Last year, I ran through some of the National League’s non-roster invitees to watch during spring training, and the list included eventual impact players like Pirates rookie Gerrit Cole and Grantland’s designated pitcher crush, Jose Fernandez. Yesterday, I rolled out the 2014 American League NRIs to watch. Now it’s time for this spring’s NL edition.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Archie Bradley, RHP
After signing Bronson Arroyo to a two-year, $23.5 million contract earlier this month, the Diamondbacks now have one of the deepest starting rotations in the league. What they don’t seem to have, though, is a bona fide ace. Patrick Corbin pitched brilliantly in his second season, but talent evaluators peg him as a midrotation starter going forward, and none of Arizona’s other four projected starters look like no. 1 guys, either by numbers or reputation.
Bradley, however, could become the staff ace in a hurry. The seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft has torched opposing hitters while climbing through the minors, posting 162 strikeouts and a 1.84 ERA in 152 innings across the California and Southern leagues last year. Bradley’s still just 21, and the D-backs aren’t paying pitchers like Arroyo, Trevor Cahill, and Brandon McCarthy sizable salaries to bury them in middle relief. Still, any DL stint of decent length or, say, further erosion in Cahill’s performance could prompt Arizona to give the 6-foot-4, 225-pound kid with the mid-90s fastball and hammer curve a shot. Once Bradley does get the call, it’s hard to imagine him ever going back down.
Atlanta Braves: Tommy La Stella, 2B
At 25 years old and with just a partial season at Double-A as his highest level of experience, La Stella doesn’t fit the mold of an elite prospect. Still, he could be the best second-base option the Braves have in 2014. Consider that the lefty-swinging New Jersey native and Coastal Carolina Chanticleer (three guesses what a chanticleer is, without Googling) hit a sky-high .343/.422/.473 over 81 games in the Southern League last year, then hit .290 with a .904 OPS during a short stint in the Arizona Fall League. He’d be an instant defensive upgrade over incumbent Dan Uggla, and almost certainly a bigger on-base threat as well, even if Uggla recovers somewhat from the atrocious .179/.309/.362 line he put up last season.
However, two factors might make switching to La Stella tricky: Uggla still boasts prodigious power, having delivered five 30-plus homer seasons and managing 22 bombs even during his fiasco of a 2013 season, and the Braves still owe him $26 million over the final two years of his deal. Teams can wrap their minds around sunk costs on an intellectual level, and the Braves did sit Uggla at times last year, but it’s still a big leap from there to permanently benching a guy who’s owed that much cash or, even more dramatically, cutting him loose and eating the rest of his contract. That disconnect is what can make failed contracts such a big burden, and it might be what prevents La Stella from claiming an everyday gig, at least for now.
Chicago Cubs: Javier Baez, SS
Baez is the star attraction of an NRI group that also includes slugging third baseman Kris Bryant and 19-year-old outfield phenom Albert Almora. (Twenty-two-year-old Cuban outfield prospect Jorge Soler is also in camp, but he’s already on the 40-man roster.) Baez has off-the-charts power for a shortstop, with plenty of bat to play elsewhere too, if needed. That position shift might occur, since Baez committed 44 errors last year and the Cubs have Starlin Castro signed through 2019. Still, if Baez can improve his batting eye a bit, he’s got 30-homer upside, which would be welcome at short, second, third, or anywhere else.
For the Cubs, it all rides on the pitching. If the position player talent at camp this year is any indication, Chicago will be running out an All-Star-studded lineup starting around 2017. In Baez’s case, maybe sooner.
Cincinnati Reds: Roger Bernadina, OF
Between Ryan Ludwick’s injury concerns (38 games played last year) and advancing age (he turns 36 in July), plus questions over Billy Hamilton’s ability to hit well enough to stick as an everyday center fielder this year, finding outfield depth will be essential for the Reds in 2014. Bernadina brings great speed, lots of major league experience, and … well, that’s about it. Still, those two ingredients could be enough to clinch a job as Cincinnati’s 25th man, if not on Opening Day then at least later in the year.
Donald Lutz, a 25-year-old bruiser who hit 23 homers across levels in 2012 and played 34 games in the big leagues last year, could present an interesting option as a power-hitting lefty swinger off the bench. The bigger issue is that the Reds’ lineup now has a stars-and-scrubs look to it, with compromise players all over the diamond as a result of the huge contracts given to Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and, most recently, Homer Bailey. The Reds probably have enough on the bench to get help here and there, but returning to the playoffs might require a bolder move, such as landing a quality everyday outfielder to fill the void that Shin-Soo Choo’s departure created.
Colorado Rockies: Jonathan Gray, RHP
I covered Gray in last week’s special edition of The 30. Here’s what Baseball America’s Jack Etkin wrote in naming Gray the Rockies’ top prospect:
The Rockies have never had a power pitcher with command as sharp as Gray’s. Ubaldo Jimenez threw hard but didn’t hit triple digits like Gray or have his command. Gray sits at 95-96 mph with his four-seam fastball that ranges from 93-100 and on multiple occasions hit 102.
Let’s take that even further: Gray has a chance to become the best pitcher the Rockies have ever had. Period.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Joc Pederson, CF
Assuming everyone’s healthy this spring, the Dodgers have a surplus of outfielders heading into the 2014 season. Coming off an injury-riddled season, Matt Kemp has said he won’t accept a bench role, and rightfully so. The easiest solution would be to trade Andre Ethier, but teams aren’t lining up to pay some $70 million over four years to a player who’s probably best suited for a platoon role.
The rise of Pederson, who hit .278/.381/.497 with 22 homers and 31 steals in Double-A last year, further complicates matters. Granted, Pederson has shown big splits of his own, hitting .316/.420/.609 against Double-A right-handers but just .200/.299/.269 against lefties last year. Still, he’d be the Opening Day center fielder on a bunch of teams, and if the Dodgers are serious about their oft-stated commitment to player development, they can’t keep their top prospect down much longer. Stay tuned, this could get interesting.
Miami Marlins: Justin Nicolino, LHP
When the Marlins traded Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, John Buck, and Emilio Bonifacio to the Jays for a prospect-laden package of seven players in November 2012, the baseball world cried foul. How could Jeffrey Loria open a new, publicly financed, $634 million stadium while promising that the new park would help the team boost payroll and win more games, then turn around and trade three of the team’s best players for a bunch of kids? The thing is, as a pure business move, it might not have been that bad of an idea, even if it did come across as ruthless and maybe even dishonest given previous assurances.
It turns out it might’ve been a good baseball move, too. The Marlins will likely finish at or near the bottom of their division again this year, but they have an exciting nucleus of young talent that could make the team competitive again fairly soon. Miami’s farm system isn’t highly ranked, but that’s largely due to an aggressive policy of promoting top prospects when management feels they’re ready instead of stashing them in the minors to skimp on big league service time. Between players like Fernandez and Christian Yelich, who no longer have rookie eligibility, and a still respectable corps of prospects in the minors, there’s plenty of upside here, however. Nicolino, a 22-year-old left-hander with an excellent changeup and a fastball with average velocity but good location, doesn’t project as a top-of-the-rotation starter by any means. But as a secondary piece in that blockbuster deal with the Jays, he could still end up as a no. 4 starter type with the Fish for just $500,000 a year over his first three seasons … and he might be ready to crack the rotation as soon as this summer. Throw in the progress of 22-year-old outfielder Jake Marisnick and 23-year-old Anthony DeSclafani, two more top-five prospects in the Marlins system who came over in the big trade, and the deal looks more and more promising every day.
Milwaukee Brewers: Mark Reynolds, 1B/3B
Few teams have suffered through more recent ugliness at one position than the Brewers have at first base since Prince Fielder’s departure. Corey Hart and Mat Gamel both suffered season-shattering knee injuries, leaving the Brewers to play stiffs like Yuniesky Betancourt. A platoon of Juan Francisco and Reynolds would be light on batting average, defense, and speed, but it could net 30-plus homers for nearly no cost. And Reynolds could crank a good chunk of those, even if he’s on the short end of that platoon. Get this: Since 2008, only Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Fielder, and Adam Dunn have launched more homers than Reynolds. Not many humans can do this:
[mlbvideo id=”25815967″ width=”500″ /]
New York Mets: Noah Syndergaard, RHP
Hey, look, it’s another really good, really big right-handed pitching prospect with star potential. Syndergaard, another casualty of Toronto’s cash-in-prospects-and-go-for-it-now spree last winter, is one of two starting pitching prospects snagged by GM Sandy Alderson in what now look like major heists. (Getting Syndergaard and catcher Travis d’Arnaud for R.A. Dickey was one, getting Zack Wheeler for a Carlos Beltran summer rental was the other.)
Syndergaard is a 6-foot-6, 240-pound hoss of a Texan who fanned 133 batters (against just 28 walks) over 117⅔ innings last year between the high Single-A and Double-A levels. The Mets added reinforcements over the winter by signing players like Bartolo Colon and Curtis Granderson, but they’re probably still not contenders — meaning they won’t have much incentive to rush Syndergaard. A 2015 rotation with a healthy Matt Harvey, Wheeler, and Syndergaard at the top could be big trouble for the rest of the NL East, though.
Philadelphia Phillies: Bobby Abreu, OF/PH
It’s hard to fathom how Abreu — who’s about to turn 40, was seemingly out of the majors for good after the 2012 season, and was Ruben Amaro Jr.’s former teammate, for FSM’s sake — could be a leading candidate for a bench job in 2014. But here we are, thanks to manager Ryne Sandberg’s interest in a lefty reserve bat and a lack of stiff competition for that job. It would be great to see Abreu put in one last solid season with his original team before hanging ’em up. He’s a career .292/.396/.477 hitter, 87th all time in total bases, 80th in runs scored, 74th in steals, 23rd in doubles, and 22nd in walks. If ever there were a first-ballot Hall of Very Good player, Abreu’s it.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Jameson Taillon, RHP
OK, one more right-handed pitching prospect, then we’ll stop. Taillon has fallen well behind Cole in the Pirates’ organizational pitching hierarchy, both because Cole’s already in the big leagues and Taillon isn’t, and because Taillon’s minor league performance has fallen a bit short of what we might expect from a former no. 2 overall draft pick. Still, we’re talking about a 6-foot-6, 235-pound 22-year-old who slings fastballs at 94-98 mph and has a nasty slider. His changeup’s slow development could make him vulnerable against left-handed batters in the majors, as lefties made a little more hard contact than Pittsburgh might have liked in Double-A and Triple-A last year. Then again, Edinson Volquez is leading the competition for the Pirates’ back-of-the-rotation spot, so a Taillon promotion has to be coming soon.
San Diego Padres: Tony Sipp, LHP
The Padres cashed in some relief depth this offseason, most notably trading Luke Gregerson to the A’s for outfielder Seth Smith. Then they acquired a passel of new relievers, trading for young lefty Alex Torres and snagging 23-year-old Patrick Schuster in a Rule 5 deal, as well as signing veteran Joaquin Benoit to a two-year deal. Schuster shows more promise than Sipp, but he also hasn’t pitched above Single-A. Sipp has basically no platoon split, but unfortunately hasn’t been all that great against hitters from either side. Given that surrendering homers has been one of Sipp’s biggest problems (he’s allowed 42 in 258 career innings), though, he should benefit from the move to pitcher-friendly Petco Park and slide in nicely as the second lefty out of the pen.
San Francisco Giants: Joe Panik, 2B
Something of a Marco Scutaro starter kit, Panik hit .341 in the Northwest League during his debut pro season in 2011 then .297 in the California League in 2012, showing decent gap power, though little of the over-the-fence variety. A hamstring injury curtailed his production last year, but the Giants still like him as a utility man at first, and maybe eventually a starting second baseman if he shakes off his rough 2013 campaign and develops a bit more at the plate.
As for Scutaro himself, he’s coming off another solid season in 2013, but he’s also 38 years old with two more years left on his contract. Having a lefty-swinging caddy like Panik around at some point this year could allow the Giants to use Scutaro in optimal situations without wearing him down, while also grooming his potential replacement.
St. Louis Cardinals: Stephen Piscotty, OF
Michael Wacha wasn’t in my NRI file last year, but he made a big impression in camp and ended the season as a key cog in the Cardinals’ drive to the World Series. One of the most promising members from this year’s St. Louis collection is Piscotty. The 36th overall pick in the 2012 draft, Piscotty hit .295/.355/.464 last year while splitting time between high Single-A and Double-A ball. He obviously doesn’t have as much upside as his likely 2014 Triple-A running mate Oscar Taveras, but the Cards owed much of their 2013 success to exceptional organizational depth, from sliding Matt Adams into the lineup while Allen Craig dealt with injuries to unleashing an armada of 96-mph-firing young pitchers on the rest of the NL when Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook, and others couldn’t answer the bell. Though Piscotty likely won’t have the same kind of impact that players like Wacha and Carlos Martinez did last year, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him make a game-changing play or two in the majors between now and October.
Washington Nationals: Jamey Carroll, 2B/3B/SS
What the hell, this is my column, so let’s end the NL section the way we did the AL: with a tribute to Nos Amours. With Tomo Ohka back in a camp five years after his last MLB appearance, there are now 10 former Expos with something of a chance to see action in the big leagues this year: Ohka, Endy Chavez, Colon, Scott Downs, Luis Ayala, Maicer Izturis, Brendan Harris, Bruce Chen, Jon Rauch, and Carroll. Colon is obviously the leader of this group, which is pretty amazing given that he’s 40 years old and looks like this (although it’s quite possible that Colon’s weight is his superpower).
Unlike Colon, Carroll might very well play a significant role for a true playoff contender. Forty years old himself, Carroll remains a competent fielder at multiple positions and can still hit left-handed pitching, as evidenced by his .309/.373/.394 line against southpaws over the past three seasons. Danny Espinosa is ahead of him on the depth chart, and Carroll might not be able to land an Opening Day bench job if the Nats go with both Scott Hairston and Nate McLouth as backup outfielders. Then again, Carroll became an everyday shortstop in the majors for the first time at age 38, making him the first player ever to pull off that spectacularly unlikely feat. Never count him out.