That "B" on Daniel Nava's cap should really be a "U," for "Underdog."
Watching Mike Trout and Bryce Harper show off major-league talent at a tender age was certainly special in 2012. Seeing Stephen Strasburg return to form following Tommy John surgery was also exhilarating, as was the rise of his and Harper's team, the Nationals, to their first playoff berth in that town. These were, though, all expected events. It's the unexpected that stands out in a sport where we, as an industry, as fans, do our damnedest to plot out the course of everything in advance. And that's why this particular nod to 2012's best-of goes to a player who beat the odds to make it to the majors. Again.
In 2010, Daniel Nava was in the majors for three reasons: first, the Red Sox' outfield had a serious lack of outfielders, second, Nava owned an outfielder's mitt and third, his .372 on-base percentage at Pawtucket looked pretty good, especially in light of the first two. He was already 27 years old, though only his third season of affiliated pro ball after Boston signed him out of the independent leagues for the grand total of one dollar, presumably in cash. That buck, and another $1,499 sent the way of the Chico Outlaws since Nava stuck in the Red Sox system. paid for Nava's first moment in the majors, when he hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw, a fat one from the Phillies' Joe Blanton.
That would be the lone homer of Nava's 2010, though, as he ended up hitting a solid yet somehow inadequate .242/.351/.360. It didn't help that, at that point in his career, Nava's defense in the outfield was outright comical. He showed neither instincts nor the ability to discern a capable route to a ball in play. The Red Sox would designate Nava for assignment in early 2011 to open room on the 40-man roster, seemingly signaling the end of his time in the majors with Boston.
It would have been a sad end, given Nava's ability to push through the barriers that kept him from playing baseball, over and over. Well before arriving in Boston, he took on a job as an equipment manager for Santa Clara after failing to make their college squad, and became a Junior-College All-American at San Mateo when given the chance to play for a school. Santa Clara then offered him a full scholarship. Subsequently, he went undrafted despite his college play, and his first bid to make an indy league club instead also failed. Injuries ended up clearing a spot for him with the Outlaws the next year, though, and Nava produced a season that made him Baseball America's top independent league prospect. That's when Boston came in waving their dollar around, leading to the 2010 call-up, and, less excitingly, the 2011 designation.
Nava went unclaimed, though, was outrighted to Pawtucket, and began to hit once more. This carried over into 2012, where Nava put together an aesthetically pleasing .313/.425/.525 line at Triple-A, before once again injuries in Boston's major-league outfield resulted in a call-up and a return to the 40-man roster. It was his second unexpected stint in the majors, and while there was no grand slam this time around, he did something far more important: Nava played well enough -- just maybe -- to stick in the majors for good.
Before succumbing to the pain of a wrist injury caused by a cyst, Nava became one of the Red Sox' better hitters, posting a .298/.429/.489 line, and somehow even more surprisingly, played a solid defensive left field. Nava had progressed enough as an outfielder to even start a couple of games in right, an unthinkable outcome for anyone who had seen him afield two years prior. While his seasonal line finished in an uglier place, it's no secret that the wrist was the cause, as it limited his power, leaving him with his patience and ability to draw walks as his lone mode of production at the plate.
The cyst has since been surgically removed, and Nava now makes sense as the long end of a platoon in left with lefty-masher and free agent-signing Jonny Gomes. He's survived each iteration of the 40-man's winnowing this off-season, and will likely be on the Opening Day roster. He doesn't have to hit anywhere near as well as when he first returned to the majors to stick, but an approximation would basically guarantee he's here to stay.
Maybe, given his track record of doing the improbable over and over, this shouldn't have been so unexpected after all. Because of that very track record, though, Nava is one of the easiest ballplayers to root for in the game, and, Red Sox fan or no, his second chance should be recognized and appreciated.