Decision time: Nick Williams

Nick Williams has a chip on his shoulder. In fact, it’s a whole bag of chips.

The left-handed hitting outfielder once was a highly-touted Texas Rangers’ prospect. Williams debuted in 2012 with the Rookie-level Rangers in the Arizona League by hitting .313 in 48 games. A native of Galveston,Texas, he flourished in the minors over the next few years, progressing nicely until July 31, 2015.

On that date, the Philadelphia Phillies were a rebuilding team going nowhere. Meanwhile, the Rangers were very much in contention in the AL West Division. A blockbuster trade was made between the two clubs in which left-handed pitcher Matt Harrison and five prospects were traded to Philadelphia. In exchange the Phillies shipped fan favorite Cole Hamels, who had just thrown his first career solo no-hitter on July 25, and hard-throwing southpaw reliever Jake Diekman to Texas.

Williams was not happy about the trade. He was quoted in March 2019 for ESPN by Eddie Matz: “I didn’t want it to happen. Had a lot of family there. Just didn’t want to leave. So when I was traded, it hurt bad. And it took a while to let go of that, too.

Williams took some time to adjust to playing in the Phillies’ farm system. More than once while playing for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs in 2016, he was benched for lack of hustle. The big-league Phillies’ manager at that time, Pete Mackanin, received those reports and was concerned. Mackanin, a baseball lifer, certainly recognized talent in the young outfielder. But the attitude was difficult to control.

It didn’t help that 94WIP Morning Show host Angelo Cataldi quoted Williams in The Voice: “I’ve never ever cared about what people think about me. If their last name isn’t Williams or they don’t pay me, put food on my table and a roof over my head, then I could care less.

Ouch.

Despite the attitude problems, Williams was finally called up to the big-leagues in late June 2017. He produced at first, hitting .288 over 83 games that summer. Williams then enjoyed a full season in 2018 as the Phillies starting right fielder, batting .256 with 16 home runs and 58 RBIs.

Unfortunately, his 4:1 strikeout ratio in 2018 was horrendous. Even though Williams is very athletic, his defense was underwhelming. His DRS (-13) was second-worst among all National League right fielders, ahead only of Washington’s Bryce Harper, who posted a -15 DRS mark that year. Williams needed to show improvement if he was going to stay on the Major League roster for very long.

In early March of 2019, to the surprise and delight of most Phillies fans, Harper arrived in town as a free agent. This was after Andrew McCutchen had signed a three-year contract a few months earlier. Odubel Herrera was still the incumbent center fielder at that point. Everyone in Philadelphia seemed to have forgotten all about Williams.

Williams himself thought he would be dealt at some point last year. “I still joke about it with friends and family like ‘I’m still here?’,” Williams said per Matt Breen of The Inquirer in April 2019. “I can’t control me being in a trade and I’m on a winning team so I’ll ride it out and produce anyway I can.

But a trade never happened. Williams’ performance suffered in 2019, but not only because of the addition of Harper. Gabe Kapler chose to use him sparingly, mostly as a pinch-hitter. The 25-year-old found himself back in Triple-A more than once.

Herrera eventually was suspended after his domestic violence arrest, McCutchen injured his ACL and was lost for the season, and still Williams wasn’t given a chance to replace either teammate on a regular basis.

He was brought back up from the minors after the Herrera incident, but the Phillies immediately traded for Jay Bruce. When Cutch went down, Adam Haseley was called up to play center field.

Haseley eventually got hurt himself and Williams came up again for a short time. By the end of July, Corey Dickerson had been traded to Philadelphia from the Pittsburgh Pirates to take over left field. Each move presented a corresponding demotion for Williams. By the end of the year, his batting average was only .151 and he had received only 18 starts and 106 at-bats with the Phillies despite what seemed to be numerous opportunities for playing time.

With the 2020 season now on hold, Williams is still a member of the Philadelphia Phillies roster. He is the sole player still with the club from that Hamels trade back in 2015. Despite hitting a poor .087 in 10 Grapefruit League games prior to the shutdown, the now 26-year-old has potential as a hitter.

Thanks to new MLB roster expansion this year, Williams could make the team as the Phillies 26th man. Much may depend on whether McCutchen is ready once baseball returns. With McCutchen and Harper set on the outfield corners, Haseley and Roman Quinn manning center field, and Bruce guaranteed a corner outfield reserve spot, it will be tough. The Phillies might instead prefer to carry an extra versatile infielder who also has outfield experience like Neil Walker, who our Joe Rago wrote about just yesterday.

Los Angeles Angels’ manager Joe Maddon has a favorite quote: “Attitude is a decision.” Williams could clearly benefit from a new outlook. Maybe the extended time off this spring will bring about some positive reflection. New Phillies manager Joe Girardi and new hitting coach Joe Dillon should help Williams to focus on his power, cut down his strikeouts, and eliminate thoughts of last year’s downhill slide.

When the baseball season (hopefully) begins, I hope Williams gets a chance to prove he can play in the Majors Leagues again. I believe that he has big-league talent. It remains questionable whether he will ever get a that full shot here. At some point this year the Phillies are likely to make a decision on his future with the team, one way or another.

 

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