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February 16, 2012
The All-NRI Team
"I’ve always said when it comes to a minor-league contract there’s no such thing as a bad one. There’s no guarantee from the club’s standpoint other than a flight to and from spring training."—Alex Anthopoulos, January 2012
While you’re busy celebrating Presidents Day in traditional American fashion—crossing the Delaware, roadtripping to Mt. Rushmore, trying to keep your anticipation for next week’s 87th Republican primary debate in check—pitchers and catchers will be reporting to training camps across Florida and Arizona. Not quite all of the pitchers and catchers or all of the camps—Mariners pitchers, catchers, and position players reported about a week before everyone else, so Mariners non-roster invitees have already been ostracizing members of their 40-man for days.
Seattle's early spring training report date makes sense, since the Mariners could probably use some extra training this spring. Rangers pitchers and catchers, on the other hand, won’t report until the 22nd. Maybe the Rangers think they’re too good to report before the 22nd. Maybe they think reaching the World Series in back-to-back seasons entitles them to an extra weekend off. (Actually, that sounds pretty reasonable.) But whatever it is that pitchers and catchers do before position players report—pitch, catch, and gossip about position players, presumably—almost all of them will be doing it by the time you report to your cubicle on Tuesday.
Players in camp generally fall into one of three groups. There are the returning regulars and established additions who are assured of breaking camp with the team. There are the promising youngsters from within the organization, some of whom might have a shot at making the Opening Day roster, but most of whom are there to get a taste of what they’re competing for and give the coaching staff a preview of what they might become. And then there are the journeymen, the Triple-A lifers, the past-their prime players hoping to have a hot spring and hang on for one more season.
In the picture of Mariners players I linked to above, the most prominent member of the group ignoring Yoervis Medina is Kevin Millwood, a 15-year major-league veteran. Millwood passed through two other organizations last year en route to the Rockies, where he made nine improbably strong starts. He has a good chance to stick, and even succeed, in Safeco. The other two players in that cluster are a lot less likely to earn any service time. Matt Fox is a 29-year-old right-hander with 7 1/3 major-league innings to his name. He pitched those innings in 2010, for two different teams, then spent all of last season in Pawtucket. Jarrett Grube is a 30-year-old right-hander with no major-league innings to his name. He’s spent eight seasons in the minors, and he has a 5.30 career ERA in Triple-A. Most NRIs in the journeyman group aren’t much like Millwood. They’re more like Jarrett Grube.
No team has yet found a use for Jarrett Grube during the regular season. But they do want him, and others of his ilk, around during the exhibition season. Someone has to pitch to prospects who are trying to impress evaluators and veterans who are trying to shed a winter’s worth of rust. And someone has to eat innings and substitute on defense in split-squad games so those same prospects and veterans aren’t overworked after several months of inactivity. By the time the Grapefruit and Cactus League schedules are completed, most of the Grubes are either out of a job or back in the minors. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to get worked up when NRIs are announced—sure, it would be bad if all of these retreads ended up blocking a prospect or taking playing time away from a more capable player, but the odds of that happening aren’t good.
Starting tomorrow and continuing over the next couple weeks, R.J. Anderson will be going division-by-division in search of interesting NRIs in camp this spring. I encourage you to follow along, since you’ll probably learn something. (I learned that Mike Rivera has appeared in the majors in six straight seasons while totaling exactly 0.0 WARP, and that Ron Mahay is not only still alive but still pitching professionally. And I only read a rough draft.) It’s hard to say how many of the NRIs on R.J.’s lists will amount to anything, but we can take a look at how many non-roster players panned out last spring.*
*Because as every good prognosticator knows, the best question to ask when you want to know what will happen next is often “What happened before?”
Judging by the returns from last season, we should keep our expectations for 2012’s NRIs low. Last February, Prospect Nation compiled a list of non-roster invitees. There were 553 of them—roughly 18 per team.* Of those 553, 193 went on to play for a major-league team during the regular season, though not necessarily the one that invited them to camp. Ten received more than 300 plate appearances, and ten pitched more than 70 innings. The oldest NRI was 43-year-old Matt Stairs. The youngest was 19-year-old Mike Trout. Of the 193 that saw some action, only 11 were worth at least a win. That means that just two percent of last year’s NRIs turned into something more useful than a forgettable replacement player.
*Update* Prospect Nation's list probably isn't 100 percent accurate. As someone pointed out on Twitter, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon weren't on it. It might be missing players who were invited after last February 10, and some might simply have slipped through the cracks, but that probably doesn't change the percentage of NRI successes significantly.
We can whittle that two percent down even further if we exclude prospects from the list. Of those 11 diamonds in the rough, five were under 25 years old, including blue-chippers like Brett Lawrie (who topped the list, WARP-wise) and Eric Hosmer. That leaves the following six veteran players who embodied the NRI dream, hooking on with a team after a down year (or years) and sticking around to have a successful season:
Jack Hannahan, Indians (3.1 WARP)
Jesus Guzman, Padres (2.2 WARP)
Casey Kotchman, Rays (1.9 WARP)
He was essentially the same hitter in both seasons, but more of the balls he hit fell in last year. Those hits were the difference between a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training from Tampa Bay and a guaranteed $3 million contract from Cleveland. Kotchman even lumbered his way to first safely for 17 infield hits, more than he’d managed in the previous two seasons combined. Unless he’s perfected the art of the impeccably-placed bloop and slow roller, the Kotchman the Indians see might look a lot more like the Mariner model. Regardless, the Rays already got more than their invite’s worth.
Ryan Vogelsong, Giants (1.7 WARP)
Jason Giambi, Rockies (1.2 WARP)
Reed Johnson, Cubs (1.1 WARP)
Six successful invites out of 553. There are about as many successful NRIs in a given season as there were Wonka Bars with golden tickets. But they were out there last year, and they’re probably out there again. As Alex Anthopoulos says, it only takes a plane ticket or two.