The 2013 Hickory Crawdads were arguably the most talked about team throughout the minor leagues that season. As the years pass by, the talent from that team continues to evolve as arguably the most iconic group to ever take the field at L.P. Frans Stadium.
Already nine players have ascended up the ladder to become major league players with several more likely to join them in the future. One of those from that 2013 team on the cusp of a major league callup is left fielder Nick Williams, currently with AAA Lehigh Valley in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.
Williams joined the Crawdads the next season after the Texas Rangers took him in the second round of the 2012 draft out of Ball High School in Galveston, Tex. Some observers considered Williams as a sure top-round pick. However, a subpar high school senior season dropped him to the Rangers as the 93rd overall selection .
It was that drop that perhaps allowed him to fly under the radar with the 2013 team that had two first round draft picks in Lewis Brinson and Joey Gallo, as well as two mega bonus-baby international free agent signees in Nomar Mazara and Ronald Guzman.
Then 19-years old in his first 140-game marathon season, Williams worked around a pair of injuries to post a .293/.337/.543 slash. He became the first – and still only Crawdads player – to post double-digit totals in doubles (19), triples (12, which is tied for the club record for a season) and homers (17), despite playing in only 95 games. His .543 slugging pct. is the ninth best season in club history among qualifying hitters (378+ plate appearances).
Williams went on to postseason all-star status at class Low-A South Atlantic League (2013), high-A Carolina League (2014) and AA Texas (2015). MiLB.com named him a Rangers organizational all-star the past three seasons and Baseball American tabbed him on its AA All-Star team in 2015.
But with a glut of several developing outfielders in the Rangers upper minor leagues, combined with a chance to get Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels, it was Williams that was included in a blockbuster trade last summer.
Williams has spent the entire 2016 season with Lehigh Valley and he has put up respectable numbers with the Iron Pigs. In 75 games (through July 6), the 22-year-old has a .289/.326/.463 slash with 20 doubles and eight homers. He is currently in the midst of an eight-game hitting streak and has a hit in 19 of his last 20, as well as 26 of the last 29.
In its publication posted on July 7, Baseball Prospectus has Williams as the No. 23 overall prospect in the mid-season rankings. Quite simply, with the Phillies sliding out of the picture in the National League playoff chase, Williams is likely to get a shot at the major leagues soon.
I had a chance recently (ok it was a month ago, and I finally had time to transcribe it) to speak with Williams about the 2013 squad and what he remembers about that group. I also asked him about the trade to the Phillies, as well as looking forward to making that final jump to his dream of being a big leaguer.
First of all, you were a part of that killer 2013 team that had Gallo and Brinson and Mazara and (Jorge) Alfaro and just a ton of talent. What was being a part of that team like that season?
Williams: It was amazing, especially being drafted with those guys, playing with them at rookie ball and winning it all, and then going to Hickory the following year and playing our first full season there. It was a lot of fun, especially the young guys hitting all those home runs. It made pro ball seem like, wow!
Did you guys at that time realize, I don’t want to say, how good you were, but how good the potential was with all of those individual parts that made up that team?
Williams: Yeah, for sure, because really you’re on this team, I would fully believe it by at least five years. A group of young guys to put up numbers, the crazy sets that we did, we knew something special was going to happen.
What was the best part of that season for you personally?
Williams: Playing in the game. I missed a lot. I missed 45 games that year. When we were all healthy, that was the funnest part, because we all had fun. You’d never see us down. We just had fun and picked each other up. We just had a good team bond.
Did you guys just sit back and watch each other, especially with Gallo who can hit things to the moon?
Williams: For sure. We made it a competition sometimes just to see who could hit the ball the farthest at that time of day. It was fun. The best part was not just B.P., but showing off the long ball during the game. That was just great, just not being a five o’clock hitter, but doing it during the game. It was fun.
For all the hitting you guys did, you guys could throw some arms out there as well with C.J. (Edwards), (Connor) Sadzeck, who won the ERA title that year, (Alex) Claudio, who’s gone on to the major leagues. Did you guys push your pitchers as much as you pushed each other as the hitters?
Williams: When I think of hitters and position players, we normally don’t, I don’t want to say we don’t get along, but it’s a different group. C.J., we hung out with little C.J. a lot. C.J. was one of us. He was a position player in my eyes. We’d push each other because everybody wanted to be the best at what they did. C.J. would see us hitting and he’d be like, “They have a chance to move up, why can’t I?” I tell myself that pitching and hitting is different, but when you think of stats, if his ERA is 2 and I’m hitting .330, it all comes around. I would think so, that we push each other because we all wanted to be the best at what we do.
Were you guys disappointed at not making the playoffs that year?
Williams: Yeah, we were.
People look back at that team and ask, “How did they miss the playoffs? You had a chance that last game of the first half and things fell apart. Was there disappointment for you guys?
Williams: It was, but we were a young team and we didn’t really know what to expect. It was hard in some situations. I don’t want to say that we were outsmarted, but it was something anyway and it was a long season. None of us were used to that.
Along with the home runs that season were the strikeouts, and that’s the other thing that team will be remembered for. Looking ahead, you guys seemed to have learned from that. Gallo’s cut his strikeout rate, Brinson has cut his, you’ve cut yours. What did you figure out from that experience?
Williams: Not to swing as much. We swung. There were times that I wondered why a pitcher even threw us a strike, because we were up there taking monster hacks. It was just barreling up things all the time. I just sat there and thought, when I saw that I’d only walked 12 times that year, I said, “Why did they throw to us?” It’s funny to laugh at that, but at the higher levels, pitchers, they look at that – and, I learned that in high-A in a hurry – they’ll see that and notice that, so I had to make adjustments. I struggled in my first month-and-a-half, two months there in high-A and I had to force myself to just sit back and learn the game.
What was it like to be with (hitting coach) Justin Mashore? What did you guys learn from him that year?
Williams: Ah, Mashore. I always said that him and Coolie (Scott Coolbaugh) were the two best hitting coaches I’ve ever had. He knows his stuff.
What did you pick up from him that you are continuing now?
Williams: He couldn’t have said it enough, to use my hands. When all else fails keep your head down – use your hands. He kept it simple. He never got difficult. He never changed everybody up. He just did a minor like – try this or tweak that. It was just everything going good, so fast, where the slumps really didn’t last as long. The man knew his stuff.
I remember talking with him about you guys. He didn’t let you guys settle for just a single. You’d hit the ball hard, but he kind of saw in most of you guys the potential to hit the ball gap-to-gap and out of the ballpark. Is that fairly fair?
Williams: Oh, for sure, because there was times when some players would say, “Man, my average is .200 or .220.” A lot of players’ averages were low that year, but the home runs were up.
He could see that some were swinging for singles and he would be just like, “Swing”. Hitters are going to hit – all the tools were there. He just said, “Stay true to yourself. Don’t change yourself the way you are.” You just have to fix the overaggressive swinging and learn the counts and things like that – the simple things. In rookie ball, at 50 games you’re trying to know the player and who he is. You couldn’t really do too much there. It was our first full season and he just had to stress to stay the course. Don’t try to change anything, just learn.
Were you disappointed to be traded?
Williams: I was a little bit. I loved Dallas and I have a lot of family there. They got their big league outfielders and they got Desmond this year, after I was traded, so that’s cool.
Gallo – he’s my boy – he’s an infielder and they made him an outfielder and he went up there as an outfielder. So, I was like, you know what, I was thinking and stressing that, “Man, I might get traded before spring training.”
I was thinking, “Man, get me out of here. I’ll go anywhere where a team wants me.” I want to be able to compete, and now I have an equal chance. When I first got traded I was a little disappointed, because I live in Texas and I’ve been there my whole life. But my new scenery did not affect me at all.
Has there been any change in what you do or have the Phillies just let you be who you are with maybe a minor tweak here and there?
Williams: Yeah, I just stayed consistent. That’s the whole thing right now. Just stay consistent as possible right now. Everyone, no matter how good they are in the big leagues or anywhere, they all have to work at something, at everything. Everything needs a tweak, so I really just worked on all my craft, like base running, cutting balls off down the line, or anything. I just work on something every day just to stay moving and stay ready.
Are you at the point where you can taste the major leagues at this point?
Williams: You know, I talked to somebody else about that. I just said, “Some days I feel like, man, I could go up tomorrow.” And then some days I feel like, “I’m gonna be here all year, and maybe all next year.”
Is it superstitious right now to talk about it?
Williams: No, I don’t believe in superstition or good luck, or anything like that. I feel like everything happens for a reason. That’s out of my control, but I do my best to play hard and plead my case that I know I can compete there when I do get called up.
When you get the call, what do you think that’s like for you?
Williams: You know, I’ve thought about that and I can’t even explain it. I wouldn’t even know. To get the call, to know you’re playing at the highest level you could ever play at, that’s just a dream come true and a blessing. I don’t know if I’ll be called up soon or a year from now. No matter what, I’m going to play hard and plead my case.
You guys have a nice little infusion of Rangers between you and Alfaro at (AA) Reading and (Jerad) Eickhoff is dealing up at Philly and (Jake) Thompson and (Odubel) Herrera. You guys have got to feel like you got some decent training at the lower levels to get to this point.
Williams: Yeah, for sure
I mean that the Phillies are wanting Rangers players in a lot of ways.
Williams: The Phillies – I can’t stress it enough – want you to be a complete player. I mean we work. Some teams will cheat you a little bit out of your career, but here they get their money’s worth. They’ll get you better. I like it. They stay on me. You see all the players around you working hard and things like that and it pushes you and it makes you think, “Why am I this way?” We’re all grinding. Alfaro, he’s killing AA.
I know it all depends on spots and when they come open and the whole business side. Us from the Rangers, they have a good group, because we play to win and we’d do anything.
Of the guys that you were with in Hickory, who do you keep in contact the most?
Williams: I lived with Alfaro mostly when we are together. If I would say, who do I keep in touch with the Rangers still the most, I talk to (Lewis) Brinson here and there, (Ryan) Rua, Gallo and (Nomar) Mazara. I still talk to those guys.
(This is the first in what I plan to be an occasional series of interviews with former Hickory Crawdads players and field staff as they continue their careers in baseball.)