Thursday, May 5, 2011

Back to the future with Tim Naehring

X Mark here. Because I am depressed about the Celtics and the analysis on the last two games boils down to “they all played like the team from Teen Wolf before Michael J. Fox turns into the wolf with Glenn Davis starring as Chubby”, I am going to fall back on one of my running post ideas, Back to the future. Since the first post looked at my favorite player as a kid, X Sister asked that I take a look at her favorite childhood player next. So let’s join Mr. Peabody and Sherman in the WABAC machine and re-visit the career of Tim Naehring

Tim Naehring, a Cincinnati native, was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 8th round of the 1988 draft out of Miami University (no, not the U). Naehring was immediately assigned to the organization’s New York Penn League club, where as an experienced college player, he expectedly beat up the competition and earned a promotion to the High A Florida State League team in Winter Haven. In 42 games in Winter Haven, he really struggled with the bat but showed good plate discipline, which would later profile as his top skill with the bat. The next year, at 22 years old, he opened the season back a level in the Carolina League. Still old for his league, he posted a solid for a short stop On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) of .768, which earned an aggressive promotion all the way to AAA Pawtuckett (basically the same path Phil Plantier would follow a year later). There he saw a slight regression in his numbers, but as an aggressively promoted 22 year old short stop, he certainly held his own.

In 1990, Naehring opened the year as Pawtuckett’s starting short stop (he would also begin playing 3B and 2B some this year) and all of a sudden discovered a power stroke. After hitting just 8 home runs in 196 previous minor league games, he blasted 15 HR (and 16 doubles) in only 82 games. Due to his new found power (and poor performance by incumbent short stop Luis Rivera), the Red Sox called Naehring up to the big leagues that July and on July 15th made his debut as a defensive replacement at second. He wouldn’t have to wait long before he got his first start. The next day, Naehring realized his lifelong dream, starting at short and batting 9th against the Minnesota Twins. He went 0 for 4 with 3 strikeouts.

For the next month, Naehring played in just about every game (mostly at SS) and hit pretty well, posting a triple slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .271/.333/.412. Unfortunately for the promising young short stop (who was being compared to Cal Ripken Jr. at the time), his season came to an end on August 13 when he suffered a back injury, which would prove prophetic to the rest of his career. The Red Sox would make the playoffs for the 3rd time in 5 seasons that year, but the rookie would have to watch from the sidelines (they fell to the mighty Oakland A's in a 4 game sweep). In the offseason, the Red Sox discovered that Naehring’s legs were different lengths and were the cause of the back issues.

Entering the 1991 season, the Red Sox had plenty of reasons to be excited about their offense. At 3 of the 4 infield positions, they featured an above average hitter (Carlos Quinatana, Jody Reed, Naehring), none of whom were older than 28, and future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs still in his prime even at 33 years old. If that wasn’t enough, if any of the players faltered they had prospects Mo Vaughn and Scott Cooper banging on the door. The outfield had franchise cornerstones Mike Greenwell and Ellis Burks and would later feature uber-prospect Phil Plantier. They even had former NL All Star Jack Clark at DH extending his outstanding (and underrated) career. The pitching looked to be somewhat of a weaker spot, but they were still anchored by 2 time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens (who would win his third that year). But alas, it was not meant to be. Injuries and underperformance from the outfield took their toll on the team and they finished second in the AL East that year to the up and coming Blue Jays and only 7th in the league in runs scored. Naehring, who made the team out of Spring Training as the starting short stop, accounted for one of the walking wounded as his season ended on May 17th with the back problems calling for surgery. His .109/.197/.127 performance that year indicates that he probably struggled with the issue all spring.

In 1992, Naehring again opened the season as the starting short stop, but this time would be put into a time share with Rivera. In sporadic playing time (he never started more than 2 games in a row), Naehring really struggled. On July 24th with a .191 average and just 2 HR, Naehring was sent back to Pawtuckett to straighten himself out. After dominating minor league pitching for 11 games, Naehring returned to the big leagues on September 5th and went 18 for 50 the rest of the season (.360 average) with 9 walks (.458 OBP). Looking to rebound off a strong finish, Naehring underwent shoulder surgery the following spring.

By the time 1993 rolled around, Naehring had been leapfrogged on the young short stop hierarchy by fellow 26 year old John Valentin, who opened the year as the Sox starting short stop. 1993 also marked the first year since 1982 that a mustachioed red head would not be manning third base, as Wade Boggs had signed with the hated Yankees in the offseason. Unfortunately for Naehring, Scott Cooper had already established himself as the Red Sox third baseman of the future, earning the first of two (yes that’s correct two) All Star births that year. So poor Timmy, after he recovered from surgery, was left to toil in Pawtuckett and make AAA pitchers question their career choice (.307/.408/.465). Finally, on August 11th, the Red Sox gave AAA pitchers a respite and called him back up to the big leagues in a super utility roll filling in at 3B, 2B, SS and DH. A slow August was followed by a torrid September/October and Naehring finished his brief callup with a .331 average.

1994 saw a (mostly) healthy Naehring stay on the roster for the full year in a utility infielder role (even adding 1B to the mix) and he responded with slightly below average performance before the strike struck. Then, on April 9th 1995, the Sox traded All Star Scott Cooper to the Cardinals for “Hitten” Mark Whitten and suddenly third base was all Naehring’s. He would reward the team with his best year at the plate, being  among the league leaders in average for the first half of the season. On June 3, he topped out at a .375 average (also on this day, Expos pitcher Pedro Martinez pitched 9 perfect innings only to surrender a leadoff double in the top of the 10th). He would finish the season with an .863 OPS and, along with strong pitching and performances by MVP Mo Vaughn, AL Wins Above Replacement (WAR) leader John Valentin, and Re-Juicinated Jose Canseco, helped lead the Red Sox back to the playoffs.

The following season was another strong one for Naehring despite short trips to the DL in April and September, but with the pitching regressing and Valentin not doing his Cal Ripken impression again, the Sox dropped back to 3rd in the division. 1997 saw him get off to a great start (as late as May 31 he had a .900+ OPS) but his season ended prematurely with an elbow injury on June 23rd, a game he would go 3 for 5 with 1 HR. The following month, he underwent surgery to repair the elbow. Tim Naehring would never again play Major League Baseball.

Naehring had another surgery to remove scar tissue the following spring, but could not resume playing baseball that year. At just 31 years old, his career as a player was over. Fortunately for Naehring, his career in baseball was not. In 1999 he joined the Cincinnati Reds front office where he held various jobs for 8 years. I got the chance to meet Tim, who was a great friend of my boss Jeff Maultsby, and have a few beers with him, listen to some stories and let him know that my little sister had a crush on him. I was also fortunate enough to get one of his old Reds field jerseys to give X Sister as a souvenier. In September 2007, shortly after I left the organization, Naehring was let go from his position as field coordinator apparently due to the organization’s failure to produce home grown pitchers (of course at the time of his firing Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Travis Wood, Logan Ondrusek and Carlos Fisher were all in the organization and are now in the big leagues). Almost immediately after he latched on with the Yankees and became my mortal enemy (just kidding). 

For 8 seasons, Tim Naehring offered great promise and strong results but was ultimately not able to maintain a healthy body. He made Sox fans cheer and ladies swoon, but it was just never meant to be. A quiet but funny guy who gives so much back to his community deserved a better shot to make good on those Cal Ripken comparisons. X Sister thanks you for the memories.

Numbers and game records are thanks to and All injury related links are thanks to a blog called The Greatest 21 Days.

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