March 25, 2015 at 10:32 AM
Nick Longhi had high hopes leading into the 2014 season. He looked to be living up to the expectations that came along with the over-slot bonus he received as a 2013 30th-round pick early on in the Lowell season, batting .330/.388/.440. That he was 18 years old and often facing pitchers three or four years older than him makes that line look even more impressive.
Unfortunately those numbers were over just 121 plate appearances as his season was cut short after little more than a month when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his thumb sliding into third base on July 21. The injury required surgery, but because it happened earlier in the season, Longhi feels like his health is in a good place heading into this season.
“All our guys in the training room really helped me and got me back on the field ahead of schedule,” Longhi said. “I got to work out all offseason, get strong, and I’m 100 percent right now.”
That he was so hot at the plate made it that much harder to sit on the sidelines while his teammates played out the season. The time away from the game has also served as motivation for him heading into this year.
“It was different dealing with it,” he said. “It was almost more boredom that got me, not being able to do anything, not being able to play or even just workout. That kind of got me a little more. I’m just happy to be back playing, back in the lineup, and feeling good.”
In recent spring training at-bats, Longhi showed an ability to see some pitches and work the count. Batting behind stud prospects Rafael Devers and Michael Chavis every day in the Low-A lineup, his patience stood out at times, for example working a seven-pitch walk at one point in game action, though he was also not afraid to swing early in other at-bats.
“That’s something I’ve personally wanted to work on from last year,” he said about his selective approach. “I want to have a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, that’s something I’m shooting for. Still trying to be aggressive. If they throw it over the plate early in the count, I’m going to swing. But trying to be a little more selective and it’s been going pretty well so far this spring.”
With 22 strikeouts and 11 walks last season, he hit his desired ratio right on the nose.
Another aspect of his offensive game that could improve with this more aggressively selective approach is his in-game power. He is a well-built, strong guy, listed at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, and scouts see his raw power in batting practice as average to better.
Still, his over-the-fence power has not materialized yet. He has just one career home run over 171 minor league plate appearances, and none last season. Power is often the last tool to develop for a hitter, and Longhi feels that will be the case for him.
“I’m not planning to change my approach,” the 19-year-old said. “I’ve had a lot of success with it, and as I get older and stronger and bigger, the balls are going to start going out of the park. I just want a well-rounded approach where I can go the other way and pull some if someone throws one in.”
In his two shortened seasons in the system, Longhi has now logged eight games at first base and 31 in one of the corner outfield spots. Last season, he spent only two games in the infield, 13 in left, and 12 out in right field. This breakdown may have had more to do with roster construction though, as there were three other first basemen on the roster in Lowell, including highly-regarded draftee Sam Travis. With Longhi at least able to reasonably man an outfield corner, moving him in deference to the others allowed him to continue getting consistent at-bats.
This spring Longhi was playing first base exclusively in game action, though it would not be surprising to see him back in the outfield at some point. He has played on the dirt and the grass at different points for his whole life in baseball, so he is not concerned about where the team ultimately comes down on the issue.
“I played first base my junior year [of high school], then a lot of outfield my senior year. And travel ball, it was mainly outfield,” Longhi said. “I really don’t have a preference; I’ll play anywhere that gets me in the lineup.”
For now, Longhi is focused on what he can control. He has one goal when camp breaks, and that’s to be headed north in April as opposed to June.
“I think that’s everybody’s goal here in spring training, to get to a full season club right away,” he said. “Still got to keep working hard. I can’t control it all, all I can control is how hard I work.”
Photo credit: Nick Longhi by Kelly O'Connor
Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegelSP.