CENTRAL ISLIP, NY- Ground ball after ground ball is thwacked towards third base. The practice session balls are hit hard but still fail to simulate the velocity that accompany screaming line drives that fly like bullets down the line.
Despite coming off his best two offensive seasons, Ray Navarrete was asked to learn a new position before spring training. In his 10th professional season, the former infielder and corner outfielder is the Ducks new everyday third baseman. The move reached into the past, since Navarrete last manned the hot corner on a consistent basis as a 22-year-old rookie in his first year in the Pirates system in 2000.
“It’s taken me a little while to get used to it. There are some balls hit right at me and I can’t believe how fast they’re coming,” Navarrete said. “I don’t have time to dance around like I did at second base.”
Over the past two seasons, Navarrete drilled 45 homers and racked up 170 RBIs while displaying defensive versatility in switching from the corner outfield spots to the
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middle infield. The Ducks have been the beneficiary of that production, as Navarrete batted .308 in 2007 and finished last season at .307.
Utility players are usually viewed as valuable contributors off the bench who provide occasional offense but serve as reserves. Yet Navarrete’s numbers made the utility tag seem out of place. Not many backups have three-homer games or earn All-Star selections; two items Navarrete crossed of his checklist in 2008.
While starting primarily at second, Navarrete saw time all over the diamond. That movement helped the Ducks plug in holes on the roster but possibly could have hindered major league teams from extending an offer. Now, a permanent position could be mutually beneficial for the individual and the club.
“This organization has been extremely supportive of my career so far and I think they are getting creative in thinking of ways of what can help me get noticed,” Navarrete said. “If this is an opportunity for me to help these guys win a championship and maybe get noticed for me to get picked up for a major league team, then I’m all for it.”
Making the transition easier is the fact an experienced infielder is the team’s co-owner and coach. Buddy Harrelson and coach Kevin Baez continue to tutor Navarrete, hitting him ground balls to hone his skills. New manager Gary Carter is a Hall of Fame catcher and said he also supports the decision and said the move could make his player more marketable.
“Everybody knows he can play the other positions,” said Carter, who also has Navarrete batting in the leadoff spot. “If he continues to excel and swing the bat, he will get noticed more playing at third base.”
pitching coach Dave LaPoint was manager the past two seasons and was able to provide Carter first-hand accounts about Navarrete’s productivity. Before spring training, Carter called Navarrete and broached the idea about moving to third.
So far, the move is paying off. Navarrete entered Monday with two errors, though he has two of the Ducks four home runs and is batting .267 while slugging .467.
“You try to set your team up which is best conducive to winning,” Carter said. “Ray Navarrete is best for us at third base right now.”
Navarrete last played in the affiliated minor leagues in 2006, when he split time between the Mets Double and Triple-A levels. Yet after setting career-highs in nearly every major statistical category last season, the offers failed to come.
“It was a bad year for free agents in minor league baseball,” Navarrete said. “Whether it had something to do with the economy or they didn’t want to sign free agents…I got a few phone calls. At the end of the day, I didn’t get an invite to spring training.
“There are a lot of guys in this clubhouse in this league and who are very deserving of being in Triple-A or even in the big leagues right now.”
With his 31st birthday coming at the end of the month, Navarrete is young enough to scoff at the elder statesman tag. But Navarrete can serve as an example for teammates new to Long Island. In the Atlantic League, a one-year stint is common for most players while two-year tenure is a benchmark for consistency.
While his record isn’t on par with Brooks Robison’s 23-year run with Baltimore, Navarrete in his fourth season wearing the Ducks orange-and-green colors, making him the organization’s longest-serving player.
“I think so now for the first time,” Navarrete said. “Not that I didn’t view myself as a leader in the past, but we had some pretty big-name guys in here who have had a lot of success at the major league level and I was one of the guys soaking it all in.
“Now, I’m one of the few guys to have comeback and proven that I’m a decent player. I’m trying to help some guys here learn the ropes. There is a certain way to play for the Long Island Ducks. I know the coaches are looking at me as a leader.”
In 2007, Navarrete batted .300 for the first time since his first year in professional baseball in 2000 when he was on Pittsburgh’s Single-A club. An encore performance in 2008 featured a career-high in home runs (27), RBIs (103), slugging (.546) and on-base-plus slugging percentage (.937).
The Colts Neck, N.J. native posted identical .391 on-base percentages the last two seasons. Those numbers could even improve now that a mental burden has been lifted. He has already reached base safely in eight of the first nine games.
“It’s good to know for the first time in a long time I have a position to call home,” he said. “I’m usually running around the field like a chicken without a head. It’s nice to know I’m going to be in one spot.
“Hopefully I can turn into one of the better third basemen in the league.”