DUNEDIN, Fla. — Jim Negrych got just 10 measly at-bats combined in major-league spring training the last four years with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins. That’s enough time to show exactly nothing.
Things are a whole lot different these days for the St. Francis product, who’s likely to man second base for the Buffalo Bisons this season. Just as they promised, it turned out the minor-league deal he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays was no token gesture to the hometown boy from the Bisons’ new parent club.
With several players gone to the World Baseball Classic and third baseman Brett Lawrie sidelined with a rib cage problem most of the month, there were plenty of at-bats to go around in the Toronto infield. Negrych got 33 of them, had three multi-hit games and posted a glossy .394 batting average.
“It was exciting, an opportunity I’ve been waiting to get for a while,” the 28-year-old Negrych said this week at Toronto’s minor-league complex. “I was happy we were able to play a lot more time than we normally would have because of the Classic. Then Brett got a little dinged up and that opened up another spot so it was fun, really nice to get everyday at-bats.
“You want to be as productive as you can. Everyone knows spring training is spring training and you’re here for reasons other than just put up numbers. But obviously in my situation in order to get looks, you’re going to have to put up some numbers. So it was nice to be able to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Negrych was batting over .400 when he was sent to the minor-league camp on Thursday and finished 13 for 33 after going 1 for 5 in a brief call-up Sunday. He was taken two hours south to Fort Myers for a game against the Twins as regulars were given the day off from the long bus ride.
Recapping Negrych’s spring stats, he had three doubles and two home runs, six RBIs, a .474 on-base percentage and .667 slugging percentage. He struck out five times and walked five times.
“You’d see him take BP and it looked like he had a good idea,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “You start throwing him in the games and he might have been the MVP of the camp, to be honest with you. He opened up a lot of eyes. He’s a gritty type player who can do a lot of things. Who knows? You never know. You pull for guys like that who’ve been around a while but haven’t got a break.
“The thing about this organization is the way they’ve always been is if a guy deserves something, they give him a shot. It’s not like other places where if you’re not that guy, it doesn’t matter what you do. Forget it. This organization always tries to reward guys that perform well.”
Negrych was thrilled to hear some of Gibbons’ comments when they were relayed to him.
“Gibby is a great guy and the whole staff up there was really welcoming,” he said. “He didn’t treat you like you didn’t belong there and that was really nice. Gibby was a grinder when he played and that’s how I am. We got along well and it’s always nice to know the big-league manager likes you.”
Numbers, of course, don’t always mean everything to big-league clubs. There’s plenty of politics involved that tend to favor high draft picks and high bonus recipients. You’re often either one of “their guys” or you’re not but it doesn’t seem to work that way with the Blue Jays.
“That’s definitely different from some organizations,” Negrych said. “Especially the one I came up with [Pittsburgh], which was a ‘your-guy’ organization and obviously I wasn’t one of their guys that they pushed. To finally come here and go to a place where your ability matters more so than what you look like on the field is very nice.”
Catcher Josh Thole, just sent down to Buffalo by the Blue Jays on Monday, recalled being behind the plate in 2010 when the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Negrych made his first trip to play in his hometown while with Indianapolis.
“So this little guy comes to bat and I’m behind the plate and the place goes crazy. I couldn’t believe it,” Thole said. “So I stop and get up and I go to him, ‘Who are you?’ I had no idea he was from Buffalo, none. So he told me and I got the whole nine yards from him right there that his family and friends were all over the stands. It was like he was the next coming of Babe Ruth.
“I’ve really got to know him here and he’s had a great spring,” Thole said. “A real grinder. He just knows how to get the job done. A scrapper. You like that.”
Herd manager Marty Brown, who spent much of March in the big-league camp, was similarly impressed by Negrych.
“He’s a good little hitter,” Brown said. “What do they call it? He brings ‘hittability’ to the table. You look at him, he’s not the fastest guy, doesn’t have the greatest arm and probably doesn’t have the greatest range. But what he does do is compete and that’s so important.
“He just doesn’t like to lose. He’s got that Buffalo fan mentality to him. They don’t like to lose. I know. You love that.”