CLEARWATER, Fla.— Nick Williams is the lone Ranger.
It occurred to him last week. He was idling in the outfield, awaiting his turn in one of those tedious spring-training fielding drills, when he realized he’s the last player left in the Phillies organization from the eight-player blockbuster that sent Cole Hamels to the Texas Rangers at the trade deadline in 2015.
"We were doing outfield work, and all of a sudden I’m looking around. And then I got in the locker room and I was looking around at the names, and I was like, ‘Wait, there’s no one left,’ " Williams said Sunday. “It’s pretty crazy.”
Matt Harrison went first, released after the 2016 season having never pitched for the Phillies. Alec Asher got traded to Baltimore at the end of spring training in 2017; fellow right-hander Jake Thompson was sold to Milwaukee midway through the 2018 season; catcher Jorge Alfaro got traded to Miami in the J.T. Realmuto deal before last season; right-hander Jerad Eickhoff signed with San Diego as a free agent in December.
That leaves Williams to carry the flag for the trade that signaled the unofficial start of the Phillies’ massive rebuilding project. And if we’re being honest, it’s stunning that the 26-year-old outfielder isn’t playing somewhere else this spring, too.
Williams went deep 12 times in 313 at-bats after getting called to the big leagues in 2017. He emerged from an early-season platoon with Aaron Altherr in 2018 to hit 17 homers in 407 at-bats and was set to be the right fielder last spring until the Phillies signed Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract.
Shoved to the bench and largely forgotten (he didn’t make his first start until the season’s 26th game), Williams conceded that he never developed a routine that worked for coming off the bench. When he got demoted to triple-A on May 19, the Phillies told him it was for his own good. He needed to play.
Williams yo-yoed between Lehigh Valley and the big leagues four times last season. To nobody's surprise, he crushed triple-A, batting .316 with 10 homers, a .574 slugging percentage and a .955 OPS in 190 at-bats.
But he was never much of an option in the majors, not even after left fielder Andrew McCutchen went down for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He started four games in a row only once. He got a grand total of 106 at-bats and hit .151 with two homers and an impossibly low .442 OPS. As a pinch-hitter, he went only 5-for-39 (.128).
“It takes a little toll, especially the mental aspect,” Williams said. “In ’18, I was able to [pinch-hit] well because I’d get a start every once in a while. Last year was like straight pinch-hitting. I just wasn’t able to get a grasp on a routine that would work for the bench. It was a first for me in a lot of ways. Last year was just tough.”
Tragic, too. Williams’ older brother, Rudy, was killed late on Aug. 20 when he got hit by a recreational vehicle on a highway in Livingston, Texas, about 75 miles northeast of Houston. Williams rejoined the Phillies on Sept. 2 and went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts in the last 26 games.
His future, it seemed, was in another organization.
Yet there was Williams, batting cleanup and playing right field Saturday in the Phillies’ spring-training opener against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla. Unless McCutchen isn’t ready to start the season, it’s difficult to see Williams on the opening-day roster, especially with lefty-hitting veteran outfielder Jay Bruce ticketed for a bench spot.
Asked if he’s surprised to still be with the Phillies, Williams said, “No, not really. Worrying about the unknown, you can’t do that because you’ll drive yourself crazy thinking about different scenarios. Everything happens for a reason, and as long as you stay confident and you stay patient good things happen.”
Meanwhile, Williams has been excited to be working with new hitting coach Joe Dillon. A year ago, he adopted a new stance that former coach John Mallee believed would enable him to see the ball better. Instead, Williams said it caused him to try pulling every pitch to right field.
The result: a soaring strikeout rate, from 24.8% in 2018 to 38.4% last year.
“I think it just made me more overly aggressive,” he said. “I just kind of got myself in trouble. I felt like I was yanking everything. I realized I’m not a guy who necessarily needs to pull the ball. I always thought my power was kind of left-center. I’m just focused now on hitting where it’s pitched.”
And not where he’s playing. Being the last vestige of the Hamels trade has only reinforced to Williams that sometimes things don’t work out the way that you plan.