The past six months have been a whirlwind for Jeff Kobernus. The Nationals didn’t protect him ahead of December’s Rule 5 draft and the Boston Red Sox selected him. He was immediately traded to the Detroit Tigers and spent his first big league spring training with the reigning American League champions. (“It was a fun experience,” he said.) The Tigers converted the speedy infielder to an outfielder and he almost made the team out of camp. But he was returned to the Nationals in late March, the organization that drafted him in the second round of the 2009 draft out of Cal.
And finally, after nearly two months with Class AAA Syracuse, the 24-year-old Kobernus got the call received the opportunity of a lifetime. The Chiefs were in Columbus on Friday for the second game of a four-game series and Kobernus was about to take batting practice. Manager Tony Beasley delivered the news. The Nationals needed a right-handed batter and middle infielder after Friday’s test results revealed that Danny Espinosa had been playing with a fractured right wrist for a month and they wanted Kobernus to join the Nationals in Washington on Saturday.
“It was really exciting,” he said, standing at his locker in the Nationals clubhouse on Saturday afternoon, already in uniform. “It was like a dream come true. It didn’t really seem true until I walked in the clubhouse [Saturday]. It was definitely exciting.”
Kobernus then called his father, Jeff, who played in the Seattle Mariners minor league system and cried upon hearing the news. He then called his mother, Margie. Both made urgent plans to fly from Oakland to Washington for Saturday’s game. “He’s helped me a lot through my career and it’s a dream come true to be able to call him and be able to tell him to come out,” Kobernus said.
Kobernus certainly earned the call-up. He was off to a strong start at Syracuse, hitting .333 with a .378 on-base percentage and 21 stolen bases in 27 chances. He was hitting left-handed pitching extremely well. The Tigers liked his speed in the outfield and the Nationals kept him there, too, in Syracuse. The natural second baseman played at second, third, center field and left this season. The Nationals view him as a dynamic player, one of their speediest and best infield prospects.
This spring against the Nationals, Manager Davey Johnson saw improvement in Kobernus’ game. “I liked his approach,” Johnson said. “I liked it better than in previous years. I thought he was much more aggressive with the bat. And I liked his swing. His shortness to the ball.”
The Nationals’ reports on Kobernus’ outfield ability are good — “he can fly,” Johnson said — but Johnson values him for his infield experience. Since Jayson Werth fell to a hamstring injury and Bryce Harper moved to right and Espinosa struggled and was injured, the Nationals’ two weakest positions were left field and second. Kobernus will help bolster the bench.
“The first part of the season was pre-game jitters, a new position,” said Kobernus, who last played outfield in college. “I was playing most of my time in the outfield and I was getting more comfortable and feeling pretty good out there.”
Espinosa will rest a day or two more and his wrist re-evaluated again then. If there isn’t enough progress, he could be facing more rest, and Kobernus’ stint with the Nationals could be extended. Johnson said he was mulling starting Kobernus on Sunday against Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels.
In order to make room for Kobernus on the 40-man roster, the Nationals designated right-hander Yunesky Maya for assignment. The move essentiall severs ties with Maya, a disappointing signing that General Manager Mike Rizzo trumpeted in 2010 as the Nationals’ “first major international signing that we think is going to impact our major league ball club immediately.”
Maya was signed to an ill-fated four-year, $6 million contract, soon after he defected from Cuba and became a resident of the Dominican Republic. Over 367 2/3 minor league innings over four seasons, he has an underwhelming 4.41 ERA. And in 59 major league innings, he has a disappointing 5.80 ERA. This season was the final year remaining on Maya’s contract. For now, one player’s ending tenure created an opening for another.