sits there and tells everybody what to do. So many different things can happen in this game. But I notice in the last year or two a lot more questions have come my way from guys, so in a sense that’s humbling because you feel respected. I love this game and I want to win. I don’t mind, so hopefully whatever I have to offer helps.”
He had several opportunities to choose from for 2014, but coming to a club that expects to win carried weight for a guy who has been to the postseason once - in 2007, when the Rockies advanced to the World Series, where they were swept by the Red Sox. Carroll never wanted to leave Washington, and Robinson was incensed when the Nationals sold Carroll to Colorado following the 2005 season for $300,000 so then-general manager Jim Bowden could keep utilityman Damian Jackson, who didn’t make it through 2006 before he was released. But the Nationals were far from a contender then, and they needed the cash infusion much more than a versatile backup infielder.
Three times since then, Carroll has been granted free agency. Each time, he’s found a home. For now, the National League makes more sense because it plays to his strengths, with managers employing the double-switch. So he’s not worried about finding work, nor is he concerned with his post-playing career, whenever it starts.
This spring, he’s focusing on winning a job with the Nats and there’s every indication that he’s on target to do that. The Nats need someone to back up Ryan Zimmerman at third base, and Carroll has 316 games under his belt at the hot corner. He’s played mostly second base in his career, but also seen action at shortstop, all three outfield positions and even pitched once.
“We’ll see what happens,” he says.
And when his career eventually ends?