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February 19, 2008

Transaction Analysis

AL East NRI Review

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Total NRIs: 19
Ex-Famous People: RHP Steve Trachsel. As that great reductionist Tuco Ramirez might observe, you either love having him around, or you don't. As I said on Sunday, I'm just glad he's in somebody's camp, albeit grateful that it isn't one of a team I have any attachment to.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: RHPs Chris Tillman and Kameron Mickolio, C-S Matt Wieters, 3B-L Mike Costanzo
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: RHPs Ryan Bukvich, C-S Ben Davis, C-R Chris Heintz, CF-S Chris Roberson, OF-R Luis Terrero. Davis and Heintz are your standard-issue extra catchers with plenty of experience, but both might entertain some measure of hope that Guillermo Quiroz doesn't inspire confidence in his bid to back up Ramon Hernandez. Bukvich is a bit of a long shot in a crowded field bidding for bullpen work, but you could have said the same of him last year, and he wound up getting more time with the White Sox than he ever got when he was with the Royals and still semi-prospect-ish. Roberson and Terrero are both hoping to somehow luck into whatever it was that broke Tike Redman's way last year, and catch a break in center. Clearly, Adam Jones's success or failure means everything to their slender opportunities.
Now or Never: MI-S Eider Torres was claimed off of waivers from the Indians a year ago, then safely removed by the Orioles from their own 40-man. He's a speedster who can play a passable short and a good second base, but it's the former quality that might mean something, as the "incumbent" at short is the weak-sticked Luis Hernandez, the sort of rival that the equally punchless Torres (.267/.307/.338, or a .228 Equivalent Average at Norfolk last year) might have a shot at besting if he has an especially good camp.
Rehabbing Pitchers: RHPs Ryan Keefer and Roberto Novoa have both been seen as prospects in the past, but Keefer lost much of 2006 and all of 2007 to elbow problems (ending in surgery), while Novoa is recovering from a "humeral head fracture" at the proximal point of the arm, right at the point where it connects with the torso, which is why he had to be shut down with what was more generically referred to as a "tight shoulder." Both make for interesting sleeper types as far as people who could contribute in the big-league bullpen at some point this season, especially Novoa if he has anything like his former velocity.
Not Dead Yet: UT-R Oscar Salazar and RHP Esteban Yan are both interesting veterans to see showing up somewhere. Yan went to Japan last year, and did semi-adequately pitching for Hanshin, posting a 4.61 ERA in slightly more than 100 IP; it's sort of amusing that he was apparently called for a career-high 12 balks in the NPB-what, was his delivery just not funky enough? Salazar's just fun for me to remember, because ten years ago he was a Venezuelan import in the A's organization who seemed likely to hit enough to make it up, but whose position was always a bit of a question mark. He wound up bouncing around waivers, and then to the Mexican League, before resurfacing as a semi-regular infielder at Bowie last season. He still doesn't really have a position, but he is back in affiliated ball, and this will be his second O's camp.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: RHPs Danys Baez and Chris Ray should both be headed for a spring and summer spent on the DL recovering from surgery, so that's two spots that should open up right off the bat. However, the Orioles have a stack of guys with middling ability and upside who are out of options, and may or may not make the team: on the pitching staff alone, there's Greg Aquino, Jon Leicester, Dennis Sarfate, and Fernando Cabrera, while Quiroz and utilityman Freddie Bynum are similarly option-less. That can help cement several of these guys in place, but the combination of a good camp and the sheer mathematical improbability that they keep all of the players without options might make for some sort of opportunity for somebody from among the NRIs.
The Ones Who Will Stick: Trachsel seems relatively likely given the weak rotation, with Torres making for an interesting challenger until the Orioles trade for Juan Uribe or sign some alternative.

BOSTON RED SOX
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Total NRIs: 15
Ex-Famous People: Nobody really famous, but Bobby Kielty might have a certain amount of infamy in sabermetric circles for being over-touted by myself and fellow statheads; he's still a handy lefty-mashing reserve, and as close as a lock to make the team as anybody in this group. Among the pitchers, former Brewers closer Dan Kolb commands the most notoriety.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: RHPs Michael Bowden and Justin Masterson
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: LHPs Hunter Jones, Jon Switzer, and Michael Tejera; SS-S Jed Lowrie. Craig Breslow and Javier Lopez are both out of options, and they can't both be the second lefty in the pen behind Hideki Okajima. Switzer and Tejera both basically have to hope that the Sox decide neither of those two should get the job. Jones is a dark horse at best, a non-drafted free agent coming off of an injury-plagued college career at Florida State who signed up in 2005. Last year, Jones survived the challenge of pitching in Lancaster in the Cal League, earning a promotion to Double-A and later a stint in the Arizona Fall League; however, at no place did he overpower his fellow lefties, making a bid for situational work seem a bit dubious. For Lowrie, it all boils down to whether or not Julio Lugo pancakes at the plate, how soon, and how flat is the pancake-are we talking those rubbery little Swedish pancakes, or your more basic fluffy American rib-stickers? If the Sox decide they'd prefer to go lean at short, Lowrie's basically ready to go.
Now or Never: RHP Lee Gronkiewicz has never been considered a prospect, but he's also never had trouble getting people out while knocking around bullpens of affiliates in first the Indians and then the Blue Jays organizations. He's laboring under some of the handicaps you might expect from a guy with only one major league appearance in seven years as a pro who is now pushing 30-he's a short right-hander who throws strikes with everything but who lacks a plus fastball. He's a battler, and that's worthy of some respect, but he's behind equally capable 11th pitcher types already on the 40-man, guys like Bryan Corey and Kyle Snyder. It's great to see these sorts of guys get shots to fill out the back ends of bullpens, but they can't all make it, not unless we're talking about the Marlins, and we aren't.
Not Dead Yet: Fallen prospects C-R Kevin Cash and 2B/OF-L Joe Thurston are both still hanging around, but it's really only been five or six years since their golden fortunes turned to pyrite; both can still hope for the occasional cup of coffee. In contrast, 1B/3B-R Keith Ginter has more than 1000 career major league plate appearances; he'll turn 32 a month into the season, and seems likely to join the swollen ranks of has-beens cycled through Pawtucket now that his ability to play second is little more than a memory.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: As mentioned before, it seems unlikely that both Breslow and Lopez will still be on the full roster come Opening Day. Similarly, we can expect Curt Schilling to possibly disappear onto the 60-day DL, which means there might be at least two spots opening up.
The One Who Will Stick: Kielty; everyone else is a long shot or a predestined PawSock.

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Total NRIs: 29, but it's the Yankees, and you know that for most of them it's more likely they'll still be playing at Legends Field after camps close than Yankee Stadium.
Ex-Famous People: 3B-R Morgan Ensberg, OF-R Jason Lane. The Yankees have only 15 position players on their 40-man roster, so merely as a matter of mathematics, veterans like Ensberg and Lane have to like their chances.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: Too many to name all of them given that the organization invited so many different players, but among names you should already be familiar with, you should note outfielders Jose Tabata and Austin Jackson.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: Ensberg might have something bordering on a straight shot given the club's lack of a first baseman or a reliable reserve at the infield corners, and itinerant infielders Nick Green and Cody Ransom might have opportunities if Joe Girardi decides he has to have an extra infield reserve beyond Wilson Betemit. But Lane is going to have to completely outshine Shelley Duncan to stick, and I wouldn't necessarily bet on that. Brett Gardner might have a better shot, albeit an outside one, by not being a directly comparable player to the two righty sluggers, and instead offering Joe Girardi a pair of fresh legs in a generally ancient outfield; I admit, that's a bit of a reach. There might be some interesting questions involving the southpaws, as Kei Igawa, Sean Henn, and Chase Wright are hardly world-beaters from among the 40-man options, and that's obviously reason to hope for both Heath Phillips and Billy Traber.
Now or Never: Either Traber, or Bernie Castro, I guess, with the latter mattering only if Girardi decides he's happier with a pinch-runner who can play second as well as the outfield, and it just isn't all that likely. Who knows, maybe he'll inspire an Alfredo Amezaga flashback in his new skipper; Girardi ended up resuscitating the utilityman in Miami in 2006, and that seemed pretty improbable at the time. For you Nats fans who noticed, yes, the Yankees have been dumpster-diving through Jim Bowden's discards.
Rehabbing Pitchers/Not Dead Yet: It's a twofer-RHP Scott Strickland. Strickland has struck people's fancy for years after seeming a future closer coming up with the Expos a decade ago, but keep in mind he's six years removed from his last good season in the majors, and he has only one generally healthy full season since, laboring as an Indianapolis Indian in 2006. Among the simply rehabbing, you should note former D'backs prospect Steven Jackson (not the Steve Jackson, sadly) and his quest to shake off shoulder trouble, as well as RHP Darrell Rasner's attempt to put himself back in the rotation picture recovering from a fractured finger that derailed his 2007 season.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: With a gaggle of mediocre relievers like Chris Britton, Brian Bruney, Henn, and Jonathan Albaladejo cluttering the roster, it isn't hard to project one area where the Yankees could make space for guys like Ensberg or Strickland if they show anything in camp. There's obviously a pretty significant chance that the organization's disgust with Carl Pavano will reach the point that the simple act of cutting him would be cause for Yankee Nation-wide celebration, and not just among the NRIs.
The Ones Who Will Stick: Ensberg's almost a certainty, but I won't be surprised if Girardi places his stamp on the bench by keeping someone like Castro or Traber if they show him something in camp.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Total NRIs: 16
Ex-Famous People: 4C-L Eric Hinske won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2002; that's pretty famous. Beyond that, you get into the reasons why we might remember Josh Paul, so it's safe to say the Rays haven't gone the used-up celebs/Bravo route in their NRI choices.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: LHP Jacob McGee, RHPs Wade Davis and Christopher Mason, and SS-L Reid Brignac all qualify, although these tastes are more properly appetizers, because all may be up later on during the summer; Evan Longoria does not qualify, because the third base job is clearly his to lose.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: Hinske and former Cardinals outfielders John Rodriguez and Chris Richard are all barely hanging onto their careers at this point, but their opportunities with the Rays differ. Hinske's shot actually looks pretty good, as he'd provide veteran insurance for Carlos Peņa at first and Longoria at third, plus handle some DH or outfield corner chores as needed. He's sort of the perfect replacement for the similarly handy Greg Norton; his shot at more playing time than that depends on bad things, like Peņa's flopping (again) or Longoria struggling in his first month. Complicating his bid is the fact that Willy Aybar is out of options and Joel Guzman sort of notionally plays the same spread of positions, so in part his bid might depend not only on how he plays, but also how Guzman does, plus how the fight between Aybar and Ben Zobrist as the primary middle-infield reserve plays out. Rodriguez and Richard can both still swing a good bat and would have some value in reserve roles, but their opportunities are more dependent on the next Rocco Baldelli or Cliff Floyd injury, which, come to think of it, isn't all that unlikely; naturally, Hinske might also profit from that sort of occurrence.
Rehabbing Players: None of the NRI pitchers are rehabbers, but the Rays do have a rehabbing catcher in Hector Gimenez, a former Astros prospect trying to bounce back from labrum surgery that cost him all of 2007. While his prospect status is dead, there's still a chance that he might be able to stick somewhere as somebody's backup catcher for weeks or months at a time, and this is the organization that's kept Josh Paul around for years, after all. Shawn Riggans might be the early favorite to win the job of backing up Dioner Navarro, but that doesn't mean he'll keep it.
Not Dead Yet: Original D-Ray C-R Mike DiFelice is in camp, but that's not exactly as cool as it seems-why recall the inglorious past? The Blue Jays didn't race to bring back Alan Ashby at the end of his career. Anyway, the far more intriguing undead NRI is LHP Brian Anderson, who's making a comeback after a two-year layoff with elbow problems. Tropicana isn't really that much of a homer-happy ballpark, so Anderson's souvenir-generating fly-balling issues don't necessarily represent a special problem should he prove ready to pitch. He could always throw strikes, so if he still can, he might make for a plausible challenger to Trever Miller and Kurt Birkins for a situational southpaw slot in the pen.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: Aybar's latest personal problems and now visa issues might contribute to the team's doing something unhappy, like sending him on a return trip to the Restricted List. Middling moundsmen like Jae Kuk Ryu, Birkins, and Gary Glover are already in danger of getting crowded out by the organization's swarm of pitching prospects, while veterans like Floyd, Baldelli, and Grant Balfour seem like they're permanently at risk to land on the 60-day DL.
The Ones Who Will Stick: Hinske, for real; DiFelice, maybe long enough to get the Viking funeral sendoff (better if they do that either at the end of camp or in September after a season spent at Durham, though). Rodriguez seems an interesting bet to replace any of the Rays' injury-prone corner outfielders, but his shot is a matter of timing; say, if Justin Ruggiano isn't hitting at Durham when those injuries happen.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Total NRIs: 19
Ex-Famous People: Nobody, not unless you count something like getting burned by picking Lance Carter as a saves sleeper in a fantasy league ten years ago, and still harbor a grudge. (Not me, certainly.)
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: C-R J.P. Arencibia, C-L Brian Jeroloman, and RF-L Travis Snider, but that's really just about it; most of the Jays' NRI guys are mid-career filler types trying to catch a break.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: This goes for all nine NRI pitchers in camp. Guys like Rays castoff Shawn Camp, Reds/Snakes discard Mike Gosling, and maybe former Orioles prospect John Parrish are young enough that this represents something more than a last hurrah, whereas for guys like Carter or Kane Davis, every camp could be their last. There is also an organizational soldier of note, Jamie Vermilyea--his shot is no better or worse than any of the others, but none of them is all that likely to make it. With a crowd of pitchers on the 40-man ahead of them who are all relatively healthy and useful, the whole group seems more likely to wind up going to Syracuse than sticking around. Veteran backstop Sal Fasano can hope that Rod Barajas hurts himself, but even that's a reach, as the Jays might just turn to Curtis Thigpen in that scenario. Hector Luna and Pedro Lopez are both crowded out by the Jays' equally large number of infield reserve options already on the roster.
Now or Never: The club-footed Chip Cannon was briefly touted for his power and batting skills, but after two full seasons at Double-A, his career's obviously on a treadmill. He's someone to root for, but not to get worked up about.
Rehabbing Pitchers: Journeyman lefty Ryan Ketchner had to cope with some shoulder problems when he wasn't getting hammered pitching for Portland last year.
Not Dead Yet: Lance Carter's back on our side of the pond after a year with the Orix Blue Wave, where he wasn't very effective (14 homers and 102 hits allowed in 86 1/3 IP, with a 4.48 ERA). Still, the guy is only 33, so he's probably not done until he's no longer a wise hand for a Triple-A bullpen. Matt Watson might not command the same notoriety of so many other ex-Oakland imports in the organization, but he's back from Japan as well after a disappointing pair of seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines; you can probably expect him to provide some measure of veteran protection for Snider in Syracuse's lineup. Finally, Kane Davis is on his eighth organization, not counting two spins with both the Brewers and Indians or two separate gigs in the independent Atlantic League, and he's six months younger than Carter if you're counting tree rings.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: The Jays have next to nobody who might present an out-of-options problem, which bodes ill for the NRI crowd. Rule 5 pick Randy Wells seemed like a reach in December, and will be hard-pressed to stick in at the very bottom of an already well-stocked pen. As regular sources of disappointment, Gustavo Chacin and Russ Adams could both be at risk, but perhaps not so much at the very start of the season.
The Ones Who Will Stick: Not a one of them. J.P. Ricciardi's accumulation of mediocrity, both on the regular roster and among his NRIs, has insulated the team from any non-roster surprises.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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