At Nationals camp, Uggla sees chance to resurrect career
After back-to-back subpar seasons, slugger discovers, treats eye-tracking problem
By Jamal Collier
VIERA, Fla. -- Not too long ago, Dan Uggla was perhaps the best second baseman in the National League, a perennial All-Star who slugged at least 27 home runs in each of the first six years of his career. When the Braves traded for him in 2010, they promptly signed him to a five-year, $62 million extension.
Then suddenly he stopped producing.
During the past two seasons in Atlanta, Uggla batted .171 with more strikeouts (217) than hits (101) before the Braves released him in July. Adding to the frustration of it all was the fact that he couldn't pinpoint the root of his struggles.
"It's not an easy thing to do," said Uggla, one of the early position players to arrive at Nationals camp. "To be at a pretty high level competing the way you're used to competing, and then all of a sudden you struggle worse than you've ever struggled before in your life.
"You work and you work and you work and nothing's working."
Uggla is hoping to have corrected the issue during the offseason.
His struggles on the field coincided with getting hit in the head with a pitch in 2012 and '13, and he was thought to be suffering from issues related to concussions. Uggla said Sunday that he never had a concussion, but suffered from oculomotor dysfunction, an eye-tracking problem that was inhibiting his ability to focus on one object. He would pick up the ball out of the pitcher's hand, step and immediately lose track of the ball, not picking it up again until it was near home plate. He said he later discovered his vision was going from 20/15 to 20/100 when he moved his head.
Uggla said he would have not even known he had the problem had it not been the recommendation of former Major Leaguer Marquis Grissom, who went through a similar decline before linking up with Dr. Robert Donatelli, a Las Vegas orthopedist. Grissom recommended Donatelli to Uggla in August of last year.
Three days later, Uggla went to Vegas.
"I hope I'm messed up so you can fix me," he recalled telling Donatelli.
After an offseason of treatment, Uggla has seen improvements in his vision, and throughout the first few days of Nationals camp, he feels as if he is seeing the ball better.
"Time will tell with that," he said. "I know how I feel and I'm not going to blame the last couple years on [the eye injury]."
Uggla, who will turn 35 in March, signed with the Nationals in part because of his familiarity with the division and connection to general manger Mike Rizzo, Arizona's scouting director when Uggla was drafted by the D-backs in 2001.
The actual chances of Uggla making the Nationals as a second baseman are unclear.
The team signed him to a Minor League deal in December and has told him he will have an opportunity to compete for a starting job. But in January, Washington went out and acquired second baseman Yunel Escobar in the deal that sent Tyler Clippard to Oakland. Danny Espinosa was the team's starting second baseman last season and is making the switch to hitting only right-handed to try to bounce back from a down offensive year.
"It's not necessarily a competition," manager Matt Williams said. "But we'll look at everybody and they'll all get a chance to play."
Williams said he expects to give Uggla a lot of playing time during the spring. So he will have his opportunity, at least to prove himself to some other team if not the Nationals. It took Uggla back to his first days with the Marlins after getting selected in the Rule 5 Draft.
"You got to go in and win a job," he said. "I remember how exciting that was and how much fun I had doing it. I'm looking at that as the same situation as this.
"This is game time for me, coming in Spring Training, game-ready, because I do have a lot to prove."
Jamal Collier is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.