Tribe grooming Nix for shot at third base

Tribe grooming Nix for shot at third base

CLEVELAND -- For all intents and purposes, the offseason has already ended for Jayson Nix. He's already begun working out in anticipation of a Puerto Rican winter ball stint that could result in him becoming the Tribe's primary 2011 third baseman.

Nix came to the Indians from the White Sox in a June waiver claim. In the time since, he's shown the kind of pop that could help the Tribe's lineup, but the Indians haven't been able to afford him a permanent position.

They might have one available at the hot corner next year.

"It remains to be seen," Nix said in a recent interview. "Nobody can say right now what the situation is going to be like next year."

That's because the Indians haven't made it known whether they plan to fill third base internally or through a free-agent signing or trade. If it's the former, Nix would figure to be the guy. If it's the latter, well, expect a low-budget stopgap because the free-agent market is not particularly fruitful and the Indians believe Lonnie Chisenhall, who will open 2011 at Triple-A Columbus, could be the long-term answer.

For now, all the 28-year-old Nix knows is that if he's going to have a shot at a regular role in the big leagues -- something that has largely eluded him in his three seasons -- he'd better become a more dependable defender at third.

That's where his winter ball experience, which will begin in December, will come in handy. Nix is going to Puerto Rico to see regular time at a position the Indians thrust him into on the fly in the latter half of 2010.

"The only thought for me is you have to be smart with your body," he said. "It's a long season, and we've been going at it since February. It takes a toll. You have to be smart and give your body enough rest. I wanted to make sure I could do it in a way where I know I can get the rest."

He got it in October, and he should get another breather in January, depending on how winter ball goes. In February, he'll arrive at the Indians' spring camp in Goodyear, Ariz., possibly as the odds-on favorite to claim third base.

When Nix first arrived to the Tribe, he quickly established himself as the regular second baseman. The Indians had a need at the position because Luis Valbuena flamed out. In his first two weeks with the team, Nix hit .317 with five homers and eight RBIs in 12 games. But when his numbers began to tumble over the next couple weeks and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera returned from the disabled list, Jason Donald became the regular second baseman and Nix went back to the utility role he had occupied with the Sox.

Then the Indians traded Jhonny Peralta to the Tigers in late July, and Nix's role changed yet again. Suddenly, he was asked to play regularly at third -- a position he had played just 28 times previously in the big leagues.

Predictably, the experiment didn't go particularly well. Nix made 11 errors in 40 games at third down the stretch. And yet, he still looked to be a more viable member of the lineup than Andy Marte or Valbuena, who also saw time at third.

That the Indians asked him to go to winter ball to play third is a window into their thinking on the position for next season. The stopgap the club is looking for could very well be Nix. But the team has also lined up at least one other potential internal option in having second-base prospect Cord Phelps man third in the Arizona Fall League.

Nix was a first-round pick by the Rockies in 2001. He has a reputation as a hard worker and a good athlete, but consistency, both in terms of playing time and production, has not been his strong suit. With the Indians, he hit .234 with 13 homers and a .705 OPS in 78 games.

For all his struggles at third, Tribe fans might have learned something about Nix when he made one of the season's best defensive plays, giving up his body and flipping over the rail into the camera bay at Detroit's Comerica Park to catch a foul popup in the seventh inning of a game the Indians were trailing, 8-1.

"The game deserves your very best effort, physically, mentally and emotionally," Nix said. "When you're here, the game and everybody playing it deserves that kind of respect and effort. Playing the game right is something I take a lot of pride in. No matter the situation or the score, no matter the time of year or anything, whether it's here in the big league season or going to winter ball, the game requires that."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.