Thursday, June 12, 2014

Random Ex-Brave: Melvin Nieves

I think one of the most interesting things the Random Brave Generator 5000 does is give me guys whose career in Atlanta wasn't very long at all. Such is the case with Melvin Nieves, who played in just a dozen games with the Braves before being traded. While Nieves would get opportunities to play in other organizations at the major league level, he never stuck around anywhere for long and his major league career was a disappointment. Still, the chances of getting a guy who only played 12 games with the Braves as my random ex-Brave? Gotta like that.

Nieves was born just after Christmas in 1971 in Puerto Rico and less than 17 years later, the Braves signed Nieves in May of 1988. As an athlete, Nieves was a guy teams drooled over. He had a 6'2" frame that he was still growing into and had the ability to switch-hit. If his bat ever matched his athletic ability, he would be a star.

While the 16 year-old kid struggled against high school graduates and college players in his first taste of action in the Gulf Coast League after singing, in his second season during 1989, Nieves put the minor leagues on notice by slugging .489 in the Appalachian League against pitchers who were 2-to-3 years older than he was. Pretty tremendous work, but the Braves were willing to wait on Nieves and brought him along slowly. He climbed the ladder to play for Sumter, who at the time represented the Braves in the South Atlantic League. Just 18 years-old, Nieves OPS fell to .787, but considering his age, he was still a prime prospect. As the Braves went from last-to-first in 1991, Nieves missed half of the season due to injuries, but still OPS'd .849.

His breakout campaign came in 1992. He began the year with Durham, a return trip to the Carolina League after his injured-shorten 1991 season, and dominated the league for just over a month, OPSing north of 1.000 with eight homers. With nothing more to prove, the Braves promoted him to Greenville and despite being just 20 years-old, Nieves obliterated the Southern League. In 100 games, Nieves slashed .283/.381/.531 with 18 long-balls, giving him 26 for the season. It was a major step forward after 28 homers entering season. He was rewarded with a dozen games in Atlanta to finish the season where he went 4-for-17 while beating Pedro Martinez by two months for the youngest player in the National League and Ivan Rodriguez by a month for the youngest player in the majors. Too bad his career wasn't half as good as their careers, though.

Baseball America rewarded Nieves by naming him the 39th best prospect in baseball entering 1993 and Nieves headed to Richmond to play with a dream squad of minor league talent that included Javy Lopez, Ryan Klesko, and Chipper Jones. Nieves OPS'd .789 in 78 games with the International League juggernaut, but by mid-July, the big league club was slumping and needed a shot in the arm. They trailed the Giants by nine games and the first base platoon of Sid Bream and Brian Hunter was no longer getting the job done. The Padres were in fire sale mode with the third worst record in baseball. Dropping Fred McGriff's $4M salary would help tremendously and the Braves were all too willing to assist in their cost-cutting measures, sending a trio of top prospects, including Nieves, to the Padres. However, none of the three were the creme of the crop, or the Richmond trio of Lopez, Klesko, and Jones. The deal would ultimately work out extremely well for the Braves, who caught the Giants to win the division in the last great divisional race. The Padres, on the other hand, traded away McGriff for peanuts in retrospect.

Nieves posted a .901 OPS down the stretch for Las Vegas before a callup to San Diego to end the season. His bat didn't come with him after the promotion, though. Still, the Padres, and baseball in general, were still high on Nieves and he entered the 1994 season as one of the top two-or-three prospects in the system. He again destroyed the Pacific Coast League, OPSing .967 and, again, he ended the year with the Padres. This cup of coffee went much better and the 22 year-old slugged .474 in just over 20 PA. Expected to start in left for San Diego in 1995, Nieves showed his power by blasting 14 homers, but he only hit .205.

1996 was expected to be a fresh start for Nieves, but he failed to make the Padres team in spring training and the Padres traded the young outfielder to the Tigers as part of a six-player exchange. Nieves went on to make the deal look like a steal for Detroit, posting his best season while slashing .246/.322/.485 with 24 home-runs. His future again looked bright and Nieves, who was still only 24 years-old, had a good chance to become the slugging outfielder the Braves and Padres anticipated him being.

While it would be a stretch to call 1997 a disappointment for Nieves, it certainly didn't build upon his success of the previous season. He smacked 20 homers, but his OPS fell to .762. He simply put fewer balls in play and the let-down season made the Tigers more willing to avoid going to arbitration with Nieves. Just weeks after the World Series, the Tigers sent Nieves to the Reds, where Nieves would OPS just .717 in an injury-shorten 1998 season. After being non-tendered by the Reds following the season, the Twins grabbed the outfielder and brought him to camp, but he failed to make the roster and was sold overseas to the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. In two seasons in Japan, Nieves re-established some value with a .862 OPS, but he still didn't make a lot of contact and struck out a ton.

Nieves would come back from Japan in 2001 and failed in efforts to stick around in the organizations of the Rockies and Nationals, not to mention a brief return to Detroit. He spent most of his remaining career in the Mexican League, continuing to show glimpses of the power that had teams dreaming of what he could do in the majors. After a six-game run in 2008, his career came to a close.

He played nearly 20 years of professional ball, but the biggest moment of his career was when he was traded for the "Crime Dog." Of the three prospects sent to the Padres for McGriff, Nieves easily had the best career and he only spent 458 games in the majors.

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