GLENDALE, Ariz. — Adrian Nieto knows what it's like to nearly have his career taken away, and he has acted accordingly.
The catcher, a Rule 5 pick from the Washington Nationals, has brought enthusiasm and according to coaches, and an “old school” approach to camp with him, and the White Sox have taken notice.
After Josh Phegley was optioned to Triple-A Charlotte on Wednesday morning, it is quite possible that Nieto, one of three catchers left in camp, could make the White Sox opening day roster.
Given he was suspended for the first 50 games of the 2011 minor-league season for use of performance-enhancing drugs, Nieto, 24, realizes the magnitude of this opportunity and has relished it. With a week left in camp and Phegley out of the way, the backup catching job is between Nieto and veteran Hector Gimenez, who made the 2013 opening day roster.
“It’s crazy,” Nieto said. “I thought about it (this week) how far I’ve come not only as a player but a person and growing up. Like I told everybody — that was a wakeup call for me. It made me look myself in the mirror and see what I really wanted to do.”
The White Sox looked hard at their catching situation after 2013 and determined an upgrade was necessary after last year’s group combined for a .560 OPS, which ranked 29th in the majors.
Though finding a long-term solution at catcher was a priority for general manager Rick Hahn, no solutions surfaced. But Nieto followed a season in which he had a .282/.371/.446 slash line with 11 home runs and 53 RBIs at Single-A Potomac with a strong Arizona Fall League showing, and the White Sox selected him in the Rule 5 draft.
Acknowledging the avenue was a long shot — Nieto would skip two levels — Hahn said the White Sox liked what they saw.
“This kid made some real nice strides in 2013 in terms of development,” Hahn said.
Those gains have continued over the last month, as Nieto has been willing to do whatever is asked of him.
Last week, bench coach Mark Parent talked to Nieto about a technical adjustment in his setup. Nieto worked on it in the bullpen, tried it out in his next start and then asked that day’s starter, John Danks, if he could see a difference and how it affected him. Parent also noted how Nieto reminds pitchers when they’re supposed to cover a base and runs the game effectively.
“He’s trying to work on a game plan for the pitcher,” Parent said. “He shows energy and life during a game. … His ears have been open.”
Danks has thrown to Nieto several times and likes his enthusiasm. He’s also impressed by Nieto’s in-game communication and the way they have established a rapport in a short time.
“Between innings he’s talking about certain things, certain situations, ‘Why’d you shake this pitch? What were you thinking here? Did I make the right call?’ ” Danks said. “Just wanting to learn, wanting to soak it all in. It has been fun to throw to him just because his excitement to be in the game.”
But a critical factor is that Nieto has shown he’s not afraid of the leap from Single-A to the majors. The White Sox worried he might try to do too much and not have a good showing in spring.
That hasn’t been the case.
On Sunday, Nieto did the opposite after falling behind 1-2 in the count against Yu Darvish and drawing a walk. He finished the game with two singles, including a sharp line drive to center.
“Swinging a bat better than we assumed,” Parent said. “He’s not scared, that’s one of the big things. He has a lot of confidence in what he can do.”
Nieto credits playing in last year’s World Baseball Classic for Spain for not being scared. He had a “bright lights” moment when Spain played Puerto Rico and catcher Yadier Molina, who Nieto said is his idol.
Instead of thinking to think too big, Nieto has focused on specific areas to improve: game planning with pitchers and the pitcher coach, studying hitters, not giving away his target behind the plate too early, etc.
He prepares to play every day even when he knows he won’t. He’s less than three years removed from his suspension and doesn’t need a reminder — this is his second chance and he knows it.
“I was taking this for granted,” Nieto said. “This could be taken away in a matter of seconds. Not everybody could say they play baseball for a living. This is definitely a blessing.”