MELBOURNE, Fla. - You’ll notice a change in dateline for today’s entry. The Nationals have reached the 32nd day of spring training, and are enjoying their first off-day of camp.
How off are they?
There’s not even a pithy motivational quote from Matt Williams on this morning’s lineup sheet. In fact, there’s no lineup sheet at all.
The collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association mandates that each team receive two days off during spring training (Friday, March 28 is the other on the Nats schedule). Years ago, the notion of an off-day was treated differently by different teams. Some squads actually padlocked the gates to their facilities, barring anyone from entering (though I recall a colleague once scaling a fence at Fort Lauderdale Stadium to retrieve a notebook he’d mistakenly left in the media work room). Others had a more loose interpretation of what it meant to be off, and managers routinely scheduled B games or directed pitchers to the minor league fields to get additional work in when major league camp was closed.
The Nationals are adhering to the rules, though they will send Tanner Roark, who was supposed to start yesterday’s game that was wiped away by a central Florida monsoon that consumed Lakeland, over to the minor league side to pitch in a game at 1 p.m. Funny thing: When I left Joker Marchant Stadium last night around 5 p.m., the deluge had stopped and the sun was trying to poke its way through the clouds. See, a little patience would have resulted in a game. (I kid, I kid.)
Yesterday’s deal that sent catcher Koyie Hill to the Phillies in exchange for cash or the ubiquitous player to be named, got the comments flowing on the ol’ blog. I particularly liked the dig that the 35-year-old Hill would bring down the average age in Phillies camp. Well, let’s say I appreciated the humor much more than Philly general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. probably did. The Phillies are old - so old that you’ve got to slice some players in half and count the rings. I’ll be here all week, folks. Please remember to tip your waiters.
Another astute commenter wondered if the Nats’ trade of Hill was simply clearing a spot for the possible return of catcher Adrian Nieto, who was taken by the White Sox in the Rule 5 draft at the Winter Meetings in December. So I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at how Nieto is faring at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz.
The Rule 5 draft allows teams to add a player who is not on the 40-man roster of another team who is either 18 or younger on the June 5 preceding their signing (a period of five Rule 5 drafts) or 19 or older on the June 5 preceding their signing (a period of four Rule 5 drafts). The selecting team pays $50,000 for the player and must keep him on the 25-man roster all season or offer him back to his original team for $25,000.
Years ago, when the Nats were a struggling franchise bereft of a deep farm system, they would occasionally make a Rule 5 pick in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle (See: Elvin Ramirez and Brian Broderick, 2010; Terrell Young, 2008). If those names seem unfamiliar, it’s with good reason - only Broderick stuck, and not for long (Ramirez spent a lot of time on the disabled list, but never pitched in Washington). More recently, as the Nats’ farm system got better, they’ve lost players in the Rule 5; last year, utility guy Jeff Kobernus was taken by the Tigers, who returned him late in spring training; he stands a good chance of starting the year at Triple-A Syracuse.
Nieto was the second player taken in the major league phase of the Rule 5 in December. So far in Cactus League play, he’s hitting .231 with five RBIs in nine games entering Tuesday’s action. His average is the same as Tyler Flowers, who will likely be the starting catcher in Chicago, and his five RBIs are tied for third-most on the club this spring.
The 24-year-old Cuban, a fifth-round selection in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft by the Nats, is battling to back up Flowers, who has recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. But the fact that he went under the knife in September might be a signal that the White Sox would prefer someone with some more major league experience to be their backup plan.
Nieto, who hit .282 with 11 homers and 53 RBIs at high Single-A Potomac in 2013, is competing with two such catchers who boast major league experience he doesn’t possess, having never played above the Carolina League. Hector Gimenez is a 31-year-old veteran who has played parts of the last two seasons with the White Sox, and had cups of coffee with the Astros and Dodgers six seasons apart. The White Sox made 26-year-old Josh Phegley the 38th overall pick (in the sandwich round) of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft; he reached the bigs last year and got into 65 games.
It’s an uphill battle for a young player to make a major league club via the Rule 5 draft, and even a more daunting task for a catcher. Promise aside, Nieto is a new guy in Camelback Ranch, getting his first taste of a major league camp and tasked with learning a pitching staff that he’d only seen on the Internet or video before mid-February. That doesn’t mean he can’t make the White Sox’s 25-man roster, only that he’s a long shot.
Would the Nats take him back? In a heartbeat. They liked his progression at Potomac last season, see developing power and think he calls a good game. Defensively, he’s more than adequate, boasting a decent arm and good mechanics. With the Nats’ collection of good arms creating a trickle-down effect that will result in some nice pitchers at Double-A Harrsburg, Nieto would be a good fit there - and it’s not like he doesn’t know a lot of the pitchers who were teammates last year on the P-Nats, or in previous seasons at Single-A Hagerstown, short-season Single-A Auburn or at the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
There’s always the chance the White Sox manage to pull off a trade with the Nats that allows them to keep Nieto. But I wouldn’t put it past Washington GM Mike Rizzo to be keeping a locker stall warm for someone he’s quite familiar with. The last two weeks of spring training are upon us and all clubs will face roster decisions. What the White Sox decide about Nieto could result in his return to the organization that drafted him.
Update: Roark went five-plus innings in his minor league game, allowing no runs on three hits. We use the term “innings” loosely here, since the idea of the outing was to get Roark up to around 70 pitches. So innings may have lasted more than three outs to accommodate the right-hander getting his work in.