Forget about the Cabreras, Kershaws, and Trouts. With spring training under way, we’re shifting our focus to the non-roster invitees, the underdogs who are long shots to be in the majors on Opening Day, but who still have a glimmer of hope. These players need to impress over the next five weeks to earn a spot on the 40-man roster and an improbable trip to The Show.
A few of these NRIs are potential stars, top prospects who simply lack enough experience to be considered roster locks. Some are fringe veterans, 37-year-olds whose best days are long gone. Still others are young players who’ve had a few cups of coffee in the big leagues, but haven’t done enough to earn stable employment.
Last year, I spotlighted players like rookie Red Sox infielder Xander Bogaerts and low-cost Rays reliever Jamey Wright, who went on to become notable 2013 contributors. Expect at least a couple of the 15 NRIs listed below to make a difference in the majors this year … and for the ones who don’t to at least remain interesting stories throughout March. (Click here for this year’s NL list.)
Baltimore Orioles: Quintin Berry, OF
Counting playoffs, Berry has stolen 29 bases in his two-year career without being caught. Of course, calling it a “two-year career” is a bit of a stretch, since Berry managed only nine plate appearances with the Red Sox last season. While his very limited bat makes him a tough player to use too often, someone this fast and this prolific on the bases should be able to find a home on a major league team. The Sox made room for him last September when the roster expanded, then again in October when they needed fewer pitchers and had space for a designated pinch runner. I’ve written before about 12- and 13-man pitching staffs making professional pinch hitters nearly extinct, with memories of Manny Mota, Wallace Johnson, and Lenny Harris receding deeper into our memories, but someone like Herb Washington, the track star who played in 105 games despite never once coming to bat, now seems even less likely to sneak onto a 25-man regular-season roster.
Which is a damn shame, really. The seventh or eighth man out of the bullpen exists almost entirely as a security blanket for managers; he’s someone to use in mop-up duty, or to go to in the hypothetical 15th inning of a hypothetical marathon game, after every other pitcher has thrown and the manager needs to leave a guy out there until his arm falls off. If teams are going to obsess over late-inning, high-leverage situations by bringing in a revolving door of relievers to match up against same-handed hitters, though, why not do the same with late-inning base running situations? The Reds were the last NL team to crack the playoffs in 2013, and speedster Billy Hamilton made a huge impact in several pivotal games down the stretch, despite coming to bat just 22 times. Granted, Hamilton might be the best base stealer the game has seen since Rickey Henderson, but Berry’s pretty great with his legs, too. Shouldn’t players like Berry get those final roster spots instead of the legions of poor man’s Clay Rapadas?
Boston Red Sox: Matt Barnes, RHP
The Sox have better pitching prospects than Barnes, including 6-foot-6 left-hander Henry Owens and fellow lanky lefty Trey Ball, but Barnes is closer to the big leagues after making it to Triple-A late last year. He struck out a staggering 142 batters in 113.1 total innings (all but 5.1 innings came at Double-A Portland), and while his breaking stuff is still shaky, he’s got an explosive fastball/changeup combination that could play right away in the big leagues if the Red Sox elected to use him in relief. One of Boston’s biggest strengths during its drive to the World Series last year was its lack of weaknesses; when a team has quality players like Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp filling part-time roles, it has a good chance to outlast its opponents. With young pitchers like Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, and Barnes ready to step into any number of pitching roles in the majors, the Sox will have another source of depth that makes them tough to beat in 2014.
Chicago White Sox: Chris Bassitt, RHP
While Bassitt gets less attention from prospect hounds than Boston’s top young pitchers, he could also get a shot in the majors this year. He fanned 138 batters in 149 innings last year, finishing at Double-A, where he capped his big season by striking out 16 more and allowing just one run in two playoff starts while pacing the Birmingham Barons to the Southern League title. The White Sox have enough young talent to be considered mild sleepers this year, and they’re in throw-spaghetti-against-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks mode as they evaluate all their young players to see what these kids have. The Sox hope Bassitt has the repertoire to eventually become a back-of-the-rotation starter, and at some point this season we could see his nasty sinker in the majors — followed by a bunch of weak ground balls from opposing hitters.
Cleveland Indians: Jeff Francoeur, Designated Punim
Look at this face and tell me you wouldn’t want this guy on your team. While Francoeur never quite became Roy Hobbs, he’s historically been a very playable outfielder when used in a platoon role; in 2011, he hit .302/.363/.570 against left-handed pitchers while showing off his always present rocket arm in right field. Francoeur was absolutely terrible offensively the last two years, and his speed and defensive range dipped as well. He’s still just 30 years old, though, and if he played in a platoon with David Murphy while making a maximum of $1 million, Francoeur could still prove to be a useful piece for a contending team.
Detroit Tigers: Duane Below, LHP
Below got into only two major league games last year, and he spent the tail end of 2013 pitching in Korea. The Tigers know him well, though, as they drafted him in the 19th round in 2006, then watched him fight his way through the minors before making The Show in 2011. Entering spring training, veteran Phil Coke and newly acquired 22-year-old ex-Nat Ian Krol are the front-runners to grab lefty relief jobs in Detroit’s pen, but Below could be the next man up. He’s a basic, unsexy bullpen piece who might wind up delivering significant relief innings for a likely playoff team.
Houston Astros: Mark Appel, RHP
We keep hearing about the Astros’ long-term plan, about how, after years of suffering, a loaded farm system will help this franchise secure a spectacular future. But when does the future arrive, exactly? Sluggers George Springer and Jonathan Singleton, two of Houston’s brightest young stars, look like they could crack the big-league roster at some point this year. Appel is a tougher call, though. He was drafted first overall in 2013 and has just 38 minor league innings under his belt, none above Single-A. He gets high marks for both his raw ability and his polish, and compared with Houston’s likely Opening Day starting five, the 22-year-old phenom looks like he could become the team’s ace the minute he takes the mound. Of course, the Astros haven’t lost all these games and reeled in all these no. 1 picks just to rush their best prospects years before the team is ready to contend, so a more realistic timeline probably has Appel in the majors somewhere around summer 2015. Regardless, the Stanford kid will be one of the biggest attractions this spring.
Kansas City Royals: Ramon Hernandez, C
The Royals have one of baseball’s best young catchers in Salvador Perez, who played in 138 games last year and has hit .301 across parts of three big-league seasons, so finding a top-notch backup isn’t their top priority. Still, someone’s going to get the job, and right now it’s not entirely clear who that someone will be. Brett Hayes is nominally the front-runner, despite appearing in just five games in 2013. Right behind him, though, are two NRI catchers with major league experience and some kind of appeal. Brett Hayes is nominally the front-runner, despite appearing in just five games in 2013. Right behind him, though, are two NRI catchers with major league experience and some kind of appeal. Adam Moore was once a sleeper prospect in the Mariners’ system and is still just 29 years old. Then there’s Hernandez, who has significant experience as a starting backstop, but played in just 69 total games the last two seasons while plagued by injuries. This could be the last hurrah for the Moneyball-era A’s underrated and once extremely effective catcher, and the Royals could see him as a reasonable option to cover in the event of a flukish Perez DL stint.
Los Angeles Angels: Brandon Lyon, RHP
When it comes to speculating on NRIs, scooping up a player who’s just one year removed from being a quality contributor makes a lot of sense. In 2012, Lyon struck out more than a batter per inning and posted more than three strikeouts for every walk. He delivered a shaky 4.98 ERA last year, though, and he was even worse in 2011, posting an unfathomable 11.48 ERA in 15 appearances. Still, when Lyon’s on, he can flash a plus cutter and a plus curveball while chewing up quality innings. Only the woeful Cubs and Astros have carried worse bullpens than the Angels over the past four seasons. There’s nothing wrong with bringing in veteran relievers who have some history of major league success, if for no other reason than providing a little depth.
Minnesota Twins: Jason Kubel, DH/OF
Another player who’s just a year removed from a strong season, Kubel hit .253/.327/.506 with 30 homers in 2012, the first of a two-year, $16 million deal with the Diamondbacks. He then turned into a pumpkin, batting .216/.293/.317 in 2013, making him one of the worst offensive players in the league with as many at-bats. (Our pal Francoeur was the worst.) Kubel can’t run or field, so he has to hit to keep a big-league job. Now back in Minnesota, where the lineup looks paper-thin until Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton arrive, Kubel might land a starting job anyway, and he could make a decent end-game pick in a deep AL-only fantasy league.
New York Yankees: Scott Sizemore, 2B
For now, Brian Roberts is the Yankees’ starting second baseman, but the ex-Oriole is 36 years old and hasn’t played more than 77 games in a season since 2009, making his success at the deuce a long shot. The Bombers spent more than a half-billion dollars on free agents over the winter, so it’s hard to imagine them settling for subpar performance at second all year long. The alternatives range from playing Eduardo Nunez at third and moving recently acquired infielder Kelly Johnson to second (Johnson is a better fielder at second than third, but Nunez is not good at baseball), to trying to snag a quality second or third baseman via trade from a non-contending team this summer, to seeing if a 114-year-old prospect might be the answer.
The easiest solution, though, might be giving Sizemore a shot. He has been plagued by injuries the past two seasons, playing in just two major league games during that time, but he was a perfectly capable starting second baseman in 2011, hitting .245/.342/.399 while playing adequate defense. He’s still just 29 years old, and if the switch-hitting Roberts doesn’t pan out, the righty-swinging Sizemore could balance out a lineup that currently features four left-handed hitters.
Oakland A’s: Sam Fuld, OF
There’s no way for me to be impartial here, OK? Fuld is a former Stanford econ major who interned at Stats Inc., grew up in a house a block away from where I later lived for five years, and participated in one of the nerdiest podcasts in the history of Western civilization. At 32, he’s still a strong enough defender and a fast enough runner to be a quality reserve outfielder for any number of teams, even one as good as the A’s. If you don’t believe me, tune in this year and see for yourself. Go get ’em, Sammy.
Seattle Mariners: Ty Kelly, 2B/3B
I’m a sucker for players like Kelly. He’s just 25 years old, has never played in the big leagues, and was never considered anything close to a top prospect, but he’s delivered quality numbers for years, adding up to a .388 on-base percentage in 569 career minor league games. The Oliver projection system figures Kelly would post a .346 OBP and play above-average defense in the big leagues this year, which would make him roughly a league-average player at a league-minimum salary. Theoretical exercises aside, there’s no way Kelly’s getting anything close to 600 plate appearances this year, and just cracking the roster could be a big challenge. Then again, there were rumors the M’s might trade talented 22-year-old second baseman Nick Franklin now that Robinson Cano’s in town, which would leave Willie Bloomquist, a 36-year-old seat-filler who just got one of the most puzzling multiyear deals of the past decade, to serve as Seattle’s lone backup infielder. #FreeTyKelly.
Tampa Bay Rays: Erik Bedard, SP
From Fernando Rodney to Kyle Farnsworth and beyond, the Rays have found lots of success by picking up lightly regarded pitchers and watching them succeed in the run-prevention-friendly environment forged by defense, coaching, and the offense-canceling Tropicana Field. Even with Jeremy Hellickson sidelined until at least May with an elbow injury, though, rookie Jake Odorizzi projects as a better fit for the vacated no. 5 spot than Bedard does at this stage of his career. The Rays are loaded in the bullpen as well, with fireballing southpaw Jake McGee and reverse-splits righty Joel Peralta as locks to start the year as setup men, and lefties Cesar Ramos, Mike Montgomery, Enny Romero, Jeff Beliveau, and others able to hold down the low-impact 12th-man role. Still, Bedard struck out nearly a batter per inning last year with the Astros, and for the cost of an NRI, he’s a solid pickup and good insurance in case something goes wrong. If things go well for the Rays this year, though, Bedard should see little to no time in the majors.
Texas Rangers: Colby Lewis, RHP
The injury gods haven’t been kind to the Rangers’ pitching staff lately. Considering Texas eked its way into a Game 163 tiebreaker for the second wild-card spot last year, it’s no stretch to say that any kind of improvement in health — whether for Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando, Lewis, or someone else — could’ve pushed them into the playoffs. Feliz and Ogando are healthy this spring, which is a good sign. But projected no. 2 starter Derek Holland is out until July following knee surgery, and Harrison’s a question mark again, as he’s suffering from back problems following surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome last year, casting his availability for Opening Day into doubt.
Lewis and second-year right Nick Tepesch are the two most likely candidates to pick up the slack. Lewis was supposed to fill in for injured Rangers starters last year, but he never made it back from flexor tendon and hip surgeries, and wound up missing the whole season. The latest reports on Lewis are bullish, and we’re talking about a pitcher who excelled in 2012, flashing a strikeout-to-walk rate of nearly seven-to-one over 16 starts. He might be a non-roster invitee, but given the Rangers’ contender-ready roster and numerous injury concerns (if anyone wants to bet on Tommy Hanson making 30 starts, I’ll wager my entire collection of Sicnarf Loopstok cards on the under), there might be more pressure on Lewis to come through than on anyone else on this list.
Toronto Blue Jays: Tomo Ohka, RHP
Ohka hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2009. Now, he’s returning after finding a second career as a knuckleballer in Japan. Those facts alone make him someone we can’t help but support as he tries to work his way onto a pretty suspect Blue Jays pitching staff.
Then there’s this, via Wikipedia:
Ohka is the first and only member of the Montreal Expos to be named on The Simpsons. In the March 16, 2003 episode entitled “C. E. D’oh!” Bart Simpson exclaims “Look at me! I’m Tomokazu Ohka of the Montreal Expos!” while playing baseball, to which Milhouse replies “Well, I’m Esteban Yan of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays!” referencing the largely ineffective pitching of those two teams (and their starting pitchers) during the 2003–2004 MLB season.
We’re done here.