Uggla entered spring training as a long shot, signed in late December to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. The whole thing seemed like a courtesy at the time, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo taking care of the old friend he drafted in 2001 while in Arizona, giving Uggla a shot to show teams he may still have it.
Uggla certainly used to have it. He hit 27 or more home runs for six straight seasons with the Marlins and Braves from 2006 to 2012. He was one of the best power-hitting second baseman this generation had seen. Then he wasn’t.
In 2013 he hit 22 home runs, but only batted .179. Last year, he flailed at the plate so frequently that the Braves released him. The Giants picked him up, but released him within a month. By August, he was unemployed, an astonishing plummet, particularly since he appeared to be in full health.
As it turned out, he wasn’t. A blow to the head had discombobulated his inner ear, and his eyes struggled to focus when his body was in motion. A doctor named Robert Donatelli saw Uggla hitting last year and identified the problem. He got in touch with Uggla and asked him to come to Las Vegas. Uggla had nothing to lose. After an offseason’s worth of unorthodox treatment, he felt better.
But he still had to prove it, and many were skeptical that such an unlikely story could yield a major league happy ending. When the Nationals traded Tyler Clippard for Yunel Escobar, a roster spot looked even more unlikely. Spring training would be an audition for other teams, it seemed. The Nationals simply would not have room for the shadow of a former superstar.
“I just didn’t know,” Uggla said. “I think it was more along the lines of a long shot, just because something would have to move. A move would have to be made. Somebody, like this would happen with injuries. I knew the only thing I could control was not worrying about it and just playing.”
Long before his injuries struck, Uggla started striking baseballs. He did not put up gargantuan numbers this spring, but he looked like a major leaguer. When he started knocking pitches over the fence in batting practice, he looked like he might even be a good one. He hit .261 with two home runs and 13 walks and an .890 OPS. He was seeing the ball well. Uggla looked like he deserved another chance — if only the Nationals had a spot.
Then, they had one. Anthony Rendon’s knee injury meant the Nationals needed a third baseman. Yunel Escobar had played as many games in his career there as he had at second, and was asked to move across the diamond. That meant the Nationals needed a second baseman. Suddenly, there was room for Uggla.
He had little control over the circumstances that yielded his spot, and uncertainty had never been a part of his spring training experience before. It was Uggla’s first spring training since his rookie year without a certain roster spot. It was also the first spring training he felt at peace.
“It’s one of the first times I’ve had an opportunity like this to just let it be, whatever happens happens. Not worry about it,” Uggla said. “It was weird, honestly. Spring training’s always been stressful for me. When I knew I was going to be on the team whether I got a hit or not, I always wanted to do well because I wanted to get off to a good start. This one, for whatever reason — I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t have anything to lose — I had peace of mind about it.”
So Uggla has made it this far. He will likely start at second base on opening day, the next unlikelihood in a spring training full of them. When Rendon returns from injury, perhaps Escobar will move back to second base, perhaps Uggla will be forced out. But today, he is on the Nationals opening day roster, his attempt at a comeback momentarily alive and well.
Outside of Uggla, the Nationals roster was announced as expected. The only other uncertainty was the final left-hander in the bullpen. That position goes to Xavier Cedeno, the 28-year-old who had a monster season in Class AAA Syracuse last season and will complement hard-throwing left-hander Matt Thornton. Casey Janssen, Denard Span, Jayson Werth, Nate McLouth and Anthony Rendon will all begin the season on the 15-day disabled list. Matt den Dekker, Reed Johnson and Clint Robinson will be featured on the reconstructed Nationals bench. With Janssen out, Aaron Barrett, Blake Treinen, Tanner Roark and Craig Stammen will be the righties in the bullpen supplementing closer Drew Storen.
Here is what the full opening day roster looks like: