FORT MYERS, Fla. — Daniel Nava didn’t hesitate to answer affirmatively when Red Sox manager John Farrell called over the winter and asked if he would be willing to learn how to play first base during spring training.
It was only five years ago that the Red Sox purchased Nava, an outfielder, from an independent league team and gave him a chance that resulted in his spending parts of two seasons in the majors.
Nava was cut from his college team and ended up washing uniforms as the manager. For him, picking up a new position was just another challenge to meet.
“I said that was fine with me if that was what they wanted,” Nava said. “I understand the roster and I want to do whatever is going to help. But I also know that is going to help me, too.”
Nava, who turned 30 in February, is well past the point of being considered a prospect. His best hope at an extended stay in the majors is to show enough versatility to be worth a roster spot.
“I think anybody who is in that position to make a team will do whatever they can. It’s not just me,” Nava said. “But maybe it is a little easier for me because I’ve been in this position before. I’ve had to prove I belong.”
Nava started at first base against the Minnesota Twins on Friday night. It was the fourth game Nava has played at first base and it could become a regular thing, even in the regular season.
Given that his previous experience at first base consisted of a handful of games in junior college, Nava has looked comfortable there.
“He’s made the transition incorporating the position pretty seamlessly,” Farrell said. “His hands and feet work fluidly [and] the timing of it is good. He’s been able to shorten up his arm stroke on the front end of a double play, that type of throw. It’s been very encouraging.”
Mike Napoli will be the starting first baseman for the Sox with Jonny Gomes in left field. The Sox, ideally, would like a player on their bench who can back up both spots and provide offense from the left side.
Nava, a switch-hitter with better statistics from the left side, could fill that role. Mike Carp and Lyle Overbay are candidates, too.
It’s a potentially important job. Gomes has not hit righthanded pitchers well during his career and could be replaced in the lineup on occasion. Napoli is playing with a degenerative hip condition that could lead to his getting extra days off.
“That’s a fluid situation right now,” Farrell said. “Is one strictly a first baseman that’s got the ability to go there for obvious reasons or is it a secondary position for one or two other guys on the bench? That’s one of the main decisions we have in camp.”
Third base coach Brian Butterfield, the team’s infield instructor, is working with Nava at first base. Nava compares the situation to having a favorite teacher in school who made learning a particular subject fun.
“[Butterfield] is awesome. He’s so passionate about not just teaching it, but wanting you to get better,” Nava said. “When he gets going, you want to laugh and join in and you want to have fun, too. He makes you think you’re going to get it. He creates a positive atmosphere.
“There are a lot of things I’m still trying to pick up on. Just little things, but little things can make all the difference.”
Butterfield, who regularly gets to the park before 4:30 a.m., runs regular tutorials for Napoli, Nava, Overbay, Carp, and the other first basemen in camp. The Red Sox, he said, will have a backup they can count on.
“It’s a matter of work and they’re putting in the work,” Butterfield said.
Nava, who has played primarily left field with the Sox, also is working in right field. He played both corner outfield spots in the minors but the Sox have been wary about exposing him to Fenway Park’s vast right field.
Nava’s marked improvement defensively last season has changed that thinking and he’ll get a chance to prove he can handle it.
“At Fenway it’s different, there’s so much space,” Nava said. “I’ll take as much time out there as I can get.
“You need to understand where you have to play. Left field has only a certain amount of distance and right field is a big area. You worry about being too shallow.”
Nava has hit .243 in 148 career games for the Red Sox with a solid .352 on-base percentage.
He has hit .306 in the minors since he joined the organization in 2008.
Nava does have minor league options, so he could start the season in Triple A Pawtucket.
For now, it’s an open competition for the spot.
Farrell appreciates that Nava has so “wholeheartedly embraced” trying a new position.
“Maybe he appreciates the game more because of the path he has come through. He also knows, too, that the versatility is only going to help him out in his career in the long run,” Farrell said.
Said Nava: “I know it’s good for me. But it’s about us. It’s about getting us as a team on the right track.
“After everything that has happened the last few years, how else can you look at it?”