The Dodgers have signed speedy outfielder Rico Noel to a minor league contract and should the Dodgers decide to reopen speed camp in 2016, he just might be the perfect pupil.
It isn't yet known whether Noel's deal includes a non-roster invitation to spring training.
Noel missed the first month of 2015 on the disabled list and hit just .181/.302/.207 in 67 games between Double-A and Triple-A. He was released by the Padres in June, and signed to a minor league contract by the Yankees in July.
Noel, who turns 27 on January 11, stole 23 bases in 28 attempts in the minors last year and was called up to the Yankees in September. In limited duty, he was 1-for-2, appearing in 15 games though never starting. He stole five bases in seven attempts and scored five runs, and made the Yankees' roster for the American League Wild Card Game against the Astros though he did not play in the game.
In parts of six minor league seasons, Noel has 283 steals in 611 games, and has stolen them at a 82.3-percent clip. He stole 90 bases for Class-A Lake Elsinore in the Padres system in 2012. In 164 games in Triple-A, Noel has 51 steals in 61 attempts (83.6 percent).
In the San Diego system, Noel worked with then Padres coach and current Dodgers manager Dave Roberts in each of the last four springs in Peoria, and Noel considers Roberts a mentor.
"Obviously, when you're getting into September and the postseason, every base is important," Roberts told Billy Witz of the New York Times in September. "When you get a dynamic player like Rico or [Royals outfielder Terrance] Gore, it just changes the dynamic of an inning, sometimes without even stealing a base."
Roberts was 27 when he made his major league debut in 1999, a half-year older than Noel was at the time of his debut, and Roberts didn't play regularly in the majors until age 30.
"His biggest thing is that he was tough," Noel said of Roberts, to Wiltz. "I'm sure he sees a lot of himself in me, that I've got a positive mind-set every day and that regardless of the situation I've been put in, I believe I can battle out of it and become a success, no matter what's going on."
The Dodgers tried to develop designated pinch runners last season, with Robbie Garvey, Kyle Hudson and 2015 draftee Edwin Drexler all playing the role at various minor league levels, though the "speed camp" fizzled Hudson and Garvey were released in August and Drexler ended up on the disabled list. Jose Peraza, acquired from Atlanta on July 30, might have filled that role in the postseason but his hamstring strain never healed enough to put the plan in motion. Peraza was traded to Cincinnati on Aug. 16.
You might remember Noel as the batter who Will Ferrell faced while pitching for the Dodgers in spring training on March 12, 2015. Noel bunted back to the mound on the first pitch, as planned, and was thrown out at first base.
In his six minor league seasons, Noel has hit .254/.347/.314, including .248/.338/.300 in Triple-A. In 2015 Noel gave up switch-hitting and now bats exclusively right-handed.
He was rated the best defensive outfielder in the Padres system by Baseball America in 2010, 2011 and 2012. He seems like an ideal candidate to be a designated pinch runner should the Dodgers have the luxury of such a roster spot available.
Noel is currently playing for Tomateros de Culiacan in the Mexican Winter League, hitting .242/.284/.332 in 49 games.
Dodgers position players report to spring training at Camelback Ranch on Feb. 24, with the first full-squad workout on Feb. 25.