Nieves is focusing on his defensive game
Excelling as a Major League catcher is an art that requires much time and delicate technique. Unlike other positions, the catcher’s involvement in every play puts an even greater demand on their body. The shelf-life of a big league backstop varies more than any other man on the field, which is why organizations are always looking for their next one to groom.
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Scouts look for three important tools when analyzing prospects behind the dish: defense, arm strength and the ability to call a game. Advanced skill in those phases will certainly gain any prospect recognition from attentive clubs.
Wil Nieves, currently one of the Clippers’ three catchers, made a large enough splash at Tampa Spring Training to earn a roster spot on the Yankees’ Opening Day roster. Before Thursday’s game versus Norfolk, Nieves shared lessons learned from Tampa and the Bronx and where he seems himself in the future.
”It was great," Nieves said of his big league experience. "It was short but it was the first team I made out of Spring Training and what better team is there to make than the Yankees. Being there, I got an idea of what it’s going to make it there. I learned a lot and I’m happy or the chance."
At 28 yeas old, Nieves possesses extensive experience throughout the Triple-A level and even a brief stint in the big leagues with the San Diego Padres in 2002. With 100 games behind the plate in seven of nine seasons, Nieves has proven that he is a viable and capable signal caller.
To earn that extendeded call up to the Bronx, polishing his game remains his focus. To help furbish his skills, Nieves worked at length with current Yankee first base coach and former catcher Tony Pena who addressed consistency and precision.
”Coach Pena and I worked a lot on my catching, focusing on my receiving and throwing to second base. It was something I struggled with a lot last year. They tried to change my mechanics last year and it didn't work out. But Tony Pena catches more like my style. We worked everyday in Spring Training and I feel great, and thankfully I'm back to the way I used to feel and get my back the mechanics I lost,” recalled Nieves.
The catcher position is a bit of a quandary when compared other defensive roles. The importance of handling the pitching staff can supercede one’s own offensive production. Where is a catcher’s priority to lie? At bat? Or behind the plate? Nieves explained his creative stance on how he prioritizes the role.
”It's definitely catching," Nieves listed defense as his top priority. "Obviously I want to hit but in the past when I didn’t hit I would get mad. But as I got older, I learned to control that when I am not hitting, I don’t want to take it to the defense. Now when I don't hit, I take it personal and I make sure that the other team isn't hitting either. When I'm not hitting I focus hard on calling good games.”
Nieves also attributed some of what he learned to veteran Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, who Nieves deeply respects.
”He is a great guy,” Nieves described. “I learned a lot from him and he would help me out when I was working with Tony Pena. I was there for a just a little bit but getting to talk and learn from him was great. He’s been there so long and won so much, how could I not want to take everything from him I can?”
When asked if he seems himself following Posada behind home plate at Yankee Stadium, a reserved Nieves said, “I hope so. It's what I've been working for since I was 17. He's getting older, sooner or later he'll leave for his reasons and hopefully then I'll still be playing here and able to step in and help the team,” said Nieves.
But first, Nieves' priority is to harness this young Clippers staff. With many lives arms and creative repertoires, Nieves will have many chances to expand his knowledge of calling a strong game, which he admits is a necessity. However, it is not only about building his skills.
A well-called game will surely increase the confidence and ability of the staff, which in-turn will increase their overall effectiveness and the quality of the Clippers play. Nieves is quick to give recognize the arms on the Clippers’ staff.
“They have a lot of great young pitchers here," said Nieves. "A lot of guys who can pitch with good stuff, throw strikes and they make my job much easier."
Yet with three catchers on the roster, the chance for quality playing time is marginalized. To gain noteworthy playing time, Nieves must straighten out his inconsistencies with the bat and behind the plate.
Newly acquired Koyie Hill has seen the most significant time behind the plate for the Clippers, leaving Nieves in the awkward position of making the Yankees 25-man roster, yet not undertaking the primary role as Clippers' everyday catcher.
Nieves, unwavering in his desires, remains focused and happy in his current status in the organization. After playing all over the Pacific Coast League, Nieves feels at home in Columbus within the Yankee organization.
”It's been different with the Yankees," Nieves admitted. "Whatever they tell me, they do it. "Last year I was told I was insurance, luckily nothing happened, but they stayed to the truth. All the scouts I talked to would tell me 'Yes you want to be with the Yankees, get with them, even in the minor leagues there is no where else you want to be."
Many prospects have come through Columbus during Jorge Posada’s tenure as Yankee catcher. Unless spring is eternal for Posada, his successor must be ready for the Bronx by the latest Opening Day 2008. Nieves has helped his case by making the 2006 Opening Day roster. If he continues to escalate his play from here on out, Nieves will be reeling in those Major League at-bats soon enough.
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