Outfield prospect acquired in July looks to make strong spring impression
By Paul Hagen
PHILADELPHIA -- It should take less than an hour and a half to drive from Reading, Pa., to Trenton, N.J. On Aug. 4, however, it took the team bus of the Double-A Fightin Phils five hours to get to their game against the Trenton Thunder.
Outfielder Nick Williams could have passed the time by sleeping. After all, following the trade that sent him and four other prospects plus veteran pitcher Matt Harrison from the Rangers to the Phillies in the Cole Hamels deal, he had driven 22 hours straight to join his new club, arriving just in time to hop on the bus.
Or he could have griped about the inconvenience of having an 18-wheeler catch fire and cause a massive traffic snarl. After all, the journey was that much more uncomfortable because the air conditioning wasn't working.
Instead, though, he decided to look at it as an opportunity.
"I had plenty of time to goof around and get to know the guys," Williams explained recently at Citizens Bank Park while taking part in the Phillies' annual Prospect Education Program. "They got a feel for me. I had a lot of questions for them, especially like, 'Where am I going to live?' It just felt right."
The team arrived at Arm & Hammer Park shortly before the scheduled first pitch. Williams had just enough time to take a few swings off the tee before getting two hits in his first game with his new team. The next night he hit two majestic home runs that carried over the scoreboard in right.
It's said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Williams didn't whiff on or off the field. He's rated the organization's No. 4 prospect by MLBPipeline.com.
In the end, he batted .320 with an .876 OPS in 22 games for Reading, scoring 21 runs. Phillies manager Pete Mackanin, who has only seen the left-handed hitter on video, is looking forward to eyeballing him in Clearwater, Fla., where the 22-year-old will be a non-roster invitee to Spring Training.
"He's a big [6-foot-3, 195 pounds], strong kid," Mackanin said. "I'm told he's very athletic, probably a corner outfielder, and a darn good hitter. I'm anxious to see what his swing path looks like. What kind of hitter is he? Is he a pull hitter? Does he use the whole field? The whole thing. I hear he can run. They say he's very athletic."
Between Double-A Frisco and Reading, Williams hit 17 homers in 119 games with an .845 OPS. Not bad for a guy used primarily as a leadoff hitter.
Added player development director Joe Jordan: "I sat in on all the Deadline meetings, and what our guys described is what we saw. Everything came together for Nick last year. In talking with him, I think he got to the point where he trusted his ability, didn't force it and let the game come to him. We're looking forward to getting him back in uniform and going again."
Jordan said he expects Williams to play both center and left: "There's no reason for us not to keep him in center some, but I do think he needs to play the corner as well. He's done both, but we probably need to see him a little more on the corner. That might be where his opportunity is when he's ready to come to the Major Leagues, so we'll have him ready to do both."
Williams also played football in high school. A receiver, the Galveston, Texas, native could have gone to the University of Texas on a baseball/football scholarship. Instead, he committed to Texas A&M with plans to focus on baseball before being selected by the Rangers in the second round of the 2012 Draft.
"Hitting is, I think, what kept me out of football," he said with a wide grin. "Football was my first love and it's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in the NFL. But hitting ... there's just something about it. I love defense, too. I love taking hits away and making 'Wow!' plays. But there's something about hitting. Get a good hit, it's like, 'All right, I won this battle with the pitcher.'"
It didn't take long for Williams to settle in after the trade. He already knew shortstop J.P. Crawford (the Phillies' No. 1 prospect) from the 2015 Futures Game. When Williams gets to Spring Training, he'll be reunited with outfielder Odubel Herrera, a former teammate in the Rangers' system who was a Phillies Rule 5 pick before last season and became a starter.
While he's likely to start the 2016 season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley -- the starting outfield at the big league level projects as Herrera, Aaron Altherr and Peter Bourjos, with Darin Ruf, Cody Asche and Rule 5 pick Tyler Goeddel jockeying for playing time -- Williams has a chance to play a big role in the Phillies' rebuilding plans down the road.
"Making the big squad would be the ultimate, but it's also about learning," he said. "I want to pick the veterans' brains and learn as much about the game at this level as possible. I wish I could [be in the big leagues] tomorrow, but I want to be ready when I step foot in there so I have the confidence I need. And whenever I get here it will be the best day of my life."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.