February 15, 2017
NRI Watch: National League
It’s time. Trucks are on the move and pitchers and catchers report shortly, and that means it's time to prepare for spring training. Do you have the guts—and the free time—to familiarize yourself with all of the non-roster invitees? If not, don’t worry. Below we’ll quickly reviewing each team’s crop of NRIs, focusing on one noteworthy player. It could be because they’re likely to crack the 25-man roster or because they’re a top prospect or just because they’re a great story. Find out which minor move could be major in the National League (and check back later for the American League version).
Atlanta Braves: In 2016, John Danks finally ended his tenure with the White Sox after a decade and more than 1,500 innings. His first five years were pretty good, regularly posting a sub-4.00 ERA and eating innings like they were M&Ms. The last five years were singularly bad and between injuries he’s “earned” -2.1 WARP on the weakness of iffy strikeout rates and a DRA that hovered around 5.00. Ol’ Tobacco Fingers isn’t one to give up, though; fortunately the Braves desperately want to augment their young pitching staff with veterans. Perhaps Danks can bounce back from his injury and learn a thing or two from the team’s old-ass veterans—R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon are as wily as they come—but more than likely he’ll continue his slow fade into post-MLB life.
(Beyond Danks, there’s a handful of other interesting NRIs, including high-ceiling middle-infield prospect Ozzie Albies and former Braves shadow-ace Kris Medlen. With the Braves’ overall lack of big-league talent and depth, don’t be surprised to see both in Atlanta this season.)
Milwaukee Brewers: Milwaukee has called upon a couple of interesting names to potentially join the Brew Crew, including well-covered relief arms Joba Chamberlain and Ryan Webb, and Face of MLB Eric Sogard. But while I’m interested in all three of these vets and polarizing prospect Jacob Nottingham, the money name on my list is recent draft pick Corey Ray. Drafted fifth overall in 2016, Ray only touched High-A last year but could rise fast as an athletic college bat. Any former Brevard County Manatee is a friend of mine, but this left-handed hitter could actually be very special and part of a young, fun Brewers team within a year or two.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals have taken a very different tact from many of the other teams in the National League with their NRIs. Instead of loading up on veteran MLB talents who’ve fallen out of favor, the St. Louis NRI list is chock full of developmental talents from within the organization. Most of them aren’t top prospects—Sandy Alcantara is a notable exception—and are instead Patrick Wisdom-esque org players who could use a dose of Cardinals Devil Magic if they’re ever to break the Triple-A barrier. Journeyman backstop Eric Fryer could make the Opening Day roster if the Cards want to get Carson Kelly extra plate appearances at Triple-A before starting his apprenticeship behind Yadier Molina, but otherwise this NRI group is as boring and vanilla as the Cardinals’ banal history of moderate, consistent success.
Chicago Cubs: What’s the other, other, other benefit of being the team coming off a history-smashing World Series win in a huge market with a bright future? You get your pick of the finest scraps off the NRI heap. Whether you’re interested in young, talented prospects (Eloy Jimenez, Ian Happ), ready-to-go bench talents (Jemile Weeks, Carlos Corporan), interesting arms (Jim Henderson, Casey Kelly, Williams Perez), or fun-loving victory-cigar mascots (Munenori Kawasaki), the Cubbies have something for everyone. Given how talented the 40-man roster already is, I’d advise you to bend your eyes towards Jimenez, BP’s no. 1 Cubs prospect. Our team doesn’t toss out OFP 70 ratings lightly, but after his Futures Game breakout this year it’s easy to dream on this toolsy outfielder. I can’t wait to see how he tackles high-level pitching.
Arizona Diamondbacks: You’ve gotta admire the Diamondbacks’ conviction that they are still a contending team in the NL West despite the embarrassment of wins piling up in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s no surprise that the Snakes’ NRI list is full of fringy veteran position players like all-bat Oswaldo Arcia, knuckleball-receiving Josh Thole, what-the-hell-happened-to Hank Conger, and play-everywhere Kris Negron. They’ve also brought in Gregor Blanco, whose fall from grace in San Francisco last year was both abrupt and complete. It’s easy to see a player like Blanco rebounding and filling in as a decent fifth outfielder—just ask PECOTA, which imagines him as an average big leaguer with 0.8 WARP in 276 plate appearances. Unfortunately for him, Arizona already has Socrates Brito and Arcia on hand, so even if the team bails on Yasmany Tomas there may not be room for yet another left-handed outfielder.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers still haven’t loaded up on NRIs, a shocking development for a team that seems so focused on depth and roster flexibility. To date, they’ve only committed to four players that I can find. Infield reserve Darnell Sweeney is irrelevant, even in this context, as he’s very unlikely to unseat a rostered incumbent. Second base prospect Willie Calhoun is certainly not irrelevant after a solid season in Tulsa, but he still needs seasoning above Double-A. And former Met Ike Davis is now the prototypical cleanup-hitting Triple-A veteran, not a viable big leaguer. That leaves Bobby Wilson, a backup catcher’s backup catcher. He played in five or more games with three different teams last year (Rangers, Rays, Tigers) and is just good enough to find his way to three more in 2017.
San Francisco Giants: Would you believe that four former MVPs are likely to find their way to spring training as non-roster invitees? Ryan Howard and Justin Morneau—at least at the time of filing this writing—are still looking for work, but Josh Hamilton’s in camp with the Rangers and Jimmy Rollins will take a stab at finding work by the bay. Things don’t look great for J-Roll’s continued MLB future after two dismal seasons with the Dodgers and White Sox, but the Giants will be glad to have him around this spring for his leadership and as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency fallback plan if Brandon Crawford suffers some severe ailment. (And if fellow NRI Gordon Beckham continues to be Gordon Beckham.)
Beyond Rollins, there’s a handful of other spare parts of interest that will be attending spring training with the Giants. Mike Morse is running out the clock, Kyle Blanks is running out of time, and Josmil Pinto is looking to run into a few fastballs. Here are my other two favorite NRI guys on this team: Jae-gyun Hwang and Justin Ruggiano. Overseas import Hwang is already almost guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster thanks to his potential and the team’s need for a right-handed infield bat. As of today, the Giants appear committed to a Jarrett Parker/Mac Williamson platoon in left field, but Ruggiano might be an even better platoon partner for Parker given his success hitting left-handers when he can avoid the DL. Williamson might be the long play, but the Giants certainly want to win right now, and of all the vets in San Francisco on an NRI Ruggiano might be the one most likely to help in that regard.
Miami Marlins: The Marlins have a NRI list of catchers so obscure that even I don’t care about them. However, since this may be the first and only time these gentlemen appear in a Baseball Prospectus article, I feel required to list them all here:
More like “Chris Who?” am I right? HEY, WAIT! WHERE ARE YOU GOING!?
(Matt den Dekker and Kyle Lobstein are legitimate back-end-of-a-25-man-roster players, and given the lack of depth in Miami don’t be surprised if they get some MLB time this season.)
New York Mets: The hot new thing in Queens is a steadfast refusal to bring in new blood. There have been plenty of jokes about Terry Collins’ desire for stability in the clubhouse, but this is just crazy: the Amazins only appear to have three NRIs (Adam Wilk, Tom Gorzelanny, Ben Rowen) from outside of the organization to pair with the zero major-league contracts handed out to outsiders. My guess is that the NRI guys to watch in New York will be first-baseman of the future Dominic Smith—who is BP senior prospect writer Jeff Paternostro’s "favorite" player—or Irish southpaw P.J. Conlon. Conlon could blow past the other uninspiring left-handers on the 40-man to win the job of second lefty, but more than likely these two are auditioning for 2018 roles.
Washington Nationals: Hello, old friends. With so much of the team’s minor-league pitching stars off to Chicago as part of the Adam Eaton deal, we’re left with a constellation of long-standing veterans on this team’s non-roster invitee list. Last year, I touted multi-positionalist Grant Green as San Francisco’s NRI name to watch; much like Green himself, I struck out, but here he is again! He’ll battle fellow former Giant Emmanuel Burriss to back up Wilmer Difo and Stephen Drew, which means we should probably forget about him and move on.
No, it’s the pitcher NRIs that are much more interesting in Washington. Joe Nathan keeps hanging on as he struggles to prolong his incredible career, but is he better at this stage than non-save superstar Matt Albers? And will one of the Quad-A brigade of Vance Worley, Jacob Turner, or Jeremy Guthrie return to the big leagues
San Diego Padres: If this NRI Watch were a high school yearbook, Erick Aybar would be elected Most Likely to Start 150 Games in 2017. The Padres’ roster is full of dudes who defy sticking in the heads of even the most die-hard roster-watchers, and Aybar’s only real competition for the starting shortstop job is Luis Sardinas. Beyond his pedigree, there’s a real chance Aybar could be better than replacement level in San Diego; his PECOTA projection gives him 0.5 WARP despite a history of sketchy defense. Sure, the start to his season in Atlanta last year made Braves-watchers throw up and his time with the Tigers didn’t turn heads, but he’s a reliable hand. On this team, that’s about all anyone can ask for.
Philadelphia Phillies: Looking at the Phillies’ NRI list makes me want to kiss my fingers like a chef sending out a culinary masterpiece. It’s a seven-course meal of fringy former big leaguers with an interesting prospect or two for dessert, especially on the position player side. From the scrap heap the Phillies have salvaged position players Pedro Florimon, Taylor Featherston, Bryan Holaday, and Daniel Nava. On the relief pitching side, familiar names like Cesar Ramos, Sean Burnett, Pedro Beato, and Colton Murray pop up. Last year I pegged do-it-all shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford as the guy to watch on this list, and that hasn’t changed even in spite of Philly’s fondness for switch-hitting Venezuelan middle infielders. (Rhys Hoskins will also be an NRI, though most of the rest of the Phillies’ top prospects are already on the 40-man.) And did they really bring Hector Gomez back from Korea!?
Two or three of the veteran NRIs could end up on the initial 25-man roster before the Phillies’ young talents rise up to supplant them. Beyond any of the relief pitchers, Ryan Hanigan is precisely the kind of stopgap elder statesman catcher teams love and his defensive abilities could make him an A.J. Ellis-lite until Andrew Knapp or Jorge Alfaro are ready to step in behind Cameron Rupp. And while Chris Coghlan got off to an awful start last year in Oakland, he rebounded nicely in Chicago and remains a useful platoon bat. While he waits for Michael Saunders to go down with his inevitable injury, he can show off his World Series ring to a team now otherwise devoid of veterans with experience as king of the mountain.
Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates have a lovely problem to which there is no good solution: they possess three outfielders with All-Star potential in Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco. Despite rumors persisting throughout the offseason, the Bucs appear to be keeping all three and just switching up their spots on the grass. That, of course, leaves the super-talented Austin Meadows on the backburner, but at least we’ll get to see his potential this spring. Easily the Pirates’ no. 1 prospect, he can (probably) do it all and may even find his way to the big club as early as midseason. Other than Meadows and fellow prospect Kevin Newman, the most exciting NRIs in play are Quad-A first basemen Jason Rogers and Joey Terdoslavich, which is not saying very much at all.
Cincinnati Reds: This was going to be a pretty dicey pick before the Reds reportedly cut a deal to bring in former top prospect Desmond Jennings on a minor-league contract. After all, this team is devoid enough of talent that guys like Arismendy Alcantara and Tim Adleman are 40-man roster players. But Jennings is an interesting guy despite beating himself into pulp through injuries and the dreaded Tropicana turf. More than almost any other NRI, D.J. has the potential to transform into an average or above-average soft side of a platoon; even as his athleticism has worn down, his bat still profiles close to average by PECOTA (.250 projected True Average for 2017). The scale of his upside might have changed, but the stirrings of hope never fade entirely.
Colorado Rockies: Since 2007, there have been 148 baseball players to hit 100 or more home runs. Atop this dinger list are the guys you’d expect*: Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz. But coming in at 15th is Rockies NRI invitee Mark Reynolds. Reynolds, who is legally and functionally blind**, has 251 dingers over the past 10 seasons, putting him just between future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre (254) and future Hall of Famer Robinson Cano (249). While Reynolds is certainly not a future Hall of Famer, he’s had an interesting career nonetheless and may eventually end up on a Hall of Fame ballot before his tale is told. Best of all, with Ian Desmond as the Rockies’ current starting first baseman, Reynolds may not just make the Opening Day roster, he may end up starting if the team faces lefty Tommy Milone***.
*The guy who’s no. 4 on this list is not retired, does not currently have a pro contract, and would make for a fun Rockies NRI: Ryan Howard.
***Oh man, is that ever a scary thought for Milwakuee’s fans.