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March 3, 2000

AL West Notebook

Non-Roster Hopefuls

by Jeff Bower

Grapefruit and Cactus League games are just starting, a time when it's tough to identify many of the players without a program, especially those with numbers higher than Tiger Woods's scoring average. In hockey those numbers are often worn by the likes of Jaromir Jagr or Eric Lindros, but in baseball, they're given to players who are merely hoping to catch somebody's eye. Many are doled out to the species known as the non-roster invitee (NRI).

Every club has at least a dozen NRIs. Some teams, like the Reds, have more NRIs than the Diamondbacks have uniform combinations, although less than a handful have even a slim chance of wearing the team colors come April Fools' Day. The primary benefit of giving a player a non-roster invitation is that it allows the team to defer making judgments on who to move off the 40-man roster, after they've seen players in game conditions. Teams are just like the rest of us: they prefer to avoid making tough decisions, especially when they could lose a useful player by trying to slip him through waivers, or when an athlete's career hangs in the balance.

NRIs generally fall into two groups. The first group is the hot prospects. These players don't occupy spots on the 40-man roster because they haven't played professionally long enough to require that they be added. It's a no-lose proposition for the parent club to see what they have in the minor-league pipeline. Some high draft choices have it written in their contract that they'll attend major-league spring training.

The other, more desperate, group is comprised of veterans who accept non-roster invitations because they (or their agents) believe it's their best chance to remain in or return to the major leagues. Some hook up with a particular team because they have relationships within that organization that could lead to post-career employment. This group of NRIs has split contracts with different wage scales depending if they make the squad or are sent to the bushes. That's another benefit of a non-roster invitation: It minimizes the risk of giving a major-league contract of at least $200,000 to players who are probably not going to make the team.

Another obvious benefit is that NRIs allow teams to play intrasquad games without having to resort to ghost runners. And every club has at least three NRI catchers because somebody has to squat for the dozens of pitchers getting in their work. Teams would otherwise have to drop a cache of greenbacks on catch nets.

Armed with that brief background, let's examine the NRIs in the AL West who have a fair chance of tacking some service time onto their major-league pension.

Anaheim Angels

This offseason, Bill Stoneman has been quieter than a "Hatch 2000!" rally, but he has managed to collect more than his fair share of NRIs. The Angels have a grave shortage of quality pitching, and new sheriff Mike Scioscia doesn't have any pre-existing ties to players in the organization, so they should leave Tempe with more NRIs on their 25-man roster than most other teams.

With Tim Belcher unlikely to be ready by the time the regular season rolls around, Anaheim may well have two NRIs in its starting rotation. Kent Mercker and his terrifying five-inning high wire act appear to be a shoo-in for the fourth spot, while 42-year-old knuckleballer Tom Candiotti has washed up on the left coast and actually has a decent chance of being handed the fifth-starter job.

The main competition is roster pitchers Jason Dickson, Brian Cooper and Scott Schoeneweis. Dickson is coming back from shoulder surgery and hasn't pitched effectively since June 1997. Although Cooper finished last year in periwinkle, he has had only five starts in Triple-A, isn't overpowering and would be best served with at least a few months at Edmonton. The left-handed Schoeneweis was adequate as a mop-up man last year, but really struggled when demoted and inserted into the Trappers' rotation.

Greg Cadaret received a non-roster invite and is in the mix to be the second left-hander in the bullpen, along with Juan Alvarez and Mike Holtz. Cadaret epitomizes the Night of the Living Dead southpaw, having played for half of the teams in the American League, including Anaheim in 1997 and 1998. Alvarez is the hardest thrower of the trio and should have the inside track, while Holtz has ditched his funky delivery in hopes of regaining command of his sweeping curveball and making last year's 8.06 ERA train wreck a distant memory.

Stoneman cornered the market on NRI second basemen, bringing in seven (Jason Bates, Justin Baughman, Archi Cianfrocco, Carlos Garcia, Pat Kelly, Keith Luuloa and Brian Oliver) to compete with Scott Speizio and Trent Durrington for the keystone job. In ancient Rome, they would have all been thrown into a pit with a lion or two and whoever emerged would be declared the victor. After missing all of last season, Baughman's splintered leg has finally mended. The Angels are infatuated with his speed and are forgetting the .277 OBP he posted in '98. Spiezio's decent on-base skills and power potential make him the best choice if Scioscia can get past the fact that he's weak in the field and built more like a catcher than a middle infielder.

Unless a trade is made, it looks like one of the Magnificent Seven will leave the desert as the utility infielder. At this point, there's no clear favorite and none of the choices are especially attractive. Bates has the most experience in that role, while Luuloa offers the most upside.

Oakland Athletics

As with the Angels, there is a good chance that the Athletics' fifth starter will be an NRI. However, unlike the Angels' NRI hurlers, a defibrillator isn't needed to get your heart pumping about these guys. The rapid progress of Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, the A's first-round picks the last two years, have landed them both in Phoenix with an opportunity to join the rotation. Both are left-handers, with Mulder having a little more life on his fastball and Zito better command of his off-speed pitches. A strong camp could win Mulder a big-league job, but Zito is almost assuredly ticketed for Sacramento even if he performs well, as the A's want to give him a little more seasoning.

Art Howe would very much like to add a left-hander to his rotation, and others vying for the five spot include NRI Doug Johns, Ron Mahay and right-hander Ariel Prieto, who is trying to put arm miseries and a well-deserved loss at the arbitration table behind him. Mahay is attempting to ape Ron Villone, as he has worked almost exclusively as a reliever since his conversion from the outfield. He is being touted as the front-runner and only a disappointing spring combined with an exceptional run by Mulder or Johns will change that. If Mulder doesn't land the job, he'll join Zito in triple-A, giving Oakland two viable options should any of their starters be ineffective or get injured.

If Mahay or Johns loses the contest to be the fifth starter, the consolation prize could be the second left-hander role in the bullpen, since the only serious competition is Tim Kubinski, another NRI. The organization knows what Kubinski has to offer, and it's nothing out of the ordinary. If all three toss mortars in Arizona, there's no guarantee that any of them will board the plane to Oakland. Howe doesn't micro-manage to the extent that he'll carry a second left-handed reliever on the roster merely for the purpose of adhering to every article in the LaRussa Doctrine.

Seattle Mariners

NRIs in Peoria should wander over to the Padres' complex because they have virtually no chance of making the Mariners' 25-man roster. It had become an annual rite of spring for the M's organization to turn over rocks looking for help on the mound, but that isn't the case in this year. Seattle has arguably the deepest supply of pitching in the history of the franchise. It's unlikely that any of the NRI pitchers, including überprospect Ryan Anderson, will survive past the Ides of March.

Only an injury is going to create room for NRI position players, and that's what has happened at catcher. Tom Lampkin tore his medial meniscus. Although he claims to be a quick healer and has the complete Benny Hinn library on order, it's unlikely that he'll be ready come Opening Day. Lampkin's surgery has created an opportunity for Lou Piniella's old Cincinnati crony, Joe Oliver, to take up a roster space for the first couple weeks of the season.

Although they have practically no chance of making of the squad, either of Mike Neill or Rich Butler is a better option as part of a left-field platoon than any of Seattle's roster players. General Manager Pat Gillick is banking on the demand for pitching to swell as the days grow longer, and intends on taking advantage of that fact to swing a deal for a left-handed-hitting outfielder.

Texas Rangers

The Rangers plan on opening the regular season with two rookies in the everyday lineup. That creates opportunities for NRIs at those positions since teams generally aren't nearly as patient when a rookie struggles as when a veteran does.

The NRI most likely to wear the Rangers' new uniforms is perennial BP favorite Tom Evans. A mediocre spring by Michael Lamb could clear the third-base job, and that's definitely within the realm of possibility. Although Lamb has been a hitting machine throughout his career, he is attempting to make the jump from Double-A. If Evans earns a job, it doesn't mean that the Rangers appreciate his value, but instead they recognize how thin they would be in the infield if Frank Catalanotto were made the starter at the hot corner. Evans would also make a nifty platoon partner with Lamb or even at DH with Lee Stevens, if Mike Simms's Achilles tendon continues to act up.

Top prospect Ruben Mateo is ruffling feathers in Port Charlotte with his cocky attitude despite having had no extended success in the majors. If Mateo's winter woes (both physical and performance) continue into March, Texas will be forced to turn to a group of NRIs that includes Jason McDonald, David Hulse and Scarborough Green. Just the thought of the latter two should scare the bejesus out of Rangers' fans, while McDonald has enough on-base and secondary skills to make him an adequate short-term fill-in. Another way one of the trio could make the club is if Johnny Oates decides he would rather have a backup center fielder on the 25-man roster than Simms's lumber. This would necessitate owner Tom Hicks swallowing hard and eating Simms's $1.1 million guaranteed contract.

Additionally, a pair of NRIs, Edwin Diaz and Jon Shave, are competing with Scott Sheldon for the utility infielder role. Sheldon would seem to be the obvious choice, as his potent bat could make him one of the more valuable spare parts in the game. However, Shave was in Arlington all last season, picking up plenty of splinters as well as the coveted "Proven Major Leaguer" label. It's yet to be seen, however, whether Oates can resist the allure of Diaz' sexy glovework.

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