CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Nick Williams knows what it’s like to be consumed by every shred of gossip about a sports team. He has even whiled away the hours by scrolling through his phone in search of trade rumors and free-agent whispers.
“It can just drive your mind crazy,” he said.
But while Phillies fans remain locked in on social media to keep up with the speculation and non-updates about where Bryce Harper will play this season, Williams can’t do it. Not after being disappointed once before by a trade that he saw coming. Even though he’s the player in Phillies camp who figures to be impacted most if the club signs Harper, Williams is trying not to give it more than a passing thought.
And so, as the phone lines at the sports-talk stations in Philadelphia filled with Harper anticipation on Monday, another lefty-hitting right fielder went about his day 1,100 miles away at Spectrum Field. Williams stretched with fellow outfielders, ran through defensive drills, and tested his new upright stance in batting practice, just like any other day in any other spring training.
Besides, there weren’t outward signs that a deal with Harper was imminent. Team officials casually strolled the training facility. General manager Matt Klentak was spotted with his family, not with a phone pressed to his ear. Owner John Middleton roamed the practice fields, as usual.
It was hardly a red-alert, Defcon 3 mood. And the way Williams sees it, when there’s something for him to know, the Phillies won’t be shy about telling him.
“I’m not worried about it,” Williams said. “I’ve been traded once. It’s a business. I used to pay attention to stuff like that. I don’t anymore.”
Four years ago, as a prospect in the Texas Rangers organization, Williams was obsessed with it.
Williams, 25, grew up in Galveston, Texas, got drafted in the second round in 2012, and dreamed of playing in his home state. So he kept close tabs on the Rangers’ roster, monitoring transactions and wondering how he might fit in once he finally got called up.
“I knew we had not even a left-handed pitcher in the bullpen or a starter, and I knew they wanted a lefty [in 2015],” Williams said. “Cole Hamels was out there the whole time, and I paid attention to it because I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to get traded. I was constantly stressing over it, stressing over it, and then it happened. I was like, ‘I never want to feel that way again.’”
To block out the external noise, Williams deleted his Twitter account last year. Rather than refreshing MLBTradeRumors.com all offseason, he gained weight, added muscle, and worked on his new stance, a suggestion from hitting coach John Mallee to help him see the ball better.
Williams improved in other areas last season. In particular, he became more disciplined at the plate, chasing only 33.7 of pitches out of the zone, down from 44.6 percent in 2017. He also made contact with 87.7 percent of pitches in the strike zone, up from 79.5 percent.
But in reviewing video, Williams was struck by how hunched over he appeared in a stance he had been using since he began working with former Phillies hitting coach Matt Stairs in 2017. As a result, Williams often didn’t make contact with the ball until it reached the middle or even the back of the plate.
Mallee encouraged Williams to stand taller and close his stance to square up better with the pitcher.
“It’s kind of night and day,” Williams said. “It helps for leverage and just posture. I was diving over the plate, which was causing pitches down the middle and inside to jam me. Now I can get to them easier, a lot easier.”
An offshoot of the adjustment: Williams, listed at 6-foot-3, appears to have grown one inch since last season, according to his pre-spring-training physical.
“I thought I stopped growing at, like, 21 or 22,” he said. “It’s crazy to me. I don’t know if that’s posture or if I did actually grow an inch. Oh well. I like it.”
As it stands, free-agent addition Andrew McCutchen will occupy one corner spot in the’ outfield, while Williams, Odubel Herrera, Roman Quinn, and Aaron Altherr will compete in spring training for center and right field. Williams and Herrera, lefty hitters in a decidedly right-handed lineup, would seem to have an advantage.
Harper is a left-handed hitter, too, though. The Phillies have been chasing him and Manny Machado all winter. They have met with both 26-year-old superstars and possess the money and desire to sign either. Team officials remain optimistic that they will.
Yet as the Phillies went through their first full-squad workout on Monday, the Bryce and Manny Watch persisted.
“I was the subject of trade rumors, I got traded at the deadline, I’ve been around it," manager Gabe Kapler said. "My advice would be, anything that takes your focus away from the batter’s box, your position in the outfield, is not good for you. And you absolutely have no control over it.”
Williams found that out four years ago. He’s not about to sweat it again.