Monday, November 3, 2014

Card #124: Reid Nichols

Who Can It Be Now?
Thomas Reid Nichols was born on August 5, 1958 in Ocala, Florida. He was raised in Ocala and played second base, shortstop, and pitching at Forest High School in Ocala. 

The Red Sox selected Nichols straight out of high school in the 12th Round of the 1976 June Regular Draft. He signed two weeks later and was assigned to Elmira in the New York Penn League in 1976. His short-season experience there got his feet wet for professional baseball, and he tore the cover off the ball in his 67 plate appearances in 1976 -- .240/.448/.358. But small sample size caveats apply.

For 1977, Nichols was assigned to Winter Haven in the Florida State League. He played decently there -- hitting .264/.325/.354 in a league that hit .258/.338/.332. Obviously, that makes him a fairly average player for a low-A league, and since he turned 19 just after the end of the minor league season, the Red Sox kept him in Winter Haven for 1978. 

He played about the same in 1978 -- perhaps even a bit more poorly -- so for 1979, the Red Sox assigned Nichols to another Single-A season in Winston-Salem. There, Nichols put on a show -- hitting .293/.371/.427 with 12 HR and 66 SB (12 CS). Suddenly, Nichols was a prospect -- the Baseball Cube rates him as the best player in the Carolina League in 1979. 

As a result -- and in what many today would call a mistake -- the Red Sox skipped Nichols over Double-A and moved him directly to Pawtucket for the 1980 season. In fairness, he was not overmatched -- .276/.322/.372 in 560 plate appearances leading to a 12 game cup of coffee in 1980. But, as his career developed, it would appear that he might have been able to use another year of minor league development.

Then again, perhaps the Red Sox should have kept Nichols in the minor leagues during the strike in 1981. His line for that year -- 39 appearances, 55 plate appearances, and a .188/.216/.229 slash line -- bear all the indices both of a player who was overmatched and of a player who simply did not play enough at a critical point in his development (Nichols was 22 years old at the time).  

It is easy to say that in retrospect, but Nichols was behind LF Jim Rice, CF Rick Miller, RF Dwight Evans, and 42-year-old DH Carl Yastrzemski in the Red Sox pecking order. Considering that the Red Sox also had Garry Hancock and Joe Rudi available to fill in if the OF needed a break, why did they push a 22-year-old Nichols to the majors to let him sit on the bench?

Still, Nichols never went back to the minor leagues until he was in the "hanging on" phases of his career in 1988. In fact, in 1982 and 1983, he thrived in a limited role for the Red Sox. Between those two seasons, Nichols had 572 plate appearances -- effectively one full season of playing. In that time, he hit .293/.347/.449 with 13 HR, 12 SB (against 8 CS, though) and 38 2B. That's a useful player.  In the wake of that 1983 season, the Red Sox signed him to a 5-year contract worth about $400,000 a year.

His playing time evaporated in 1984, as he appeared in 74 games but came to bat just 141 times.  Nichols stayed with the Red Sox until mid-season in 1985.  Prior to the trade in which the Red Sox sent Nichols to the Chicago White Sox on July 11, 1985, for pitcher Tim Lollar, Nichols played in just 21 games and hit only 37 times.

The change of scenery did not improve Nichols's chances of seeing playing time, however. With the White Sox, he appeared in just 125 games over 1-1/2 season, hitting only 286 times with a slash line of .260/.325/.346.  At the end of spring training in 1987, Nichols was the odd man out when the White Sox traded for Gary Redus.  

Nichols latched on with the Montreal Expos for the 1987 season after being cut. There, he found himself behind Tim Raines, Herm Winningham, and Mitch Webster. Even though Winningham struggled to hit, those struggles did not lead to a return gig for Nichols. Instead, he latched on with the Texas Rangers for the 1988 season. He failed to make the big club and played sparingly in Triple-A in Oklahoma City. After the 1988 season and at the age of 30, Nichols was done as a baseball player.

Mustache: Though he does not have a mustache today, Nichols sported one on this card and through much of his Red Sox career.

Goody Two Shoes
As a player, Nichols was very good about signing autographs through the mail. On many of the autographs he signed, including on this 1983 Fleer card linked from an eBay auction, Nichols signed his autograph by including a reference to a Bible verse: Romans 10: 9,10, which you can find linked here for the New International Version of the Bible.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Nichols did not make much of an impact on me during his player career. With numbers like he had -- and playing in a limited role -- his opportunities were too few and too far in between for him to get traction as a major leaguer. Perhaps today, with four more teams in major league baseball, he might have gotten an opportunity to start with a lesser team with a bad record -- think the San Diego Padres of 2014, perhaps.

Nichols made the most of his one season in the Texas Rangers system. Doug Melvin hired him on to be the Farm Director for the Rangers in 1994, and he stayed in that position through 2000. For one season in 2001, he was an on-field coach with the club -- serving as its first base coach. 

Then, in November of 2002, when Melvin was hired by the Milwaukee Brewers to reinvigorate a moribund farm system and major league club, Nichols came along with him. Nichols has served as the Farm Director and Director of Player Development since 2002. Under his watch, the Brewers have drafted and developed players such as Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo, Wily Peralta, Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy, Khris Davis, and Scooter Gennett. 

A few years ago, the farm system allowed the Brewers to try to make a run for the World Series by giving them talent such as Matt LaPorta, Lorenzo Cain, and Jake Odorizzi that the team chose to trade away for top-line pitchers CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke. For those interested, Nichols gave a long-form interview about the team's player development philosophy to Baseball Prospectus in 2007.

Now, the Brewers have not yet made it to a World Series during the time that Nichols and Melvin have been in charge. Some people think that Jack Zduriencik was the brains behind the operations that reinvigorate the Brewers farm system. In any case, it is safe to say that Nichols and Melvin have helped Milwaukee to become at least a respectable major league baseball team.

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