Kevin Frandsen’s whirlwind spring training couldn’t have turned out any better.
The former Giants infielder entered into spring competing for a roster spot with the Philadelphia Phillies, but was cut five days prior to opening day. Frandsen opted for free agency after declining a minor league assignment, and a day later, on March 26, he signed with the Washington Nationals.
The 32-year-old journeyman quickly figured into the big-league plans of the National League East contender.
“It’s a very talented team, first and foremost,” Frandsen said of his current squad. “That’s what people see. But what I don’t think people see too often is it’s one of the most fun teams you can be around. They always say that winning breeds fun. But I think the fun that we’ve had has created our winning atmosphere.”
Frandsen is relishing the winning atmosphere. Since breaking into the big leagues with San Francisco in 2006, he has played for just one team to finish above the .500 mark — the 2009 Giants, who won 88 games while taking third place in the NL West. Entering play Friday with the NL’s best record, the Nationals are on the verge of bettering that in a big way.
And as the Giants begin a three-game series Friday in Washington, Frandsen — a San Jose native who grew up a Giants fan — anticipates the opportunity to match up with his former club.
“It’s always fun playing the Giants for me,” Frandsen said. “Let alone is it your childhood team growing up, but they were the first team to ever give me a chance to play in the big leagues. And you’re forever grateful. You wish it would have ended up the right way, but there is not a day that goes by for me that I’m not grateful for my opportunity with them.”
The “right way” would have been Frandsen playing a role on the 2010 World Championship Giants team. He started the year in camp competing with Emmanuel Burriss for a utility infield job. Much like this year, however, Frandsen was let go just days prior to opening day when the Giants traded him to the Red Sox for cash.
The Giants, of course, went on to win the World Series. For Frandsen, the World Championship was a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, he wasn’t a part of it. However, he did watch many of the players with whom he came up through the minor leagues — including some of his best friends — enjoy the historic celebration as the first ever World Championship baseball team in San Francisco.
“It was bittersweet, because I knew I spilled a lot of my passion for that organization knowing that I wanted to win,” Frandsen said. “I wanted to be part of that first team that ever won there. It’s an unfortunate situation that it didn’t work out. They didn’t see me as a fit. But I’ve landed on my feet a couple times in some really great organizations.”
While it took some years and five organizations for Frandsen to catch on with a contender, his minor league career began amid the first in a long line of San Jose’s powerhouse seasons, including a California League championship in Frandsen’s first full pro season of 2005. Under manager Lenn Sakata, the minor-league Giants enjoyed four straight winning seasons. A former utility infielder himself, Sakata identified the old-school cut of Frandsen’s jib nearly immediately.
“The most impressive part of his game — his attitude about the game and his competitive desire to succeed,” Sakata said. “That’s probably the intangible, the separator that made him a major league player, because he wasn’t an overly talented guy. What he did bring every day was the will to win, a strong desire to improve and a lot of moxie. The kid had a lot of savvy when it came to trying to defeat the other team”
Before being promoted from the California League midseason, Frandsen hit .351 while cutting his teeth at two different infield positions. While there, he played with many future big leaguers, including Nate Schierholtz. At San Jose, Sakata went on to coach Tim Lincecum in 2006, and Pablo Sandoval and Sergio Romo in 2007. According to Frandsen, Sakata was pivotal in developing the players not just as future major leaguers but as winning baseball players.
“[Sakata] is one of the best baseball people you will ever be around,” Frandsen said. “It’s hard to find too many more passionate people about the game, and one that truly believed in the development of a player, but developing a winning player. Everybody talks about player development … but no one really talks about player development on a winning side … and [Sakata] was all about that.”
It should come as no surprise the Nationals, prior to the season, started reaping the harvest of former Giants players. Washington hired former Giants great Matt Williams as manager last October. The Nationals went on to sign Burriss, a Washington D.C. native, to a minor league contract in December. And most recently, the Nationals this week inked Schierholtz to a minor league contract.
After being released by Cubs Aug. 13, Schierholtz received the offer from Washington. Before signing Monday, Schierholtz made a telephone call to Frandsen to talk about the current direction of the Nationals.
“That’s my best friend in baseball and ever since ’05 we’ve been as tight as can be,” Frandsen said. “We discussed a lot of things … and how unbelievable the organization is from top to bottom.”
The Nats have been playing unbelievably well as of late, especially considering they are without one of their biggest offensive stars in Ryan Zimmerman, who hit the disabled list July 22 with a hamstring strain. In that time, Washington has gone from moving into sole possession of first place on July 21 to extending a seven-game lead in the NL East.
And with the Giants in Washington this weekend in a possible NL playoff preview, Frandsen will certainly touch base with his former baseball family — first-and-foremost, Dave Righetti. A San Jose native himself, Righetti will forever be linked with Frandsen in Giants history as the longtime pitching coach gave up his famed No. 19 when Frandsen made his major league debut in 2006. The number holds significant meaning, as it was the number worn by Frandsen’s brother throughout his youth. Frandsen’s brother D.J. passed away in 2005.
“When [the Giants] come to town, it’s a special moment,” Frandsen said. “I get to see Rags. Dave being so close to my family and him being able to see me wearing 19 again is always a good thing. It’s always special, because how bitter I was at the beginning when [when the Giants traded me]. It went away awhile ago with how respectful and how great they’ve been as an organization to me still, and my family.”