Boston Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava was designated for assignment, resulting in the loss of a fan favorite to Red Sox Nation. The late-bloomer started his career off with a bang, but finished with a whimper. Ian Thistle takes a look at the road Nava took, and the spotty success he had with the Red Sox.
Red Sox fans, and all baseball fans, should love the story of Daniel Nava. Overlooked his entire career, he persevered, playing first in community college, then finally earning a scholarship to a Division I program, then, after going undrafted, playing in the independent leagues until finally being signed by the Red Sox for $1. While he’s overcome the odds and multiple barriers at each stop, with the way MLB is set up, even his all-star level performance on a championship team wasn’t enough and he still has to overcome difficulties – in this case, being designated for assignment (DFA’d) not just because of poor performance, but also because he isn’t owed any money beyond this year. Of course, the reason he doesn’t have a long-term contract is because he couldn’t break in to the majors until he was 27. And the reason for that ultimately traces back to him hitting puberty late, all the way back in high school.
What is interesting about his story is not the Rudy-ness of it, but rather how his initial setback – having a late growth spurt – held him back not just at the beginning of his athletic career, but literally at every part of it. Let’s recap (most facts here taken from Joseph Kahn’s excellent 2013 article): Entering high school at age 14, he was just 4’9” and 95 pounds and his coaches can be forgiven for not giving him a spot on the team – he was simply not big enough to hit the ball very hard. Four years later, he was unable to get a scholarship, due to both his still-small stature as well as his lack of a resume – he had only played against decent competition for one year, and not particularly well. Finding no takers, he served as equipment manager for Santa Clara University, and bulked up – he had access to the team’s weight room and had finally grown nearly to his adult size.
The Santa Clara coaches wanted him to play for them, but he had no scholarship and his family couldn’t afford to pay the tuition bill, so he attended nearby San Mateo community college instead – where he hit the cover off the ball, putting up a .403/.514/.628 line in 77 games over two seasons. Finally given a scholarship at Santa Clara, he hit .395/.494/.530 line in his final and only college season against tougher competition. Given his age (24 after missing two years while managing equipment), his still small frame (5’9”, if you believe what he’s listed at) and his only having one year against premium competition, he wasn’t drafted, which is a bit surprising when you consider that 1,453 other players were.
He then went to the independent leagues, where his past continued to haunt him. Now, he had the knock against him of not being good enough to be drafted – players in the independent leagues nearly never get a look from MLB scouts, especially hitters. When he was finally signed by the Red Sox, he was given an aggressive assignment at high-A Lancaster, but of course, he was 25 at this point and certainly was far too old to be considered a prospect.
Still, he hit. 2008: an .947 OPS at Lancaster (Dismissed given the high offensive levels of the California League). an .991 OPS in 2009 between Salem and Portland, with a 43:33 BB:K ratio (Well, he’s 26, and he missed some time with injury so it’s a small sample). In 2010, he broke through: an .830 OPS in Pawtucket, a grand slam in his first MLB at-bat, and a solid showing in 60 games in Boston.
Were Nava three years younger, or if the Red Sox had lesser aspirations, this would have assured him at least a bench role. But he wasn’t particularly good defensively and the knock was he couldn’t hit lefties (though he only faced them 36 times in 2010). Most importantly, the team had to have a proven player, and went out and signed Carl Crawford, the supremely athletic 2nd-round draft pick to play left field. Nava had to wait in AAA.
Nava didn’t have a great 2011, but he was more or less fine in AAA. Even though Crawford had surgery in the 2012 offseason and the team didn’t know when he’d return, Nava was still an afterthought and wasn’t even invited to major league camp in spring training (he got into 8 games and hit .429 with a HR). With Crawford hurt, the Red Sox gave April starts to Jason Repko, Darnell McDonald and the 6’4” former 2nd-round pick Ryan Sweeney (who looked great in jeans, but hit less than 1 HR every 100 PA), rather than look to Nava. They even traded for Marlon Byrd, who was owed $6.5 million, while Nava went .313/.425/.525 in Pawtucket before being called up.
Nava battled injuries in 2012, but mostly held down the left field job in between a couple of DL stints. Of course, the Bobby V Sox were mired in the cellar, so no one really noticed. In 2013, finally, he was given a starting job and he was stellar. With Jonny Gomes making up the other half of the platoon, Nava hit.303/.385/.445 in 2013, for an overall .366 wOBA and 128 wRC+. Looking at his stats vs. RHP only, he was even better – he ranked 14th in wOBA and 7th in OBP in the entire majors vs. RHP. On the Sox, only David Ortiz was better vs. RHP, and Nava was a big part of the championship run – at least until the World Series when John Farrell decided the team “had more energy” with bearded Jonny Gomes on the field facing the bad half of his platoon and Nava sitting on the bench with no beard.
Fortunately for the Sox, Farrell’s hunch more or less worked and they won, and Nava didn’t complain. After all, what could he do? Given his very late start and multiple demotions, he had only accumulated just over two years of service time, and so he was still making the minimum and could be optioned to the minors whenever the team wanted. In 2014, the Sox decided that the once-supremely athletic former 3rd-round pick Grady Sizemore, who literally hadn’t played baseball in over two years and hadn’t been better than replacement level in four, was worth guaranteeing $750k to (more than Nava) and worth putting in the starting lineup day after day after day. Sizemore hit a HR in his first game back, but for the rest of April he had a .572 OPS. Meanwhile, Nava had a .509 OPS for April, and was sent to the minors – his start was certainly bad, but you might expect him to be given a little more rope with the season he had just had. But again, Nava’s past came back to haunt him – he had the options, and the Red Sox weren’t willing to cut Sizemore (the ultimate player who “looks good in jeans”) as they would have lost him – though they ended up doing so a couple months later.
What did Nava do? Well, he hit: a .745 OPS in AAA, and then, after being recalled, he hit for a .751 OPS with a .369 OBP for the remainder of the season. Even including his poor start, he had a .345 wOBA vs. RHP in 2014 and was 19th in MLB with a .379 OBP against righties.
So here we are. Nava has been DFA’d, and I don’t really blame the Red Sox – there are perhaps
extenuating circumstances, but he’s been a putrid hitter this year. Sure, he has battled injury, and hasn’t been given steady playing time, given that they Sox have a million outfielders, but the fact is he’s hitting .152 and has no long-term monetary commitment, so he’s an easy cut. And I don’t feel too bad for Nava – he has a World Series ring, and has earned multiple millions of dollars, and will probably catch on somewhere else.
The lesson to take from his story is that MLB isn’t fair. Grady Sizemore has done far less for his teams since 2010 than Nava did as recently as 2013-14 – Grady’s actually been a negative player – and yet, Sizemore is making $2 million this year and was given yet another chance with the Rays. Nava, making $1.85 million this year, in his first year of arbitration, has to hope he gets picked up by a team with a chance for some decent playing time down the stretch in order for him to make money next year, or even get a spot on a major league team.
Usually, the system isn’t too bad – players like Nava are rare, as most are grown enough to reasonably project by the time college scholarships are given out, and those who aren’t just aren’t going to make it as MLB players. But for someone like Nava, I wish the Red Sox had had a little more respect for his obvious mental fortitude, and tried to figure out a way to keep him around rather than discard him like common waiver-wire fodder. I wouldn’t bet against him contributing somewhere else before his career is over.