Nix appears all but set at second
Rookie moves closer to starting nod as Giles jettisoned
TUCSON, Ariz. -- On Sunday afternoon, Rockies manager Clint Hurdle got to see the defensive wizardry that he's been hearing about from second baseman Jayson Nix.
By the end of the day, the club had removed the biggest obstacle between him and the starting job.
After an 8-2 victory over the Dodgers, the club informed Marcus Giles -- a veteran hoping to revive his career after two rough offensive seasons -- he will not make the club. No official move was announced, and the Rockies will attempt a trade.
Nix, the club's top pick (44th overall) in 2001, said he has not been told he's won the starting job, and Hurdle also said he isn't announcing such a decision. But Jeff Baker and Clint Barmes, the other two competitors most likely to make the team, have been playing multiple positions. Omar Quintanilla, who seems the odd man out because he has a Minor League option, has played more shortstop than second.
After a slow offensive start, Nix has lifted his batting average to .286. He went 1-for-3 with a double Sunday. He also made his best fielding play of the spring, ranging to his left to field a hard-hit ball by Gary Bennett to prevent a run in the sixth inning.
Rockies Minor League personnel have raved about Nix's defense throughout his career. Sunday, he backed all the glowing scouting reports.
"That's just me," Nix said. "I never try to force something like that."
Hurdle noted, "That play to his left is as much range as you'll see a second baseman have."
That's an important point. Nix is replacing Kazuo Matsui, who not only hit .288 from the Nos. 1 and 2 spots in the lineup but displayed uncanny range to his left. Matsui signed a three-year, $16.5 million contract with the Astros during the offseason, turning down a two-year offer from the Rockies.
Even though Matsui made just four errors all season and was a key reason the Rockies set a record for single-season fielding percentage, some with the club felt Nix could be an upgrade. Matsui missed time with a back injury early in the season, and the feeling was he was not as willing to stretch and dive.
Nix, however, has back issues of his own. He missed three games last week after the middle of his back stiffened before a game. But he has shown any limitations in two games since returning.
Offensive issues slowed Nix's progress through the Minors. He hit .213 in 2004 and .236 in 2006, both years at Double-A Tulsa, and in 2006 he hit .251 at Triple-A Colorado Springs.
But his swing came together the second half of last season at Colorado Springs, and he finished at .292. Strong work with Team USA after the season, in the Arizona Fall League and the World Cup (he was tournament most valuable player as the U.S. took the gold) convinced the Rockies to give him his big shot.
Nix was hitless in his first eight at-bats of Spring Training, but has been hot since. Among his eight hits in Cactus League play, three have been home runs and one was Sunday's double.
Driving balls and making defensive plays can go hand-in-hand, Nix said.
"I take a lot of pride in my defense and separating the two," said Nix, who has a .459 on-base percentage and .643 slugging percentage. "Obviously it helps when you start getting some hits."
Giles, who went 1-for-2 with a double in a reserve role Sunday, leaves the Rockies with a .321 batting average and .457 on-base percentage.
After hitting .316, .311 and .291 with the Braves from 2003 through 2005, Giles fell to .262 in 2006 before signing with the Padres as a free agent. But Giles plummeted to .229 and lost his job last season, and found few offers this winter. He signed a Minor League deal with the Rockies in hopes of re-establishing his value.
Giles said he will not go to Triple-A Colorado Springs, but he emphasized that he thanked the Rockies for the chance to either make their club or impress other teams.
"I feel like I'm stronger than I ever have been in my life, my swing shortened up, I'm swinging at better pitches and I'm starting to drive the ball the other way," Giles said. "That is my strength."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.