Washington Nationals' Wil Nieves Used to Competition for Backup Catcher's Job

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 2009

KISSIMMEE, Fla., March 22 -- Until the precise moment when the newcomer jeopardized his job, Wil Nieves had never heard of Josh Bard. It was Saturday afternoon, and Bard had just signed with the Washington Nationals -- and here he came, driving across the state from Fort Myers, ready to raise the temperature of a competition only one could win. Bard wants the backup catcher's role. So does Javier Valentin. That job, in 2008, belonged to Nieves.

As Nieves left Space Coast Stadium on Saturday afternoon, he heard about the Bard signing from his wife, Yormarie. She sounded concerned. She read Nieves his stats. When Nieves met his wife for a quick meal at Subway, he told his wife, for the latest time, not to worry.

"You know it's never been easy for me," he said.

By acquiring Bard, the Nationals added one more candidate for one of the lowest-profile jobs on the team. But for many in the clubhouse, the signing resonated as a message: If the Nationals are willing to use resources to boost competition for the last spot on their roster, then surely they are scrutinizing every spot above it. In previous spring trainings, such competition was lacking. This spring, Nieves, Valentin and Bard must endure a two-week runoff to claim the job, and all of a sudden, incumbency means less and performance means more.

Bard, Valentin and Nieves all fit the profile of backup catchers -- they've learned how to pack quickly, change teams, and move far away. Bard is 30; Valentin is 33; Nieves is 31. Between them, they've caught 1,193 major league games, earned less than $10 million and been traded six times, dealt for players such as Jacob Cruz and Gerry Oaks and Bret Prinz. Valentin is with his fourth organization, same as Nieves. Bard is with his fifth -- or sixth, if you count the Red Sox twice.

As late as Wednesday, Bard had a major league contract (worth $1.7 million) to play for Boston. Despite a .462 spring batting average, he was placed on waivers. The Red Sox, it turned out, had a younger, less expensive option named George Kottaras. By getting cut, Bard lost the chance to earn five-sixths of his contract. He waited for three days and sorted through offers, still reeling about what happened.

"It was the blindside of all blindsides," Bard said. "My wife is six months pregnant right now with our third child, so it makes it tough, but nobody is going to cry for us. Ultimately you don't really feel any stability in this game. You've got to go play good. Anybody that thinks in this game that you're not on a constant tryout is a fool. We're commodities. That's the way it is, and that's okay. I don't hold any grudges. This is what I signed up for. This league is about production, and if you don't produce, they will find somebody else."

He signed with the Nationals because he saw a chance to crack the roster, and when he arrived at Space Coast Stadium on Sunday morning, he still wore his old Red Sox sweat-wicking shirt, colored gray and red. The shirt had a tattered three-inch hole across the chest. That's where the logo "B" used to be.

On Sunday, as Washington traveled to Kissimmee for what ended as a 1-0 loss to the Astros, Bard stayed behind to work out. Valentin got the start and went 0 for 3, dropping his spring average to .217. Nieves caught the final few innings but never received an at-bat.

Though Nieves didn't know of Bard before the weekend, he has a long history with the competition that Bard's arrival represents. It's the nature of his role, he said. A 47th-round pick in 1995, Nieves has never been handed a job. "Never, ever," he said.

He has competed, over the years, with Todd Pratt and Raul Chavez and Ben Davis and Johnny Estrada. Only last year, his first with Washington, did Nieves win the full-time backup job. In 176 at-bats, he hit .261 -- 100 points above his career average. For the first time, he admitted, he proved to himself that he could hit major league pitching. That performance guaranteed him only the chance to fight for a job all over again.

"He didn't set the world on fire, but he held his own offensively," Manager Manny Acta said. "So we were very pleased."

Nieves said he was "surprised" by the Bard signing, but not embittered. In 2005, the Angels traded Nieves to the Yankees on one of the last days of spring training. Maybe those catchers in New York, Nieves said on Sunday, felt like he does now.

"It has been hard for me to stay up here. It's been so hard," Nieves said. "Because I've been on good teams and behind great catchers. So now that it happened to me last year and I'm here now, I want to keep it. They are giving me a chance."

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