WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The scruffy five o’clock shadow Jake Noll wore as a rookie has morphed into a full, flowing beard. It’s noticeable because the chair at Noll’s locker stall in the Nationals clubhouse faces outward, affording him a view of the room.
Last year’s camp phenom looks a lot more comfortable in his second spring training with the major league club. He knows the routine, understands what’s expected of him and no longer has the appearance of a deer caught in the headlights.
“It feels about the same,” Noll said. “This year, I’ve obviously started a little slower. Don’t want to peak too early this year. Just going about it, trying to get better every day. Get better and find a way to help the team.”
That’s pretty much the same strategy Noll employed last spring, when he beat the odds - and benefited from a hamstring injury suffered by Howie Kendrick - to force his way onto the opening day roster. Not bad for a guy who had never played above Double-A.
But every time manager Davey Martinez gave Noll and opportunity last spring, he seemed to excel. In 27 Grapefruit League games, Noll slashed .314/.386/.510 and his 10 RBIs were tied for third-most on the club.
“I knew I was capable of playing like that,” Noll said. “I obviously put it together at the right time and the card had to fall in the right spot for me to get a chance to break with the team. But if you’d have told me before spring training started that I was going to break with the team, I probably wouldn’t believe you. But I knew I was good enough to play in the big leagues and get that opportunity. It was pretty cool how that worked out.”
Before he even collected his first major league hit on April 24, in his second tour of duty after being farmed out to Triple-A Fresno, Noll had recorded his first game-winning RBI, drawing a bases-loaded walk as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning against the Phillies on April 3.
But when he went back to Fresno in May, he performed well, just not well enough. He slashed .285/.327/.410 with 11 homers and 54 RBIs in 118 games, pedestrian numbers for the slugger’s paradise known as the Pacific Coast League. When rosters expanded, he didn’t get a recall, as the Nats were immersed in a chase for a National League wild card.
Which brings us to this year and a spring training that’s found Noll go just 1-for-7 without an extra-base hit. The lack of success hasn’t worn on Noll, who is determined to go about his business the same way he did last spring when he was opening eyes on a routine basis.
“I always tell myself, if I’m good enough to play in the big leagues, I’ll be there whether it’s here or anywhere else,” Noll said. “It doesn’t really matter to me who they sign. I’d rather be on a team that’s good, you know?”
Noll finds himself in a completely different situation this go-around. Over the winter, the Nationals collected guys who man the corner infield positions Noll plays. Carter Kieboom is getting a chance to play third base, but in case he falters, Asdrúbal Cabrera was re-signed as an insurance policy. Ryan Zimmerman re-upped to play first base, which he’ll share with a re-signed Kendrick and newly acquired Eric Thames. Starlin Castro signed as a free agent to play second base, but could wind up in the mix at third.
Is there still a place for Noll, or does the 25-year-old see himself getting crowded out of the conversation in the only organization he’s known since the Nats took him in the seventh round of the 2016 First-Year Player Draft out of Florida Gulf Coast University?
In answering that question, Noll displays a veteran’s savvy.
“You’re always playing for everybody else,” he said. “Obviously, I’d love to play for the Washington Nationals. That’s the main goal. But if I can impress other teams if I happen to not get a chance here, that would be great, too.”
Martinez has always been impressed with Noll’s versatility. He’s played everywhere in the infield but shortstop, and even some left field.
“He’s working hard, getting his work in,” Martinez said. “He’s one of those guys (and) I love him because he can do a lot of different things, play a lot of positions. On occasion, he can run into one and hit it a long way.”