There are stories of players beating the odds, and making it to the majors even though they were late draft picks. Some of them stay, and others don't, but the fact they made it to the show is victory enough. Then, there are players like Daniel Nava. Undrafted, in the minors until he was 27 years old, and now, in 2012, back for the second time only after the Red Sox needed to hit the double-digits portion of their outfield depth due to injuries.
Nava's story is the literal interpretation of the little guy getting it done. He weighed 70 pounds when he started high school, and by the time he had graduated, he was all of 5-foot-5 and 150 lbs. To put that teeny frame into context, David Eckstein was last listed at 5-6, 170. Yes, David Eckstein was bigger than someone else who played baseball, and well after that kid finished tee-ball, even.
Nava is now a much more filled-out 5-10 and 200 pounds, but it's also 11 years later. In the interim, he still had to put up with the problems that being a miniature-sized baseball player entailed. For one, he attempted to gain a spot on the Santa Clara University baseball team as a walk-on player, but didn't make the cut. Instead, he became the equipment manager just to stay involved in the game in some capacity. When he could no longer afford Santa Clara, he transferred to San Mateo, where, at the least, he was able to play baseball again. While there, he hit his way to Junior-College-All-American status.
The result? Santa Clara offered Nava, who they had once rejected after a tryout, a full scholarship to play baseball for them. He didn't disappoint while there, either, as the now 23-year-old hit .395/.494/.530 with 17 extra-base hits in 200 at-bats. It wasn't enough for him to be drafted, even in the late rounds, so like many others who just wanted to keep playing baseball, Nava went and joined the independent leagues.
In a theme you should be used to by now, Nava, a former Junior-College-All-American who acquitted himself well in his only year at Santa Clara, was cut from independent ball before he ever played a game. Nava didn't make it through tryouts with the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League in 2006, but in 2007, there was a need for an outfielder on the roster, and he was back playing ball.
Nava appeared in 72 games, amassing 314 plate appearances, and hit .371/.475/.625. He walked 48 times and struck out on just 42 occasions, finishing the season with 38 extra-base hits and 18 steals in 20 attempts. Baseball America ranked Nava the top indy league prospect, just a year after he didn't even make the team. The caveat, of course, is that this is independent ball, not a major-league affiliate. That didn't stop Boston's Jared Porter, now Director of Professional Scouting but then the Assistant Director, from signing Nava following the season.
Boston paid a single George Washington to acquire Nava from the Chico Outlaws, with a promise of an additional $1,499 should he stick in the organization through spring training. Porter literally could have just handed the Outlaws a buck too wrinkled to to work in one of their vending machines in order to get this train rolling, and that was enough.
The Outlaws ended up getting their full $1,500, and the 25-year-old Nava started his minor-league career with High-A Lancaster, where he continued to torment pitching at a .341/.424/.523 clip. When Boston moved their High-A affiliate to the less hitter-friendly Salem for 2009, Nava still mashed (.339/.434/.495) and was promoted to Double-A Portland for his efforts. The switch-hitter exploded there, posting a .364/.479/.568 line with more walks (25) than strikeouts (12) in 118 plate appearances. He might have been 26 at the time, essentially ancient for the level, but he had become a person of interest in the Red Sox organization thanks to his bat.
While he would slow down at Pawtucket, his .289/.372/.458 line with 27 extra-base hits in 325 plate appearances was still solid, and enough so that the Red Sox called Nava up as part of their desperate attempt to fill an outfield as full of injuries as the current squad's. In his first plate appearance, the 27-year-old rookie became only the second player ever to hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the majors, courtesy of Joe Blanton:
That's worth mentioning on its own, but when you think of all the trouble Daniel Nava had getting not just to the majors, but into college and independent baseball, it turns into something memorable. Watch it again. You know you want to.
Nava would finish 2010 with a .242/.351/.360 showing. He didn't have a ton of pop against major-league pitching, but he knew how to get on base, and, even with his defensive issues, he helped out an outfield that sorely needed someone, anyone, to go out there.
The low point of his MLB career, the moment he had experienced at every other stop along the way but not yet with the Sox, came in May of 2011, when the Red Sox designated him for assignment. For the first time, he wasn't hitting in the minors (.192/.321/.262), and Boston chanced that he wouldn't be claimed on waivers because of it. Nava ended up passing through unhindered, and was removed from the 40-man roster. The rest of the season went much better -- Nava finished at .268/.372/.406 -- but it didn't register with the Sox and their suddenly-crowded outfield picture, and he wasn't invited to spring training for 2012.
Nava once again killed the ball at Pawtucket to start this year, though, so when the Red Sox needed another outfielder thanks to injuries, Nava regained his place on both the 25- and 40-man rosters. This was a surprise call-up, but it turned out to be fortuitous: Nava has hit .277/.424/.477, with as many walks as strikeouts, and has become the team's leadoff hitter against right-handed pitching.
He's walking nearly 18 percent of the time, and has an Isolated Power of .200. He's part of a short list in that regard, and while he might not remain on the Red Sox roster all season -- eventually, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Cody Ross, and even Ryan Kalish will be back -- they're sure glad to have him now, hitting like this, when they need him.
Nava's whole career has been a series of failures countered by successes that overshadow them. If anything, 2012 seems like part of the natural order of things with a career like this. It certainly makes him easy to root for, whether or not you're a Red Sox fan.