Late Monday morning, Owings took his place at first base on Field 4, snatching throws that whistled across the diamond. His 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame towered above the other large men in his group. He stepped into the batting cage and launched pitches over the fence, honing the raw ability that has awed teammates for years.
Owings missed most of last season after he underwent elbow surgery to remove a bone chip from his right elbow, but that is not why he decided on the transition. He had toyed with first base before, playing there in spring training in 2011 and on a rehab assignment last year. After six major league seasons as a pitcher without a major breakthrough, he became curious about how far he could go as a hitter.
“I’m a strong believer, and I feel like the Lord has given me a lot of other talent and ability,” Owings said. “I want to see what else is inside of me, what I’ve been blessed with, and get it out.”
Owings began mulling the change last year in spring training. He sent Rick Ankiel a text message, asking if they could talk. Ankiel, who played for the Nationals the past two years, famously morphed from elite pitching prospect to power-hitting outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals. Not long after his text, Owings got a call from Ankiel.
“What’s up, man?” Owings said as he answered the phone.
“Do it!” Ankiel replied, skipping introductions.
Owings appeared in six games as reliever last season, and this winter he told teams he wanted to sign as a hitter. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo had seen enough of Owings to believe,“it’s not a real stretch to say he could be a good major league hitter,” he said.
Rizzo, then the Arizona Diamondbacks’ scouting director, drafted Owings in the third round of the 2005 draft. During his senior season at Tulane, Owings mashed 18 home runs in 61 games, the most in Conference USA, and reached base at a .472 clip. He also struck out 131 batters in 1222
“Clubs were asking me, trying to get a feel for what I wanted to do,” Owings said. “I just told them, I couldn’t make the decision. That’s how tough of a decision it was for me, because I enjoyed doing both so much.”
Rizzo saw him strictly as a pitcher with an abnormally powerful bat. “But I always thought he could be an everyday hitter in the big leagues,” he said.