February 16, 2011
AL NRIs to Watch
Come the opening of every camp, there's always going to be some wiggle room for a non-roster player or two to make the club. But who has the best shot as we just get started, and/or who's worth noting for his own sake? Starting with the AL, let's look at the names you might want to note in the inevitable spring training boxscores and the equally inevitable camp rumors to come.
Hitter(s): There might be a fairly wide-open fight for the last two or three spots on the bench, with NRI additions Brendan Harris, Nick Green, and Randy Winn contending with the rostered Robert Andino, Nolan Reimold, and Jake Fox. Much depends on whether Reimold can get enough at-bats backing up Luke Scott and Nick Markakis in the outfield corners; Showalter has generally preferred to carry veterans in reserve roles, which ought to help Winn. Showalter also likes to have some power on the bench, and used to manage a young Jim Leyritz, which should bode well for Fox, a latter-day five-corner flatfoot. Harris or Green offer slightly more pop at the plate than Andino.
Boston Red Sox
Hitter(s): We all know Jed Lowrie's answer to whether he's man or Meissen leaves him stacked with the china, so utility infield aspirants are the guys with some modicum of hope. However, Drew Sutton, Nate Spears, and Hector Luna can't really play shortstop, which leaves Brent Dlugach hoping that his relative dispensability will help him get a few weeks of service time in such a scenario early in the season, while prospects like Jose Iglesias or Yamaico Navarro play every day in the minors.
Chicago White Sox
Hitter(s): I looked at the case for Lastings Milledge two weeks ago, and it remains much the same now that Grapefruit and Cactus League activities are getting in gear. He'll be contending with Alejandro De Aza for a final outfield slot, and has the advantage of batting righty where Juan Pierre and Mark Teahen both bat lefty—as does De Aza. Maybe Milledge represents the latest White Sox salvage act, rehabilitating a blue-chip prospect who disappointed initial expectations, and maybe not. The other noteworthy position player in camp without a guaranteed contract is Dallas McPherson, owner of a career .580 SLG in the bushes, as well as a 44.4 TTO percentage. Between Teahen and Adam Dunn, there isn't much space for him, though.
Hitter(s): At least two bench jobs are open, and Jayson Nix and Orlando Cabrera might be starting in the infield, so obviously standards are fairly low. Happily, there are NRIs who can rise to that sort of challenge. Jack Hannahan could end up being the good-glove lefty bat to alternate with Nix at the hot corner (also freeing Nix to play some second base), but if not Hannahan, then Adam Everett might stick in a futility infielder role. In light of the infield's circumstances, Stanford product Cord Phelps could hit his way into the picture after hitting a combined .308/.368/.457 between Double- and Triple-A. In the outfield, Travis Buck and Jordan Brown could get some measure of consideration if they hit well, assuming the Indians make room for a fifth outfielder; Brown's experience at first could also help, considering Matt LaPorta's struggles.
Hitter(s): It isn't a strong group of likelies, with perhaps Omir Santos representing the best of a bunch of long bets, just in case Jim Leyland chooses discretion over valor and carries a third catcher to compensate for Victor Martinez's more regular gig at DH.
Kansas City Royals
Hitter(s): Here, it's a matter of whether or not they want to add one of two different non-rostered flavors of third baseman—young and sweet, or old and gamey, in the form of Mike Moustakas and Pedro Feliz. Doing so would free up Mike Aviles and Wilson Betemit for use at other positions, which seems likely to be necessary once Chris Getz and Jeff Francoeur hand their jobs back. If keeping Moustakas' service-time clock from starting trumps the hitting show he ought to put on in Arizona, horrifyingly enough Feliz might sneak in as a platoon caddy for Betemit, while Aviles moves back to second base. However, Moustakas could conceivably make the choice for them, wiping Feliz from the options menu while earning an Opening Day start—Royals fans have to hope for something, right?
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Hitter(s): You don't need this space to know about Mike Trout, or to know that he won't break camp with the club. Mostly, he bears watching to see whether he casts a spell over Mike Scioscia the way that Jason Heyward did over Bobby Cox, and gets the distinction of being one of the last cuts of camp.
Hitter(s): Jeff Bailey might merit a courtesy mention, if just barely, because failing to deliver a .200 ISO in Reno last season is what makes sure that even the limited exposure he used to get with Boston might be the extent of his career highlights. The other interesting invite is Chase Lambin, because the 31-year-old journeyman played with Tsuyoshi Nishioka for Chiba Lotte in 2009, so you can expect he'll get plenty of questions about his teammate's feats in Japan.
New York Yankees
Hitter(s): Since I've already talked about Ronnie Belliard and Eric Chavez, the more interesting examples to bring up are Jesus Montero and Austin Romine behind the plate. Even with the doubts attached to Montero's glove work, there are your additional reasons why Russell Martin's deal is one-year. Romine hit .313/.362/.481 away from breezy Trenton last year, so a move to Triple-A this year wouldn't be out of line, but the likelihood does create one of the more interesting camp determinations for the organization: Who gets the playing time behind the plate in Scranton?
Hitter(s): You wouldn't think that Andy LaRoche would have much going for him after playing his way out of Pittsburgh, but the A's are stuck with Kevin Kouzmanoff at the hot corner, and LaRoche was a top-20 prospect in long-ago 2006 and 2007. Various defensive metrics rated LaRoche's defensive performance in 2009 as very good, with Colin Wyers' new FRAA putting him almost nine runs in the black. In 2009, LaRoche produced a .265 TAv in his age-25 seaon, and it was considered a disappointment; Kouzmanoff delivered a .267 TAv for the Pads in his age-27 campaign, and that was considered an asset. PECOTA projects LaRoche to a .254 TAv to Kouzmanoff's .251. If offense is a push and LaRoche is the better defender, that's enough to suggest that if Geren lets this be an open fight, LaRoche could win.
Hitter(s): A trio of outfielders might have varying opportunities to stick, although Milton Bradley's escape from his latest legal problems (no charges were pressed) doesn't make things any easier for them. Slick-fielding Ryan Langerhans probably possesses a slight advantage over Gabe Gross and Jody Gerut, but Gerut deserves to remembered better than his bat going stone cold rotting on the Brewers' bench—not every player can make the adjustment to role play. In the infield, given the organization's fascination with punchless wonders, Adam Kennedy might be able to come to camp and make them think they've found Rogers Hornsby, or at least settle for reminding people that his 2009 comeback (.273 TAv) wasn't so long ago.
Tampa Bay Rays
Hitter(s): Because of Joe Maddon's intricate platoons, you can't say for sure how any one new piece fits into his fast-morphing puzzle, but Felipe Lopez could fit into the infield as a backup to Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez up the middle. And while there's some measure of indignity associated with having to take the reliably disappointing Casey Kotchman seriously as a starting option, his projected production (.249) isn't that much worse than scrap-heap hero Dan Johnson's (.255).
Hitter(s): Brian Barden and Esteban German are the two utility guys wondering if they somehow luck into jobs in the wake of a Michael Young trade, but the better notion would be to sign the still-out-there Russell Branyan for DH duties in such a scenario.
Toronto Blue Jays
Hitter(s): Perhaps as much as any NRI anywhere, Corey Patterson may well be a lock as the club's fourth outfielder. All it will require is some conveniently injured pitcher to land on the 60-day DL—aha, so that's what Dustin McGowan's for—and you can just about ink him in for Opening Day.