February 17, 2017
NRI Watch: American 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 American League (and check out my National League picks as well.)
Los Angeles Angels: For a team that’s already done wonders in improving their positional depth this year, the Angels are an absolute font of NRI goodness. Beyond the disposable backup big-league outfielders like Shane Robinson, Ramon Flores, and Ryan LaMarre, there’s former top prospect Tony Sanchez behind the dish. Matt Thaiss and Taylor Ward, two of the Angels’ top three prospects, could be fun to watch but would draw less interest sitting in the 8-12 range for another team. The money name is Dustin Ackley, who missed most of 2016 with a torn labrum, the latest in a series of crushing disappointments for the former no. 2 overall pick. He still has a pretty viable hit tool, but his versatility has waned and he hasn’t put up a good season since college.
Smartly, the team is rolling the dice on a few non-roster pitchers with recent starting experience to supplement their core of talented-but-probably-injured starters. Behind every Garrett Richards or Tyler Skaggs, Los Angeles has cocked and loaded a Bud Norris or John Lamb. Lamb in particular is interesting; I had him as a breakout starter add last year with the Reds, but he devolved into primordial soup. If his velocity bounces back he could be interesting, but the likelihood of that happening will be in relief, a less compelling storyline. Yusmiero Petit has latched on here with a decent chance of being a long man. Between him and potential 25th man Jefry Marte, expect the hosts of For All You Kids Out There to be covering the Angels beat hard this season.
Houston Astros: Should we talk about journeyman catcher Juan Centeno? Perhaps opine on Jon Singleton, who never lived up to his pre-MLB-debut contract extension and is up for his last shot at making this team? No way! All aboard the Francis Martes hype train! The solidly built right-hander has plus velocity on his fastball and a cruel bender, and may be one off-speed pitch away from settling in near the front of the Astros’ rotation. He’s yet to put up premium Double-A numbers in two times trying out the league, but the worst-case scenario probably has him closing games in Houston—or, say, in Chicago after the Astros trade him for Jose Quintana—by 2018.
Oakland Athletics: With top prospects A.J. Puk and Matt Chapman coming to camp, and Alejandro De Aza and Jaff Decker potentially competing for spots in a messy outfield, of course I’m here to talk about ... Ryan Lavarnway. Once the next great catching hope for the Red Sox, Lavarnway has become something of a Triple-A journeyman. (Or at least he would be, if the Blue Jays didn’t kick him all the way down to Double-A last season.) Still, you’ve gotta admire a guy who sticks with it as long as Lavarnway has. Now onto his seventh franchise, I keep hoping he’ll close the loop and play for a team in each of the six divisions. After this stint with Oakland, he just needs the AL Central to fill his bingo card.
Toronto Blue Jays: There’s no question that Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the guy most likely to end up on the Jays’ Opening Day roster; a proven veteran and bench bat, Salty could have gotten a big-league contract and no one—save pitch-framing proponents—would’ve batted an eye. But the Jays also cornered the market on former MLB starters on minor-league deals, inking four viable rotation candidates behind the team’s projected starters and Mike Bolsinger. There’s injury reclamation project Gavin Floyd, journeyman Lucas Harrell, long-named Brett Oberholtzer, and perhaps the most interesting guy of the bunch in T.J. House. House had a brilliant run with Cleveland in 2014, but that seems a long way away for the lefty who hasn’t gotten much work since then. Still, if he can spike his velocity back up to his glory
Cleveland Indians: I’m nuts about the Indians’ NRI crop. There’s Transaction Analysis superstar Erik Kratz, who’s ready to catch at a moment’s notice and throw a garbage inning of relief if he needs to. There’s Austin Jackson, who continues to confound by looking like a legit major leaguer one moment and a complete mess the next. There’s Bradley Zimmer, who’s looking to rebound after a cruddy 2016 to restore some of his prospect luster by hopefully unseating someone like Jackson. But my two guys are people who could fill in at third base and maybe push Jose Ramirez into left field or a super-sub role: Richie Shaffer and Yandy Diaz.
Shaffer was well-traveled this offseason, getting traded from the Rays to the Mariners, then picked up by the Reds, Phillies, and now Indians. Five teams in one offseason. And he can still hit a little! But Diaz is my spirit animal, a third baseman who can also play a little up the middle, possessed of tremendous defensive skills and a world-class walk rate. I’m convinced he can be a productive major-league regular, if he can just find an everyday job.
Seattle Mariners: The Mariners’ NRI position players are as dull as their 25-man guys are interesting, save for the lone exception of prospect-hugger cause célèbre Tyler O’Neill. (Expect awesome shows in batting practice and jacked biceps.) My heart, however, belongs to the bullpen. While you may have great affection for former Red Sox (minor-league) pitcher Nick Hagadone, former Red Sox pitcher Jonathan Aro, or former Red Sox pitcher Jean Machi—shout out to that 2015 Boston ‘pen!—give me total weirdos like Pat Venditte and Micah Owings any day of the week.
Owings is especially fun given that he’s been out of affiliated ball since two games with the Marlins’ Double-A affiliate in 2014. With Owings always having the potential to pull a reverse Christian Bethancourt—never forget that he has a .501 career slugging percentage—and Venditte packing heat on each side as a switch-pitcher, the Mariners have enough NRI weirdness for three ballclubs.
Beyond Andino and Johnny Giavotella waiting out an injury in the infield, there’s not much to like when it comes to the Baltimore non-roster invitees, except for catcher-in-waiting Chance Sisco. Sisco has the bat and athleticism to eventually thrive in the major leagues, but his defense behind the plate remains an open question. He’ll need to improve his presentation skills to give him the WARP bump we’d all like to see, but the underlying skills are there for an above-average future. With Matt Wieters no longer the catcher of the future or the present in Baltimore, it’s about time for him to get
Texas Rangers: We’re not not going to talk about Josh Hamilton. PECOTA still projects the troubled outfielder for 1.1 WARP over 250 plate appearances in 2017, because it's a fool’s errand to count him out completely. Of course, it’s not likely that he’ll play much—or even at all—and with his multiple recent knee surgeries, when he does take the field it’s likely to be at first base or designated hitter. I think we can all agree that the Rangers should be able to find a better option if they need a left-handed-hitting first baseman. There’s Joey Gal-
NO. YOU GO AWAY, JAMES LONEY.
If either Hamilton or Loney is starting against righties while human wind turbine/dinger generator Joey Gallo languishes, I’m going to cry.
The Rangers have a host of other familiar names on staff, from Travis Snider to Will Middlebrooks to pitcher-hitter Adam Loewen. Dillon Gee could actually get a long look as a spot starter, even despite the presence of Chi Chi Gonzalez and knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa, as presumptive starters A.J. Griffin and Andrew Cashner aren’t very reliable.
Tampa Bay Rays: Take it from someone who wrote nine comments about the position for this year’s Baseball Prospectus Annual, the Rays have a load of catchers. Now, with Wilson Ramos in the fold, they have one above-average backstop, but while he rehabs the team looks to test out a host of NRI options as a third-stringer behind just-OK options Luke Maile and Curt Casali. Jonah Heim and Nick Ciuffo are young and haven’t had upper-minors experience, but Ciuffo did have a disappointing showing in the AFL this year. (Wait.) Better options include Jesus Sucre (aka “Sugar Jesus”), who hit uncharacteristically well in September, and Michael McKenry, who hit uncharacteristically poorly for the last two years.
Boston Red Sox: Despite the presence of exciting prospects in Rafael Devers and Sam Travis, the Red Sox's NRI list is the land of broken dreams. Kyle Kendrick is here, despite posting four seasons where he was two or more WARP worse than replacement level. (Two of those seasons were 2014 and 2015, so he spent 2016 in the minors.) So is Rusney Castillo, a $72.5 million Cuban import who seems to have topped out as a fifth outfielder. And last but certainly not least, there’s perhaps the biggest disappointment in the Red Sox’s recent history—which is saying something when you’re the team that inked Pablo Sandoval to a five-year contract—in Allen Craig.
Upon arriving in Boston via the John Lackey trade, Craig entered an inexplicable performance death spiral. In two stints with the big club he hit like a pitcher (TAvs of .177 and .181 in 2014 and 2015), and looked just as bad while suffering an injury in Pawtucket last season (TAv of just .216 at Triple-A). Despite the money owed, don’t look at Craig to crack this roster; he’ll hurt the team from a luxury tax perspective if he returns to the bigs. The best-case scenario is that he plays well enough to get a final major-league chance somewhere like Texas.
Kansas City Royals: If the year was 2012 instead of 2017 there’d be a decent enough bullpen among KC’s non-roster invitees. Brandon League was coming off a season as a good closer in Seattle, and Bobby Parnell was coming into his own in New York. Jonathan Sanchez wasn’t that far removed from good starting seasons in San Francisco, and Al Alburquerque had the stuff to back up his film-noir name. Today? It’s just sad. League missed 2016 after years of being a “don’t pay for saves” cautionary tale. Parnell never came back from a severe arm issue. Al-Squared turned into a pumpkin after leaving Detroit. Sanchez last pitched in affiliated ball back in 2014, only getting two outs all year. If any NRI makes the bullpen it’s likely to be Chris Withrow, who could be in line for a post-Tommy John surgery bounceback year.
Detroit Tigers: You can go home again, if your home is the Tigers franchise and your name is Omar Infante. The Tigers were never the team he was best with, but this is his third go-round with the franchise that signed him out of Venezuela (and probably his last shot). The former All-Star is not at all likely to make the team—barring a last-minute trade of Ian Kinsler, that is—but I’m definitely rooting for him. Despite the terrifically ugly first two seasons he had after signing a rich contract in Kansas City, he’s always seemed like a workaday guy who’s trying his best and he wasn’t even that unfortunate in his 2016 time with the Royals! No longer the versatile go-getter, he’s the wily vet who has seen it all, loaded with playoff experience, looking for a last shot. He didn’t even make it into this year’s Baseball Prospectus Annual, but there’s a puncher’s chance that he’ll have another shot.
Minnesota Twins: Not every team has an NRI who has an award named after him, but kudos to the Twins and Ryan Vogelsong! He heads up a surprisingly short list of NRI pitchers in Minnesota, meaning that the Twins may need to lean on Jose Berrios and Adalberto Mejia and hope no one else breaks down. The Twins have unspectacular first basemen Byung Ho Park, Ben Paulsen, and welcome-back-from-Japan Matt-Hague in line to get spring reps, and future-manager Chris Gimenez in the fold at catcher, but the most interesting name on the block is Craig Breslow. As Evan Drellich detailed a few weeks ago, Breslow has added a two-seamer from a lowered arm slot in an attempt to be more Zach Britton-like. The Twins’ bullpen is chock full of question marks, so anything Breslow could provide above replacement-level performance would be terrific.
Chicago White Sox: We all know this season could be an Aaron Bummer on the South Side, but being a rebuilding team has its Matt Purkes. There are at least three interesting young talents likely to join the Sox in camp this spring: Zack Burdi, Zack Collins, and Michael Kopech. Burdi has the potential to make his Danny Hayes in the rotation as soon as midseason, joining Nate Jones for a dynamite one-two punch. Collins has the raw power of a medieval Blake Smith, but it’s an open question if he’ll Everth Cabrera stick behind the dish. Finally, there’s Kopech. He has a 100 mph fastball so hot you can Jace Fry an egg on it. If he can calm his delivery and harness his command enough to stay a starter, the future in Chicago should go from downer to something gorgeous, which rhymes with potential starting center fielder Peter Bourjos.
(I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m trying to delete it.)
New York Yankees: Let’s not play around here. We’re not here for Pete Kozma and Ruben Tejada and Nick Rumbelow. Let’s not get into the likelihood of Ji-Man Choi and Donovan Solano getting meaningful reps. The Yankees have a remarkable collection of close-to-the-majors prospect talent, and they’re almost all coming to camp. I am extremely here for Gleyber Torres, who will be unfairly compared to Derek Jeter for the next decade. (If he’s slow to pan out, expect calls for fellow NRI Tyler Wade, who is good but not as good.)
Bat speed savant Clint Frazier will be in camp, looking to power his way into an outfield corner as soon as the Yankees deal Brett Gardner away. (If he’s slow to pan out, expect calls for fellow NRI Dustin “Don’t Call Me Dexter” Fowler, who is good but not as good.) On the pitching side, there’s Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield and James Kaprielian in camp, listed here in order of likelihood of debut or in reverse order of upside, take your pick. And that doesn’t even include Aaron Judge and Jorge Mateo, who’re actually on the 40-man roster. It could be a fun few years in the Bronx.