FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The fascination with Jackie Bradley Jr. this spring, quite understandably, has been so far reaching that it has inspired a form of myopia.
So much of the discussion of the Red Sox' Opening Day roster has focused on the captivating prospect that the remaining roster candidates have seemed like virtual afterthoughts. And so, when one spot was strongly implied by manager John Farrell to be all but sewn up this spring earlier in the week, it barely caused a ripple.
That's fine with Daniel Nava. Now 30 years old, the switch-hitting outfielder has been content to progress through the spring -- hitting .325 with a .429 on-base percentage, a .350 slugging mark, six walks and eight strikeouts -- without fanfare, simply enjoying the opportunity to take part in big league camp.
Perhaps there is some injustice that Nava's spring should transpire in relative obscurity compared to the spotlight that has followed Bradley's every movement on the field. But to Nava, nothing could seem further from the case.
After all, it was a year ago that he wondered not whether he would make the big league team, but whether he would make a Red Sox team at all. By the spring of 2012, Nava understood that he might be in a pitched battle for his baseball future.
He had been a remarkable story in his ascent to the big leagues, the scrawny college kid who did laundry while serving as a team manager before a late growth spurt won him an opportunity to play. But even after enjoying collegiate success, there was no pathway to pro ball through the draft. Instead, he landed in an independent league, where his success led the Sox to purchase his contract for $1. Undaunted, Nava persevered en route to a historic big league debut (grand slam on the first career pitch he saw).
That epic arrival, however, faded into a footnote when he finished 2010 with a .242 average, .351 OBP and .360 slugging mark, and by 2011, Nava had been outrighted off the Red Sox' 40-man roster after all 29 major league teams passed on the opportunity to claim him on waivers. It seemed fair to wonder by the end of that year whether he'd played his last game in the big leagues. Indeed, Nava himself was left to wonder.
And so, when Nava showed up to minor league spring training in 2012, he seemed like little more than the answer to a trivia question drifting among a couple hundred little-recognized minor leaguers on the back fields of JetBlue Park. The big leagues weren't even a remote possibility. This was professional survival.
"I think I was in a position last year trying to make any team," acknowledged Nava. "I don't want to say [the possibility of being released was a] concern -- it was something I was aware of. I just wanted to be aware of the situation, be realistic -- that was the situation. How things worked out with the outfielders last year, you've got to be aware of, realistic about what's going on.
"What [being in the big league clubhouse this year] represents is that anything can happen," said Nava. "I feel blessed to be in this locker room. Last year, I wasn't even sure if I was making the team. I thought I might be back in independent ball. To come in here and have a chance to make the team, that's completely different. I never would have expected that."
And so, Nava suggests, he reflects on his change of fortune every day this spring that he walks into the big league clubhouse, every day that he sees the opportunity in front of him to compete for a role on the major league roster as an outfielder/first baseman.
"I was never in [the big league clubhouse] last year," he said. "It's like, man, this is a completely different world walking into here than it was [into the minor league clubhouse], and all that represents and means -- it's definitely different. A lot changed. A lot happened."
Indeed it did. It is easy to forget now because of the way that the Red Sox imploded over the final two months of the year, but for a time, Nava represented a life preserver for the team, a feel-good story in a season that was desperate for just that. An excellent performance in Triple-A at the start of the year -- a .313 average, a .425 OBP, a .525 slugging mark and four homers in 29 games -- served as a prelude to a mid-May call-up when the Sox outfield was ravaged by injuries.
And Nava performed at an outrageous level. From May 10 through June 24, in his first 38 games, he hit .339 with a .452 OBP (tops in the American League for that stretch, min. 100 plate appearances). The Sox went 26-16 in that span, re-establishing themselves as contenders with Nava hitting atop the lineup for much of that time.
Still, no one expected Nava to sustain such elite performance, and over the rest of the year, while trying to play through a left wrist injury that ultimately required surgery, he struggled, hitting .168 with a .266 OBP and .289 slugging mark. Based on the timing of the slump and the admission in mid-June that he was playing through the injury, it was fair to wonder whether Nava's decline was a reflection of health.
"I've definitely thought about it," Nava said of the potential impact of his wrist injury on his struggles. "I was in a great place, really relaxed those first couple months. Did [the injury and slump] coincide? I don't know.
"I didn't really want to look for an excuse for my performance. It was definitely a battle, but a lot of these guys aren't playing at 100 percent. I don't want to use it as an excuse. Hopefully, I know what I can do when I'm feeling pretty healthy. Hopefully, I can get back to that spot and play like I'm capable."
So how close is he to being able to do that? In Nava's eyes, "really close."
He is healthy this spring, swinging freely and negotiating quality plate appearances whether batting left-handed (.429 average, .471 OBP) or right-handed (.269, .406). On Thursday, he had an impressive at-bat against Phillies ace Cole Hamels, falling behind while batting right-handed but then spoiling some quality offerings and working the count full before hitting a game-tying sacrifice fly.
It was the type of competitive at-bat that proved difficult to deliver towards the end of last year. Whereas he would feel pain shooting through his wrist at times over the final few months of 2012, Nava is now discovering that he is no longer a wounded player when he swings. And that, in turn, has freed him to play comfortably.
There is little flash in his game but there is polish, as evidenced by the fact that he's now turned himself into a solid corner outfielder (capable of playing right in addition to his customary left) and a viable option to play first base. And both his swing and approach at the plate have been sound to this point in camp.
"I feel like I'm right there, right where I want to be," he said.
That being the case, it was fascinating to hear Farrell thinking aloud about his 2013 lineup construction in a world without David Ortiz at the start of the year. When discussing the second hitter in the lineup in Ortiz's absence (during which Dustin Pedroia will seemingly bat third everyday), Farrell suggested that either Jonny Gomes or Shane Victorino represented a strong option against left-handers while "Nava's situation becomes a little bit more clear" as a potential two-hole hitter against right-handed pitchers (even as Farrell quickly amended his statement to suggest that the Sox are "not completely settled on what other left-handers will be on the club").
The fact that his play has earned that kind of opportunity represents a meaningful development for Nava. After all, given that nearly 70 percent of American League plate appearances last year took place against righties, if Nava finds himself getting the lion's share of such at-bats, then his role may assume dimensions that exceed those of a typical backup -- particularly if he's hitting near the top of the lineup. Still, with the possibility of his first Opening Day in the big leagues looming, Nava won't quibble about the precise dimensions of his playing time.
"Being the No. 2 guy in the lineup, that would be awesome. Obviously, I'm thrilled by that if it's how that plays out. But if I'm the third guy off the bench, I don't care," said Nava. "But it's not like I'm fazed if I'm a starter or if I'm off the bench, or if I'm hitting ninth or first. It's still going out there and playing the game."
And that is something that Nava does not take for granted. His hold on a professional baseball opportunity, let alone one in the big leagues, became so tenuous last year that it forced him to appreciate whatever role may exist, to play hard and to hope that he does the most with the chance that he is afforded.
"It's funny. I talked to a friend of mine this offseason who was considering getting back in ball. He's a very talented player. He was just like, 'I just don't know how to go through the day-to-day grind, and you knew you were going to be in the big leagues the whole time.' I said, 'I need to stop you right there,' " Nava recounted. "My thought process was not, 'I'm going to be in the big leagues.' It was honestly, I'm just going this day, then tomorrow and I've got one day at a time. That's all I could look at in the minors as a bench player, or in independent ball. That [past] definitely allows this situation to be a little more manageable compared to a guy who was a four-time All-Star trying to make the roster. All those things I learned set me up now, and a lot of things that I believe really helped me to keep perspective."
There is plenty to offer Nava just that at this juncture of his career and life. He got married in the offseason, and he and his wife are expecting their first child this summer. On the field, after a somewhat tumultuous stretch over the past few years, he appears to be on the cusp of perhaps his most significant big league opportunity.
As all of those positive developments coincide, Nava remains mindful not just of what he has, but also from where he came. He was once before in big league spring training, at the start of the 2011 season. Then, he thought that his presence there represented a building block going forward. Months later, he learned how fleeting those big league opportunities could be when the Sox designated him for assignment.
And so, his current perspective is informed by that recent past. The notion of this clubhouse setting -- one year removed from his uncertain time in minor league camp -- is something that he does not take for granted.
"The progression had been every year from when I started in junior college to that point in 2011, I had really done well and hadn't run into that roadblock; 2011 was that roadblock," said Nava. "I learned a lot and said in 2012, if I make a team, and if I get a chance to get called back up ever again, I'm going to look at it differently. It was a different experience. I was extremely grateful for the first time, but the second time -- it was a little more special, because I'd been taken off the 40-man, hit .199 for the first two months, I had to re-learn stuff. So, I said, if I ever get a chance to get called back up, I'll be the most grateful guy I could ever be and do everything I can to hopefully stick."
With the days of spring training now dwindling, and Opening Day in New York beckoning, he appears closer than ever to accomplishing just that.