The Non-Roster Invitees Chronicles: American League Edition

Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe/Getty Images Xander Bogaerts

Heading to Florida or Arizona to catch some spring training games? Planning to catch the games on the tube while walking precariously and making chomping sounds?

You’ll need to know who you’re watching. Unlike in the regular season, when you become all too familiar with your favorite team’s designated cipher, recognizing players during spring training often takes a well-trained eye. There are the many players wearing 70-, 80- and 90-something who you won’t see on the big league roster for a few years, if ever. Then there are the “Is that who I think it is?” double-takes, the veterans who peaked years ago, only to show up in Mesa or Kissimmee or Peoria doggedly trying to fight their way back for one more shot at glory.

These are the NRIs, the non-roster invitees promised almost nothing — not a job, not a major league deal, nothing more than a chance to come to camp, overcome often astronomical odds, and somehow make the Opening Day roster. Today, we’ll review the AL NRIs, one player from each American League team who fits the mold of failed prospect, faded star, or just someone with a story to tell (NL later this week).

Lew Ford, Orioles: Of all the improbable happenings that propelled the 2012 Orioles to the playoffs, none were more implausible than platooning Nate McLouth and Lew Ford for a few weeks in left field … and getting away with it. McLouth was the better half of that brief time-share by a wide margin, hitting .268/.342/.435 and running the bases exceptionally well; Ford hit a buck-eighty-three and was pretty much the platonic ideal of a replacement-level player. Still, with enough playing time, everyone will run into a few big moments. What made Ford’s 71 at-bats particularly noteworthy was the long road back he had to take to get them: Four years and 303 days between major league appearances. A streak like that isn’t as uncommon as you might think, but it’s still pretty damn rare, if last season is any indication:

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

At age 36, with Nolan Reimold back and the Orioles jonesing for a return trip to the postseason, Ford’s a lousy bet to make the 25-man roster. But watch that video again, the one of his first major league home run in five years, the one where he’s got that huge grin on his face as his teammates line up for high fives and … you root for Lew Ford. You just do.

Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox: As the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo reminds us, 24 players have started for the Red Sox at shortstop since the team unloaded Nomar Garciaparra in a three-way deal at the 2004 trade deadline. The Sox paid up to land the talented but injury-prone Stephen Drew on a one-year deal, so he figures to be number 25. But the real gem is Bogaerts. Keith Law pegged the 20-year-old as the fifth-best prospect in baseball, writing that “a shortstop who can hit like this is a pretty special commodity.” The Sox will have many mouths to feed when it comes to playing time, between Drew, slick-fielding Jose Iglesias, Yankee killer Pedro Ciriaco, and maybe former first-round pick Deven Marrero. But Bogaerts will be the one to watch in Fort Myers, a potential star in the making, and a source of hope for the next great Red Sox team, whenever it arrives.

Jeff Clement, Twins/Daniel Moskos, White Sox: The third overall pick by the Mariners in 2005 and the fourth overall pick by the Pirates in ’07, Clement and Moskos have moved on to new organizations, hoping to land big league jobs for teams unburdened by the high expectations of the past. About the best-case scenario for both Clement and Moskos at this point would be to catch on for a few years as role players, outcomes which, combined with their draft position, would seem to imply that both were busts. But baseball’s amateur draft is very different from the NBA and NFL drafts, where top-10 players are much surer commodities, often stepping right into regular playing time a few months after shaking the commissioner’s hand. In the 30 drafts spanning 1979 through 2008 (thus excluding players who wouldn’t have had much time to put up numbers in the majors), only eight players drafted third overall managed double-digit Wins Above Replacement for their careers; 16 of those 30 managed one WAR or less. For the no. 4 pick, we get eight out of 30 with double-digit career WAR, 15 with one Win Above Replacement or less. So the next time people start freaking the hell out over a compensation pick in the high-20s, remind them of the long odds prospects face even near the top of the draft — much less having players picked later become stars, or even play well for a few years, or even just stick around long enough to be remembered.

Hideki Okajima, A’s: Who was the first major leaguer ever to wear a Phiten (or Phiten knockoff) necklace? This is not a trivial question. Whichever player holds this title instantly becomes the Patient Zero of gullibility, the master of combining terrible fashion sense with preposterous superstition. I have nothing against Okajima other than his choice of neckwear and won’t grant him any dubious titles he hasn’t earned, not without conclusive proof. Still, doesn’t it seem like he’s been rocking the braided-necklace-of-destiny longer than most anyone else?

Jamey Wright, Rays: Aiming to play for his 10th team in his 18th major league season, the 38-year-old Wright certainly qualifies as an interesting story. But what’s more relevant here is that he’s actually a useful pitcher, even at this late stage of his career. His command isn’t great, but Wright kills enough worms to make PETA’s most-wanted list, with more than two-thirds of the balls in play against him last year turning into ground balls — an absolutely gigantic number that placed him second in the league for ground ball rate last year for any pitcher with 60 or more innings pitched. Though just an NRI, he’s already the favorite to grab the final spot in the bullpen, where Joe Maddon will likely use him in the old Chad Bradford role, calling him into high-leverage situations where his grounder-inducing ways can produce a double play, helping the Rays escape a big jam. Wright won’t win any awards or fantasy leagues for anyone even in a perfect world. But it’s instructive to know that rosterable talent is available essentially for free, as long as you’re willing to look for it.

Nick Castellanos, Tigers: We mentioned Castellanos’s legitimate shot at a starting job at some point this season, with a passing reference to Jim Leyland’s history of trusting young players with big roles during pennant races. The extent of that trust jumps out at you when you take a closer look. Leyland handed 23-year-old Stan Belinda a share of the closer’s job during the Pirates’ NL East–winning 1990 season. Twenty-four-year-old rookie Orlando Merced seized the starting first-base job (and finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting) in ’91 after Opening Day starter Gary Redus proved to be washed up. Tim Wakefield turned 26 in the summer of ’92 while breaking in with the Pirates, but he was also a converted first baseman with only two-plus years as a full-time pitcher who ended up making 13 big starts for the Bucs’ third straight division-winning team. Twenty-year-old Edgar Renteria muscled his way into the starting shortstop job for the World Series–winning ’97 Marlins; 21-year-old Joel Zumaya was the fire-breathing setup man behind Todd Jones on the pennant-winning ’06 Tigers; and 21-year-old Avisail Garcia saw significant playoff action for last year’s American League champs. Likely Opening Day left fielder Andy Dirks is coming off a BABIP-inflated .322/.370/.487 season, and might very well get walloped by regression this year; if Castellanos progresses quickly and shows he can handle the defensive responsibilities of an everyday outfielder, this spring’s number 79 could be wearing something far more palatable on the back of his big league uni before too long.

Jeremy Bonderman, Mariners/Nate Robertson, Rangers: Speaking of those ’06 Tigers, two of the team’s four starters from that year’s World Series are now scrapping for the slightest chance of making their way back to the Show this spring. Bonderman in particular has had a wild journey to get to this point. Drafted 12 years ago as the A’s first-round pick, Bonderman was the cause of the chair-toss heard round the world, as Billy Beane reacted to Grady Fuson picking a high school pitcher 26th overall by hurling a chaise through a damn wall. Bonderman was traded the next summer, as part of the nearly–as–Michael Lewis–chronicled Carlos Pena trade that opened the door for Scott “Pickin’ Machine” Hatteberg. He won a rotation spot the following spring as a 20-year-old pressed into action for the historically awful ’03 Tigers, and matured into a front-line starter by the time Detroit crashed the ’06 Fall Classic. But injuries would soon stall and then wreck his career, the most serious of his setbacks coming from thoracic outlet syndrome. Bonderman’s most shocking stat has to be his age; after all he’s been through, he’s still just 30 years old. The Mariners’ after-Felix starting rotation projects as abominable, at least until the team’s big three minor league prospects arrive. It all still adds up to an extreme long shot but … stranger things have happened.

Claudio Vargas, Jays: Before he became Canada’s Greatest Ninja as GM of the Jays, Alex Anthopoulos was a hustling twentysomething working in a decimated Montreal Expos front office, running endless errands at first, then tackling major responsibilities normally reserved for staffers five, 10 years older. Before that, he was a huge Expos fan, a born-and-raised Montrealer and souvlaki expert who lived and died with Raines and Walker and Pedro and Vlad. All of which might explain his apparent fixation with former Expos. After signing Guerrero to a minor league deal last year, and hiring Raines as a minor league instructor in January, Anthopoulos has invited Vargas to spring training, seeking to add organizational depth with a player who hasn’t been in the big leagues in three years.

You know where this is going: Fortified by a flurry of aggressive offseason moves, the Jays charge all the way to the World Series, then claim their first title in 20 years. On the podium, Bud Selig tries to hand Anthopoulos the trophy, only to have Alex start cackling maniacally. He rips off his suit to reveal a game-worn 1969 Coco Laboy jersey, then lights a replica of the CN Tower on fire, chanting “Vive le Québec libre!” while making obscene gestures at the sold-out Rogers Centre crowd. It’ll be the greatest heel turn in Canadian history, or at least since the last time CBC forced people to watch a Leafs game.

Erik Bedard, Astros: An NRI, but also Houston’s projected fifth starter, Bedard may well have a few years left in the big leagues, given he’s still striking out nearly a batter an inning, with 48 starts over the past two seasons pointing to at least an ebbing of his notorious injury tendencies. Unfortunately, Bedard will always be remembered for The Trade — the one that dealt the Mariners a blow from which they still haven’t recovered five years later, cost GM Bill Bavasi his job, and dropped a franchise player (and more!) into the Orioles’ laps. Today, it’s jarring to see even one blue-chip prospect change teams in a trade. When all of the league’s present and future GMs see Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, and more get dealt for a pitcher who goes on to make a total of 30 starts in the next three seasons, that can change the way trades are made in a hurry.

Endy Chavez, Royals: Like Bedard, Chavez will always be linked to a singular event … it just happens to be one of the most glorious events in Mets history. For all the great perks of being a professional athlete — the money, the fame, being upgraded from Group C to Group B on Southwest (I assume that’s what happens) — one of the biggest has to be getting the chance to make a play that could be remembered by millions of people for their entire lives. Seriously, what other profession gives you that chance? Whatever becomes of Endy Chavez from here on out, for as long as the Mets exist as a professional sports franchise, there will always be a record of The Catch. A slap-hitting, journeyman outfielder, elevated to a form of immortality. How cool is that?

Daisuke Matsuzaka, Indians: After the nine figures spent to get him, after all the injuries and all the water under the bridge in Boston, it’s tough to see Dice-K as anything but a cautionary tale. But there was a time when he was so much more. I was there for his first start at Fenway. It was a random game in April … and also one of the most electric experiences I’ve ever had at a game, for any sport. For now, the Indians and their Swiss cheese rotation would probably settle for a halfway-decent fifth starter.

Dan Johnson, Yankees: This. Then this. And of course, this. As old and injury-prone as the Yankees are this year, it would probably take an act of Flying Spaghetti Monster to get Johnson on the Opening Day roster. Which is fine, really. Stash him at Triple-A for five months, call him up when you’re in the thick of the pennant race, and let him do his thing. If there’s one reliable occurrence in baseball, it’s Johnson coming out of nowhere as summer turns to fall, rising out of the ground, and smiting his rivals in the most painful way imaginable. Dan Johnson, now and forever, is the Great Pumpkin.

Brendan Harris, Angels: Ranking the top prospects of 2003 in the Baseball Prospectus annual, Rany Jazayerli wrote the following about Brendan Harris:

Two years ago we took a gamble by ranking a little-known prospect — let’s call him X — on the basis of an excellent year as a third baseman in A-ball the year after he was drafted. Brendan Harris is also a little-known prospect, drafted in 2001, who had an excellent year as a third baseman in A-ball. The similarities between the two players don’t stop there. Compare their numbers:

X was just 20 years old that season; Harris was 21 last year. X had better defensive numbers, while Harris split time between third and second base. On the other hand, Harris was a classification higher than X, and was voted the best defensive third baseman in the league. He also had a higher EqA (.251 to .238) than X, who happens to be Albert Pujols.

If poring over the careers of Jeff Clement, Daniel Moskos, Jeremy Bonderman, and so many more of this spring’s NRIs has taught us anything, it’s that drafting and developing baseball prospects into quality major league players is a damn tough exercise. You might look at the passage above on Harris and think that’s crazy … but it’s a hell of a lot less crazy than 401 players getting picked in the 1999 draft before the Cardinals finally called Pujols’s name. Or, you know, the many, many far more egregious predictions I’ve made over the years.

There was a coda to Rany’s analysis. “We’re not saying that Harris is destined to break into the Cubs’ lineup in spring training and go on to post one of the most prolific rookie seasons in history,” he wrote. “We are saying that he’s worthy of a Top 20 ranking, and that he’s the greatest sleeper prospect in the game.”

The good doctor backs his statement today: “You know what? I’m going to stand by that comment. It’s not like I ranked Brendan Harris no. 1 or something. He was, what, no. 18? Those guys flame out all the time. He had a better career than a lot of guys ranked that high at one point.”

That he has. And there’s hope for more.

Filed Under: Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, MLB, New York Yankees, Oakland A's, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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