Outfielder Daniel Nava has inarguably been the best offensive player in the Red Sox minor league system over the past two seasons. In 147 games since signing a minor league deal with Boston prior to the 2008 season, Nava has hit .345 with a .961 OPS, 49 doubles, 15 home runs, and 95 RBIs. But those numbers are just the latest exclamation point in Nava’s unique story.
In high school, the outfielder was never taken seriously as a college prospect due to his slight build. After adding a little bit of size, he played junior college ball at the College of San Mateo, where he was named a junior college All-American. He later transferred to Santa Clara University, where he led his conference in batting.
Despite his impressive college performance, Nava was not drafted, and eventually went on to sign with the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden League. In 2007, he hit .371 with a 1.100 OPS and 12 home runs for Chico and was named the top independent league prospect in the nation by “Baseball America” in the Fall of 2007. He signed with Boston that October and has spent the last two seasons dominating opposing pitching with High-A Lancaster, High-A Salem and Double-A Portland. During that time, he earned a California League batting title in 2008 and led the entire Red Sox system in batting average and OPS in 2009.
However, because Nava was not initially given a many opportunities out of the gate, he has been somewhat behind the eight-ball in terms of age-advancement. He has generally been 2-to-3 years older than his competition over the past two seasons, meaning that he’s never been considered a serious top-flight prospect.
Now 27, Nava was given the opportunity to play in four spring games with the Boston this spring, earning himself a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket in the process. This year will provide Nava yet another chance to prove the naysayers wrong, as he’ll be facing age-appropriate competition for the first time in his minor league career. From here on out, if he continues to produce in line with his historical stats, the Red Sox front office will have little choice but to give him a major league opportunity, which could very well be in the cards for 2010.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Nava to talk about his exceptional background before he kicks off the PawSox season Thursday night at McCoy Stadium.
Q. I know you’ve had a pretty interesting career so far. Let’s start from the beginning. Can you share with us a little bit about your high school career?
A. “Well, I entered high school at a robust 4-foot-8, 70 pounds, and was basically just struggling to make the team my freshman year. I ended up making the team all four years, but never played very much. When I did play, I was just so small, so I didn’t do very well. I was more of a defensive guy. I mainly played center field because I was light as a feather, meaning that I could cover a lot of ground. But I never really was any type of prospect. The only accolade I received was my senior year, when I got an All-League Honorable mention. By that time I was about 5-5. So I had grown, but at that point it was not like I had grown a lot. I just was so far behind the curve, so my high school career really wasn’t anything noteworthy.”
Q. How about your college career?
A. “I went to Santa Clara out of high school, but I left after my freshman year and went to junior college at San Mateo. I had two good years there and earned a scholarship to go back to Santa Clara, where I only had one year left of NCAA eligibility. I did really well at both places actually. Really, since high school and every level since, I’ve been cut and then started playing again. Fortunately I’ve succeed at every level, but I’ve always been told ‘you need to prove it at the next level.’ I think that has a lot to do with why what I’ve done has been kind of under-the-radar. In high school I honestly wasn’t very good, so my name wasn’t out there. Once I started doing well, people would always say ‘It has to be a fluke, we don’t think he can do it at the junior college level – let’s see him prove it in college, prove it in indy ball.’ I think that plays into the effect why it’s really been kind of unique.”
Q. After six or seven years of success, you think they’d stop calling it a fluke.
A. “I hope, but everyone’s opinion is their own.”
Q. Back to college -- you had a strong performance your senior year. Did you get any interest from major league scouts at that point?
A. “No one actually contacted me directly, but some scouts were in contact with my coach at Santa Clara. He told me that a couple teams were interested, and I had heard that one team was fairly promising -- that they were pretty set on drafting me if I was still around. But that didn’t work out for whatever reason, I’m not sure. Other than that, I never had any contact with any teams.”
Q. From there, you went on to Chico in the Golden League, is that right?
A. “Actually I took a year off. That was 2006. I was in Santa Clara, I didn’t get drafted. I tried out for the Chico Outlaws and actually got cut by them. So I didn’t play for a whole year. I was trying to get picked up, trying anything to play somewhere. But every door got shut. Basically, about a year after I got cut from Chico, they called me up and told me that one of their players wasn’t able to make it out, so if I wanted a chance to play -- I wasn’t even guaranteed a shot -- that I could cruise on up there and try out for the team.”
Q. Were you trying out for Chico because that was close to your home?
A. “I picked Chico because they were the only team that actually called me and said they’d give me a shot to play. I went through an independent league tryout and didn’t get picked up after that, but Chico was the only team willing to give me a shot.
Q. After you eventually signed with Chico and played a year, you ultimately earned a spot as the No. 1 independent league prospect in “Baseball America”. Can you tell me what that year was like?
A. “It was fun, and what made it fun is that we had a great team. We had a young team, everyone was under 25, so we all hung out and did everything together. When you’re having fun and you’re winning, it makes it a lot easier to play well and enjoy coming to the park. I definitely went through some ups and downs though, as it was my first time swinging a wood bat. I had a great manager -- Mark Parent. He’s a real professional manager. He did a great job, I felt like I could just go out there and play, I didn’t have to worry about slumps. If I hadn’t had that, affiliated ball might be a little different for me now, as I wouldn’t know how to adjust to slumps. I knew that I would be able to play as long as I went out there and did my job, and there was a lot of positive reinforcement. That was great for me, because it was my first pro experience, and he’d always say "I believe in you man", so I’d just go out there and do it. That was huge for me.”
Q. After your time with Chico, you signed with Boston. How did that come about? Did you get offers from a lot of teams? Was it a quick process?
A. “It was a really weird process. I got a call from the pitching coach at Chico, a good friend of mine, saying, ‘Hey man, did you see the article in Baseball America?’ I had no clue what he was talking about. ‘You’re the No. 1 [indy] prospect,’ he told me. I thought it was a joke, so I told him to shut up and stop playing around with me. He was serious, but I really didn’t believe him for about five minutes, partly due to his personality. Finally he said, ‘Navs, I’m not messing around with you -- go to the website, call them up, do whatever you have to do, and you’ll see that I’m telling the truth.’ Finally I saw the article, but nothing happened for a couple weeks. My pitching coach said, ‘Trust me, something will happen.’ Later I found out that the Red Sox and the Cubs were interested -- two good organizations, and it turned out to be the Red Sox who purchased my contract. They were the ones that actually had the rights to sign me, and I had the opportunity to say yes or no. But why would I say no? I had been trying to get in affiliated ball for years.”
Q. How long was it from when they purchased your contract until you signed?
A. “Within a few days they sent me the contract in the mail, and it’s a funny thing because when I talked to them on the phone, I talked to so many people that day that I had forgotten who I had talked to. But he asked me, ‘Do you want to sign with the Red Sox?’ And I said ‘Ya, of course.’ I wasn’t about to pass on the opportunity.
Q. And from there the success continued -- you put up impressive numbers with Lancaster in 2008 [hitting .341] and the with Salem and Portland last year [hitting a combined .352]. Can you talk about the difference in playing at each of those places and also at each of those levels?
A. “Well, Lancaster is a fun place to hit, I’d be lying if I said otherwise. Everyone who hits there loves it. If you talk to most people, the difference between Low-A, High-A, and Double-A -- and remember that I played in Double-A for just a month -- is that the pitchers really know what they’re doing in Double-A. They’re around the zone, the umpires have a more established feel of the strike zone. Because of that, you can get rewarded a lot more by having an approach. For me, that means I’ve had to work on honing my approach. I remember my first at-bat in Double-A. I took a pitch that I knew was a ball, but that I was so used to being called a strike -- but the ump called it a ball. I did a double take. From there on out, it gave me a lot of confidence in the box that what I thought was a strike was also what the umpires thought was a strike. That just made it a lot easier to get comfortable, and when you’re comfortable it’s obviously a lot easier to hit.”
Q. You talked about experiencing slumps before. Have you actually experienced any slumps since you’ve been in pro ball?
A. “Definitely. I experienced slumps in Chico and then in Lancaster. You can ask Eppy [former Lancaster manager Chad Epperson]. I think I started out 0-for-11 and 2-for-my-first-24, something like that. I was struggling so bad. My first hit was on a hit-and-run -- I got to first, and Eppy was at third. He looked over to me and asked ‘You want me to grab the ball for you?’ He was totally joking around. But you don’t want to start your first time in affiliated ball that way, to make a first impression going 0-for-your-first 11. That’s just not the way you want to start. I know that’s a small slump, but my first month of that season I want to say that I hit about .230. Whatever it was, it wasn’t very good. I wasn’t seeing the ball, I wasn’t being patient, I was pressing too much. So I guess that’s my worst slump -- .230 is not good right?”
Q. It’s not great, it’s near the Mendoza Line.
A. “You can just say it, it’s bad.”
Q. Fair enough, it’s bad. Back to when you played in Portland last year, you got to play at Fenway during Futures at Fenway in August 2009. What was that like?
A. “It was awesome. Being from California, I had always heard about Fenway, about the fans, all the support and how great they are, but actually experiencing it was a whole different thing. I talked to my dad after the game and the first thing I said was "Dad, this is a different world." I’m just not used to that -- to see how many people showed up for us minor leaguers was just unbelievable. To play in a place where there’s so much history, and there’s so much tradition, all the people taking pictures of you. We walked out from the clubhouse and all the fans were lined up, it’s just something. Unfortunately, in California, while we certainly have a lot of stuff to do, and the people love the Giants -- they’re not like Red Sox fans. I thought that it was just so awesome to experience that.”
Q. How is this spring going for you? Can you also talk about the time you have spent in the major league games, and if you know, what criteria the team uses to pick which of the minor leaguers get to play in the big league games.
A. “Camp is going real well, I’m having a lot of fun this year. The first year I was just trying to get my feet wet, and now I’m starting to get more comfortable. As far as what I’m trying to do -- and what’s making camp so good -- is that I’m trying to work on my weaknesses and focus on the things that I need to lock up a little more. In the outfield, I’ve been working on my routes to balls, practicing in all fields -- just to be ready wherever they might put me. It’s not like I’m doing anything monumental, it’s just polishing up stuff that I know I need to work on.
“As far as who they pick who goes to the major league games, I honestly have no clue. They don’t sit down with you and tell you that you’re going because you had a great round of BP where you hit five bombs in five swings. They just don’t say that. I do know that they generally choose guys who are a little bit older or guys that have been in the system a little longer, just because it’s a good way to find out what will happen if they get sent up later in the year.”
Q. So do they just tell you that morning that you’re going to play with the big league team?
A. “Yeah, that morning, or sometimes they tell you the day before. But it’s never anything like, ‘Hey, great job, you made four diving catches today, so you’re moving up.’ It’s nothing like that.”
Q. Besides the routes, anything else that you are looking to improve this spring?
A. “I’m trying to be more consistent from both sides of the plate. Finding that consistency is tough. Being a switch hitter, some days your left-handed swing feels awesome, then some days only your right-handed swing feels good. I’m just trying to be consistent with that, and what that means to me is knowing that it’s a long season, and knowing that I’m trying to take steps in the right direction to be consistent and feeling good, rather than allowing it to frustrate me if I have a bad game or a bad round of BP. I’m just trying to play it out an establish good routines. All in all though, the two main things are staying consistent offensively and working on my routes defensively.”
Q. What one teammate has impressed you the most since you joined the Red Sox organization?
A. “Wow, you’re putting me on the spot [pauses]. When I first came here, somebody who impressed me a lot was a good friend of mine, Aaron Reza. His personality is infectious in that people just want to be around him. He’s a great baseball player, but it’s more about the type of guy that he is. He’s a teammate that you want to have -- he’s a guy you can talk to, a guy you want to help if he’s going through a rough patch. I know that might sound kind of corny, but in baseball, you’re with your teammates playing a long season every year, and it feels great to have someone you can go talk to. Another guy -- I’ll give you two -- is Peter Hissey. He and I have similar games -- we’re not exactly power guys. We relate a lot to each other in terms of swings and outfield positions, so we just kind of click. He’s a younger guy, and I love to invest the experiences that I’ve had, what I’ve learned, and try to help someone -- if it can help, great. It’s not that I’m coaching someone -- I’m just saying this is what I’ve learned, you can take it, if it works for you great, if not, so be it. He’s a great kid, and as you know he made some big strides last year.
Q. Last question -- away from baseball, what do you like to do in your spare time?
A. “I love playing guitar. I’m not saying that I’m great, or even that good. But I’ve been playing for almost 10 years. I play back home at my church, and my brother is the drummer. That’s just one thing I love doing. I’m really connected to my church and my faith is really important to me. My dad is also a fitness instructor and a coach, so I spend a lot of time working out and going for runs, just staying active. You encompass all that into one, and that’s what I like to do.”
Andrews is designer and developer of SoxProspects.com and a special contributor to ESPNBoston.com.