01/07/2004 6:09 PM ET
Nivar sizzles through the winter
By Thomas Harding / MLB.com
Texas Rangers prospect Ramon Nivar had to change positions last season,
but his high batting average hasn't changed a bit.
|Ramon Nivar is adjusting to the demands of playing in the outfield. (Brian Kersey/AP)
With Michael Young at second and Alex Rodriguez at short, Nivar's Florida State League All-Star selection as an infielder in 2002 was not much good if he could not find an additional position.
So during June 2003 at Double-A Frisco, the Rangers introduced him to center field. His .347 batting average merited a quick promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma. Playing mostly center field, Nivar batted .347 and in less than a month, found himself in the Majors.
The big leagues were an awakening -- he batted just .211 in 28 games -- but since then he has been hot with the bat. Nivar sizzled at .381 in 16 games with Peoria of the Arizona Fall League before leaving for the birth of his first child. Nivar has followed that up with a .293 average through 19 games -- all in the outfield -- with Escogido of the Dominican Winter League.
The way the switch-hitting Nivar zipped through the minors last year was fitting, since speed is the basis of his game.
"With his speed, he'll probably never go into a long slump -- he could hit the ball off the plate and outrun the throw to first base," said Bobby Jones, who managed Nivar -- albeit briefly -- at Oklahoma. "He's still learning to bunt. But there were some balls he hit toward second base in the hole and guys were nonchalant, didn't make a play, and the next thing you knew he was safe at first base.
"He can pull the ball or go the other way. He's still learning how to bunt and do little things, especially things that leadoff hitters do. We stress walks to him. Right now he's up there hacking, but he's a good kid and he's learning."
Nivar, who turns 24 on Feb. 22, is a quick learner, but he might get to slow down a little this year.
The Rangers are working with prospect Laynce Nix in center and protected themselves by signing veteran Eric Young.
"I think the perfect world is for him to go back and maybe see what he's like to another 100-200 at-bats in Triple-A, and by that time we're going to have more of a feeling on Laynce Nix in center," Texas assistant general manager Grady Fuson said. "Then we will know which way to go.
"We're not going to forget about Ramon Nivar as a second baseman, either. Don't get me wrong, we've got a very good one right now, but Michael Young is arbitration-eligible next year. The good thing about Ramon is we've increased our flexibility with him."
Nivar's transition to the outfield might have been a quick one, but the Rangers want it to be smoother.
"He's such a reactionary player -- sometimes he doesn't show the best judgment in the world -- but the bottom line is he reacts so fast that he can make up for a lot of things," Fuson said. "We want to get him a little more instinctive off the ball so he's a little more under control out there."
Jones said playing center will help, since the straight-on look at pitch location and the ball coming off the bat should make the transition easier than if he were playing left or right field.
"He just has to realize there are other people out there -- he wants to make every play," Jones said. "If a ball is hit in right-center field, he's got to understand where the right fielder is playing. It's a matter of checking to see how the corner guys are playing and where they are beforehand."
Offensively, Nivar is similar to Florida sparkplug Juan Pierre in that he swings at a lot of pitches but makes contact with regularity. The Rangers would like for him to consider making the walk part of his arsenal -- he had just 25 and 406 at-bats in the minors, and three walks against 50 at-bats for Texas. He also can become more advanced on the base paths, where he was 28-for-43 on steals in the minors and 3-for-5 with the Rangers.
"I thought he played well for the 20 days or so that he was here last year," Jones said. "He made some outstanding plays in New Orleans one night. For a kid who had been a second baseman, I thought he did a fine job. He's going to be a tremendous center fielder someday."
If he learns at the rate he did last season, someday could arrive quickly.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.