Nieves hoping his long journey lands him a big-league spot

Posted: March 05, 2014

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - One of the first names out of Ryne Sandberg's mouth yesterday afternoon was that of a 36-year-old who has tallied more than 100 major league plate appearances in a season four times, 200 major league plate appearances in a season twice, and who has a frame that looks more like a utility infielder's.

Meet Wil Nieves, the Phillies' backup catcher, a man who might print his resume in landscape mode, its breadth far exceeding its depth. A veteran of eight organizations, two of which never promoted him to the major leagues, the 5-11, 190-pound Puerto Rican player signed a $1.125 million contract to replace Erik Kratz as Carlos Ruiz' understudy behind the plate this season. The Phillies then traded Kratz to the Blue Jays as part of a package for out-of-options reliever Brad Lincoln.

That might sound like a lot of resources to devote to facilitate the arrival of a catcher who has eight home runs in 1,029 major league at-bats and a career OPS of .597. But Sandberg's initial assessment of his club's 6-1 loss to the Rays yesterday afternoon highlighted the near-impossibility of quantifying the value of a backup catcher. In the first six innings, all scoreless, Phillies pitchers held the Rays to two hits and no walks with five strikeouts. Roberto Hernandez retired nine of 10 batters, Jeff Manship five of six, and Phillippe Aumont three of four. Yet Sandberg tossed his first bouquet to the man who caught them all.

"He just does a good job, he's got good energy, he has a feel for the game," the manager said. "I think this was an example: With all of the guys, he got all of the guys to throw strikes, he got Aumont to get ahead of the hitters."

While it is probably unfair to pin the blame solely on Kratz for the disparity between the production of Phillies pitchers when throwing to him (.763 OPS, 4.61 ERA) and their production throwing to Ruiz (.740 OPS, 4.11 ERA), the Phillies thought they needed to bring in a backup catcher with more experience working with major league pitching staffs. And Nieves has worked with plenty of them.

When Nieves entered professional baseball as a 47th-round draft pick of the Padres in 1996, his goal was loftier than "well-respected journeyman catcher." Thus, in some ways, his current standing is a curse as well as a blessing. Take 2002. After 6 years in the minors, he finally received a promotion to the majors, spending the final 2 1/2 months of the season in a rotation with Tom Lampkin and Wiki Gonzalez. But the 24-year-old Nieves hit only .181 with a .474 OPS, and the Padres exposed him to waivers in the offseason, prompting the Angels to snatch him up. It would take until 2005 for Nieves to return to the majors.

"What I heard is that I was too good to let go, but that I didn't have the experience" to help the big-league club, Nieves said. "Then after my last year in Anaheim, I was just praying to God to put me on a team that's not too good, so I can play and get an opportunity to play in the big leagues."

How did God honor that request?

"They traded me to the Yankees," Nieves said.

He ended up in the Bronx in the Septembers of 2005 and 2006, but he started only one game. Finally, in 2007, the Yankees carried him on their Opening Day roster as a backup to Jorge Posada. On May 9, after an 0-for-21 start in his first nine games, Nieves singled off C.J. Wilson for his first big-league hit in 1,683 days.

"With the Yankees, obviously, it was the same" as with the Angels, Nieves said. "Posada, and then Kelly Stinnett and Sal Fasano. Guys with experience. And I'd just go to Triple A. It was hard. Because I knew I had ability, and that was my prime, those years, 26, 27 years old. It was 3, 4 years that I was just stuck at Triple A."

He was 30 when he eclipsed 100 plate appearances for the first time. This was in 2008, the first of 3 years he would spend as the Nationals' primary backup. That was followed by stints in Milwaukee and Atlanta (he never played in a game for the big-league club), and then Colorado, and finally Arizona, where last season he hit .297/.320/.369 in 206 plate appearances for the Diamondbacks, the second most of his career.

A backup catcher is as much a horse whisperer as he is a mechanical hitter or defender. His value lies in his ability to make a start here and there without disrupting the rhythm of the pitchers on the mound. Yesterday was the first day Nieves had ever caught Hernandez, another free-agent acquisition.

Asked whether he knows all of the pitchers' repertoires yet, he laughed and shook his head emphatically.

The message: It's a long spring, and Nieves' is a job that requires a considerable orientation period. Behind the scenes, it is easy to see why the Phillies were pleased to sign Nieves. He is an excellent communicator, speaking with ease in both English and Spanish, and quick with a smile. Part of his job is to make pitchers feel comfortable. With 6-plus years of major league service and more than $3 million in career earnings, he finally has some comfort of his own.

Freddy Galvis left yesterday's game with what was called a sprained ankle but was seen walking without a limp after the game. Ryne Sandberg was not concerned, calling it a "tweak" . . . Infielder Ronny Cedeno, a veteran utility man but a longshot to make the Opening Day roster, was scratched with back issue.


On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy


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