PHILADELPHIA >> Nick Williams was raised in Galveston, Texas, where everything was hot, from the weather to the way he could hit a baseball, long and far and often.
From high school, he would join the Rangers organization, then play four years in the minors, always in the south, save for 22 games last summer in Reading after a trade to the Phillies. By Thursday, though, he was in Citizens Bank Park, in January, with some wind. So he was reluctant even to step to the top dugout step.
Turns out, he was glad he did.“It doesn’t get this cold in Texas,” Williams was saying later, in the clubhouse. “It’s absolutely freezing. But when I walked out in that ballpark, I thought, ‘Man, I want to take B.P.’” With that, he laughed out loud, an emotion heard too infrequently in that room in recent months as the Phillies have endured a franchise ice age. But in a casual chance for baseball writers to meet some of the organization’s prized prospects, Williams was intrigued by those outfield fences, compact, tight, alluring, much like his swing.
That’s the report, anyway. That’s his rep. That’s what makes the 22-year-old outfielder something of an outlier in the organization’s rebuilding plan, which apparently is to collect pitchers, then to collect more pitchers. He is a power hitter. And even though his minor-league statistics don’t scream as much, he often felt he was born not just to hit, but to hit with a thud.
“I’d like to say that,” he said. “But I never got up to the plate and said, ‘Man, I’ve really got to hit this ball hard or far.’ It’s just a reaction. I think it is just one of those things I was blessed with. I don’t want to say I worked on power. It’s just something that came naturally.”
The Phillies need power, and they need it immediately. Despite their claustrophobia-inducing park, they were 28th in the big leagues last season with 130 home runs. Though they did have quite an assortment, it would be difficult to find a more streamlined explanation for why they would lose 99 times.
So before trading Cole Hamels near the deadline, the Phillies would insist that the Rangers part with their second-round, 2012 draft choice in return. That haul included Jerad Eickhoff and Alec Asher, who were in the Phillies’ rotation before season’s end, catching prospect Jorge Alfaro and hard-throwing right-hander Jake Thompson. Over-salaried veteran Matt Harrison arrived, too.
For Hamels, a dominating left-hander, once a World Series MVP, a fan favorite, the Phillies needed to be right. Eickhoff, for one, already has hinted that they were. And if he is as advertised, and he showed glimpses of that in Reading, Williams can be valuable, too, a left-handed hitter with the ability to slug baseballs onto Ashburn Alley.
“It started when I was like 10,” Williams said. “I used to like to hit a lot of golf balls off my bat, just to see how far they could go, and then how far I could hit a baseball. But a lot of it came through my dad, who used to throw me like 200 pitches every day before practice started.
“And I always wanted to hit a home run, ever since I was little. My first home run was when I was like 9. But it is just, when you are a kid, you think home run at that time.”
The Rangers thought home runs, plural, when they drafted Williams. But in 401 games in the minors and in fall leagues, Williams has hit just 51 home runs, never more than 17 in a season. Yet he has been a .295 hitter with a habit of hitting for extra bases, and he hit .320 with four home runs in 22 late-season games in Reading.
By the time he was traded, and it came during the seventh inning of a minor league game, Williams already had done some research on the Phillies, aware of the rumors. It would not have taken much to see that they had a lack of proven power throughout the outfield, even if Darin Ruf had some clout and Odubel Herrera began to show some, too, late in the season.
The Phillies have never said as much out loud, but they need a player like Williams to emerge from their new, crowded system, if not necessarily coming out of Clearwater, then soon. In more ways than one, Williams is ready to take a swing.
“It’s in my reach, right at my fingertips,” he said. “By September, I would love to be in the big leagues. That’s my birthday month. I do want to be in the big leagues as soon as possible. But I wouldn’t be disappointed if I wasn’t at the start of the season, or like, really early. That means something. It would mean I was doing something right. But you don’t want to get there too early and crush your confidence.
“So far, I love this organization. And the people around it really know what’s going on. So I trust in all their choices. I just really want to be the best player and most polished teammate that I can be.”
He’s 22. He has time. The Phillies, though, could use a power-hitting outfielder, and soon.
In that small ballpark Thursday, Williams was hardly the only one wondering if he could be one.
“I’m looking forward,” he said with a smile, “to seeing how this plays out.”