After service change, Song heads into unknown

Righty who hasn't pitched since '19 due to Navy duty will try to make Phils as Rule 5 Draft pick

February 23rd, 2023

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Even wonders how much magic he has left in his right arm.

He arrived Thursday morning to Phillies camp as the longest of long shots to make the Opening Day roster. But what a story it will be if he does.

The Phillies selected Song from the Red Sox in the Rule 5 Draft in December, knowing he had an indefinite commitment with the United States Navy. He had been stationed with the Fleet Replacement Squadron in Jacksonville, Fla., where he trained on a P-8 Poseidon aircraft as a naval flight officer. Song has not pitched competitively since 2019, when he had a 1.06 ERA in 17 innings with Class A Short-Season Lowell. But people believed then that he could be a top-of-the-rotation starter, including Philadelphia president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who was with Boston at the time.

The Phillies want to see if Song can still be that guy.

He is curious, too.

“As every year passed, a Major League experience probably got further and further from reality,” Song said. “I’m trying to manage expectations. I don’t really necessarily know what my future or ceiling might be. [I'm] just trying to figure out what the new one is.”

Song, 25, requested 10 months ago to have his service transferred from active duty to selective reserves. If the Navy had denied it, he would be in Japan. Now, instead of six more years of active duty, he has 12 years of reserve time, which means one weekend of service a month plus two weeks a year.

Song keeps his rank while he is in the reserves. So if he steps on the mound for the Phillies this spring, he will be pitching as Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG) Noah Song.

“Coming back to baseball is something I had always hoped,” he said. “I would say [leaving the Navy] is similar to the feeling that I had when I stopped playing baseball. It’s something that you train a lot for, you play a lot, and then all of a sudden you transition into a new phase of life. … The most important thing is just recognizing that I really enjoyed both. When I first started this whole thing, I always said there are two plan A’s that I had. And I feel like when I got my wings, I was able to accomplish one of those. Now that I’m here, I feel really blessed and really lucky that I haven’t had to do anything I don’t want to do yet.”

Because Song had his service transferred this offseason, he does not need to be placed on the Phillies’ 40-man roster until Opening Day. But because Song is a Rule 5 Draft pick, he must be placed on the Opening Day roster to remain in the organization. If he makes the Phils, he would be the No. 8 man in the bullpen.

If Song does not make the team, he can be traded or placed on waivers. If he clears waivers, Boston can take him back and send him to the Minor Leagues.

The Red Sox almost certainly would take him back. They were stunned the Phillies took him in the first place.

To be clear: Song faces long odds. He has played catch only sporadically over the past three years. He threw a bullpen session last week. It was the only time he has thrown off a mound since he pitched with Lowell.

“It felt rough,” Song said. “It felt like I was trying to walk again. … But at the same time, I try to remember that I played baseball for a long time before the [Navy].”

And when he pitched, he was really, really good.

That’s why the Phillies want to take a look. Dombrowski said he could see Song pitching in a Grapefruit League game, although he spoke a few times about making sure Song does not injure himself as he starts to throw again.

“We don’t want him to get hurt,” Dombrowski said. “Let’s see where he is and how he moves forward. He hasn't been off the mound for an extended period. So he’s in a position where he needs to get himself in shape. And so we’ll wait and see what takes place. Because nobody -- I don’t think anybody -- wants to see this kid get hurt.

“We knew when we drafted him it’s a long shot. The reality is, it’s a gamble, right? That’s really what it is. I don’t know if he’s going to throw 85 or 95. But we feel it’s worth the gamble. We feel it was worth the risk. Will he able to do it? We’ll see.”