February 29, 2008
NL East NRI Review
Total NRIs: 12, or what might be referred to as a very small group indeed.
Ex-Famous People: Former Braves slugging backstop Javy Lopez is in camp, in great shape, and apparently focusing on catching in a way he never had before. The primary alternatives to Lopez as far as backing up Brian McCann are the semi-promising Clint Sammons and the single-riffic Brayan Peña, both of whom could be adequate reserves, but neither of whom really possess any scintilla of potential lefty-mashing virtue as an alternative to McCann, which would definitely be something that Lopez could help out with. This should make for interesting viewing.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: CF-L Jordan Schafer and SS-R Brent Lillibridge, both of whom loom large enough on the radar to put themselves into the big-league picture in the second half. How the club's initial choices at their positions-the porcelain-fine Mark Kotsay and the surprising Yunel Escobar, respectively-do could change that timetable.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: Lopez is obviously hoping Peña can't even slap singles with any regularity, but beyond that, there aren't many contenders for a roster spot among this dirty dozen. MI-S Javier Guzman was once seen as an intriguing shortstop prospect in the Pirates organization, but last year's knee injury cost him most of the season, and when he did take the field during winter ball, it was mostly at second base. If he can't play short, he joins a large general population of second basemen who need to do enough other things to earn any kind of consideration for utility roles. I don't see him presenting any kind of challenge to Omar Infante.
Now or Never: Now 29, Joe Borchard has spent his entire career teasing people with possibilities, but the big, athletic switch-hitter hasn't panned out despite repeated demonstrations of slugging prowess at Triple-A. He has some sort of shot to be the team's fifth outfielder, but it depends on his providing enough reassurance that he can play center well enough to be a viable backup to Kotsay there, and he needs to beat out people like Josh Anderson and/or Scott Thorman for the last spot on the bench. If he can't beat out that kind of competition, it's really never going to happen.
Rehabbing Pitchers: Jorge Campillo isn't really rehabbing after putting in an almost-full season at Tacoma last year after effectively losing his 2006 campaign to elbow surgery, but his comeback from a missed opportunity to stick in the Mariners' rotation in 2005 has taken him to the Braves. He finished his season with the Rainiers on an up note after having to get shut down in July, delivering four quality starts in five. There's reason to believe he could be this year's Buddy Carlyle if the original article isn't able to help paper over the hole in the rotation likely to open up once the semi-present Mike Hampton breaks down again. Ryan Drese is more legitimately rehabbing from his own elbow ligament transplant, but he's not going to be a factor until late in the year, if at all.
Not Dead Yet: Corky Miller was once seen as a sneaky sort of catching prospect, but he clearly wound up a Quad-A guy whose modest range of hitting skills never translated effectively to major league performance.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: Thorman's future is probably already shot after last year's flop, but until Mark Teixeira signs an extension, he's probably safe. Given the paucity of catching talent, I'm not sure the Braves would risk trying to sneak Peña through waivers. Given the multiplicity of options other than Hampton in the rotation, I could see Carlyle being at risk. Beyond that, we get into questions of whether seemingly permanent likely suspects where the 60-day DL is concerned wind up deposited thereabouts-Hampton, of course, and perhaps also the otherwise-talented reliever Phil Stockman.
The Ones Who Will Stick: I'm willing to bet the Braves run with Lopez behind the plate, but I think Borchard's going to have to settle for getting reacquainted with the International League.
Total NRIs: 31
Ex-Famous People: Nobody in particular; for a team with as many holes as have been punched in this roster, you'd think there'd be a harpoon lying around to snag somebody with. Ideally, a somebody who could play center. Or shortstop. Or third base. Or catch.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: RHPs Gaby Hernandez, Brett Sinkbeil, Christopher Volstad, Kirk Badenhop, and Dallas Trahern, LHP Aaron Thompson, 1B-R Gaby Sanchez, and 2B-L Chris Coghlan.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: There are plenty of opportunities-just ask previous survivors like UT-S Alfredo Amezaga or RHP Justin Miller, neither of whom got voted off this island after bobbing around the free talent pool for years. The question is whether or not anybody from this big group is in a position to exploit any of them; you would think a team that has no solid candidate for its starting catcher job would have done better than just bringing back Paul Hoover; former A's farmhand John Baker really isn't what I would have had in mind either. Still, with only Matt Treanor and Mike Rabelo representing incumbency, even the Bakers and Hoovers can hope for something to break their way. In the absence of anyone on the 40-man who might fulfill the role, Rangers reject Randy Williams might have a pretty good shot at being the second lefty in the pen behind Taylor Tankersley; since he's even older than Miller, his would be an even more improbable comeback.
Now or Never: Jorge Cantu came up with a reputation for swinging a strong bat and raising questions about his eventual position. Now the bat rep is on life support and it remains to be seen if he can be an asset as a regular at any position, but with the job at third base an open competition between Cantu, Dallas McPherson, and Jose Castillo, this has to be the former D-Rays prospect's last best chance to stick. If Cantu does win, though, woe to the pitching staff already challenged by having Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla in the middle of that infield.
Rehabbing Pitchers: A pair of former Devil Rays-remember, they never got to be plain old Rays, so they were only ever parts that had to catch a wave, not act like one-are both trying to bounce back from injuries. Tim Corcoran was hampered by elbow problems last year, and RHP Doug Waechter was recuperating from surgery to repair a torn labrum much of the season.
Not Dead Yet: Although journeyman right-hander Joe Nelson and the ancient utilityman Jason Wood might both be worthy candidates, the name that springs out at me is that of OF-L Jorge Piedra, the former Rockies prospect trying to get his career back in order subsequent to drawing a PED suspension. Last year, he bounced from the Atlantic League to Sacramento, and kept hitting as well as ever, so as he closes in on his 29th birthday, there's still a chance that he might make a decent lefty bat off of the bench. However, the decision to bring in Luis Gonzalez to provide solid citizenship didn't do Piedra any favors.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: Some of the more questionable pitchers would seem likely-as cool as it was to see Miller make a comeback last year, somebody like him or RHP Lee Gardner shouldn't be considered a lock.
The One Who Will Stick: I could see both Cantu and Williams making it, but both are so marginal that it would be just as likely that they get knocked out of contention for the Opening Day roster by late waiver-wire pickups.
Total NRIs: 25.
Ex-Famous People: In keeping with a theme Omar Minaya's developed hereabouts, I'll note a trio whose claims to fame are that they were top prospects traded for top players-the perhaps equally disappointing RHP Tony Armas Jr., LHP Ricardo Rincon, and 1B-R Fernando Tatis.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: RHP Eddie Kunz, LHP Jonathon Niese, OF-L Fernando Martinez.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: UT-S Jose Valentin is gunning for yet another comeback, and this one's no more unlikely than the previous ones. He can play more positions plausibly well enough than Damion Easley or Ruben Gotay, so if he does anything at the plate in March, he'll put himself into the picture for a bench role. Guys like Rincon and Armas will of course challenge for jobs at the back end of the bullpen, but with a trio of experienced lefty relievers already on the 40-man, Rincon's more likely to earn a trade to a job with a good camp than win one on the Mets, while Armas will have to outshine long-on-promise Latins like Jorge Sosa and Ruddy Lugo.
Now or Never: The Mets have a pair that falls within this category, OF-R Ben Johnson and RHP Nelson Figueroa. Johnson's got tools a-plenty: speed, power, range afield, a decent hitting stroke, a good arm. He's also never quite put it all together in a way that could make him a viable second-division starter in center, or even as a bit player on the bench of a better ballclub. An inability to stay healthy has been a major handicap (last year was wrecked by a broken ankle), but now that he's coming into his age-27 season, excuses aren't good enough. He could make for a nice alternative to the equally toolsy Endy Chavez, giving the Mets a righty/lefty pair of outfielders with the ability to contribute in all phases of the game. As Derek Jacques and Clay Davenport have reported, Figueroa was one of the stars of the winter leagues this year, but he remains more of a pitch-black dark horse on a moonless night among the Mets' rotation backup plans. Andy Hernandez is still only 25, so while he might be a bit frustrating to some who expected him to be a Big Apple little piranha, there's still a chance he'll turn up somewhere, somehow, and pester pitchers with his Deadball Era offensive game.
Rehabbing Pitchers: RHP Juan Padilla's coming back from Tommy John surgery, but his chances of making the roster seem remote.
Not Dead Yet: PH-R Olmedo Saenz and C-S Raul Casanova both take me down memory lane, Saenz for when he was a White Sox prospect at third coming up who was suddenly labeled part of some sort of bad Latin element in the organization, only to be resurrected by Billy Beane, and Casanova for when he once was a top catching prospect in the Pads system, back when he was nicknamed "Papo." They can both still hit well enough to star anywhere on the planet outside of the big leagues.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: RHP Ambiorix Burgos will spend the season rehabbing from elbow surgery, so he'll be on the 60-day DL--that's one. RHP Ruddy Lugo is going to have to show pitching coach Rick Peterson something, and RHP Brian Stokes is out of options, but has little real chance of making it.
The Ones Who Will Stick: Given that the Mets found ways to keep Julio Franco's career going, I wouldn't be surprised in the least if Saenz gets a shot if he has a sweet-swinging camp, but it's conceivable that Tatis might slip into that spot if he ends up making the most noise at the plate. Johnson will have to prove that he's healthy before he earns any real consideration among the Mets' crowd of outfield reserves.
Total NRIs: 22
Ex-Famous People: RHP Kris Benson is the most famous of a generally anonymous lot, but if he shows that he's healthy, he'll make a pretty quick jump from NRI guy to the 40-man, because the upside potential is that he rounds out a generally questionable rotation, and the downside risk is that the Phillies are just out a couple of bucks and a chance to meet Mrs. Benson.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: RHP Carlos Carrasco, LHPs Josh Outman and Joe Savery, C-R Lou Marson, OF-R Greg Golson.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: C-L Pete Laforest could win the job of backing up Carlos Ruiz behind the plate, but he'd have to beat out living legend Chris Coste for the privilege. OF-L Brandon Watson should be able to push past a filler outfielder like T.J. Bohn, but then he also has to count on a Chris Snelling injury (not so improbable, that). Watson has an ideal spread of fifth outfielder skills-speed, defense, and contact hitting-so he'd make a solid replacement for Michael Bourn to fill the role as Pat Burrell's legs.
Rehabbing Pitchers: LHP Matt Smith might be busted, but he might still be the only non-cash value received by the Phillies in the lamentable Bobby Abreu trade; he's coming back from Tommy John surgery last summer, so the chance that he has anything to contribute before rosters expand in September seems dodgy.
Not Dead Yet: 1B/3B-L Andy Tracy seemed like an easy choice, a latter-day Laga in the annals of minor league sluggerdom, but then I noticed that LHP Vic Darensbourg is in camp. He's 37, and the last of the true original Marlins, the guys who took the field with the organization's minor league affiliates the year before the big-league team came into existence. The only other guy who's still around from those two teams playing in 1992? Edgar Renteria, although there's always a chance that Chris Clapinski makes a comeback, I suppose. At any rate, that's the definition of "not dead yet," and while the likely end result is adding an Ironpigs jersey to his collection of Triple-A uniforms (and being an original Ironpig has some element of cachet, to be sure), it's still easy to root for him to take his best shot.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: There are quite a few, actually, a symptom of a past poor job of player development, and a number of free talent add-ons from last year who might wash out (J.D. Durbin, for example). What's also interesting is that a lot of the low-end guys are also already out of options-retreads like Francisco Rosario, Durbin, Snelling, and Clay Condrey have to stick or go on waivers. That said, most of them are the types you can take that risk with, because you can generally find their like there again. Wes Helms should be in some danger, especially if the Phillies are willing to eat his contract; they won't find someone interested in trading for him.
The Ones Who Will Stick: Benson, if he's healthy, and I like Watson's chances of slipping onto the roster after demonstrating his ability to run and get on base. Laforest's bid isn't that weak, since Coste isn't an especially smooth receiver.
Total NRIs: 35, including a number of contributors to last year's club, such as LHPs Mike Bacsik and Ray King.
Ex-Famous People: For really ex-famous, we've got 2B-R Bret Boone and LHP Odalis Perez, but beyond that we get into people touted by either scouting mavens (OF-R Alex Escobar, INF-R Ed Rogers, RHP Rob Bell) or statheads (INF-R Antonio Perez, OF-R Jason Dubois, RHP Dennis Tankersley) who never really wound up getting to be all that famous, actually. Boone's frank discussions of his battling with alcoholism certainly put his abrupt departure from the game in 2006 in a different light, but they don't really improve the odds that he has something left to offer.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: RHP Collin Balester and LHP Josh Smoker, and that's really it from among the non-roster guys, which is not to say there isn't tasty stuff on the way up from within the system.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: A trio of journeyman backup backstops are all playing for a shot that depends entirely on the organization's commitment to returning Jesus Flores to the minors and Paul Lo Duca's recovery from his latest knee problem. No one of Humberto Cota, Chad Moeller, and Wil Nieves hit especially well, but Cota and Nieves have had good defensive reputations in the past, and all of them can at least claim to hold journeyman cards in the International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers. It doesn't cut ice the way a master craftsman of the backup backstopping arts does, but it's what gets these guys another shot despite slender resumés. Similarly (and perhaps equally predictably), there's a group of lefty relievers who will be battling to the bitter end for that shot of situational glory. Ray King keeps coming up like a bad penny, while Eude Brito and Arnie Muñoz have both been at this for a while now, but since the Nats don't have a single lefty reliever on the 40-man, you can understand why some suggestions that Ross Detwiler might start off his career the same way Jimmy Key did could get traction, because the alternative is making room for guys like King or Muñoz.
Now or Never: You can say this about a number of pitchers in camp: lefties Jason Stanford and Perez, righties Tankersley and Bobby Brownlie. Normally, there wouldn't be a lot of reason to bet on any of them, but with almost every prospective starting pitcher on the 40-man representing an injury risk of one sort or another (excepting perhaps only Matt Chico and Tim Redding), everybody's got a shot at being the new Jason Simontacchi or Mike Bacsik-even NRI returnee Mike Bacsik. It's semi-sorta interesting to see Rob Bell turn up with the Nats; for Reds fans with long, bitter memories, it's been almost ten years since Jim Bowden traded Bret Boone and Mike Remlinger to get him, Denny Neagle, and Michael Tucker. Now 31, he did decent work in Norfolk's rotation before getting stuffed into the back end of the Orioles' pen last year; given that Bowden's traded for him before and been burned by it, it's sort of a classic Bowden move to try, try again. In the even longer odds department, former Nats prospect Michael Hinckley might be seeing his last chance within the organization, after which his lot should become a lot similar to those of the aforementioned wanderers. If this is starting to sound like a collection of tough-luck stories that might be found in the same hellhole that Roy Scheider ran off to in the exceptional Sorcerer (I know, it's a remake of The Wages of Fear, but it was still delightful), I wouldn't blame you. Is Bruno Cremer available? And can he pitch?
Rehabbing Pitchers: Michael O'Connor isn't actually rehabbing per se, since he pitched a little bit last year, but he never got on track in 2007 after coming back from elbow surgery, so he's not really in a great place as far as trying to prove whether or not his 2006 run in the rotation was a fluke or the start of something.
Not Dead Yet: I could cut and paste just about everything I've already gone over here into this space. It's a Jim Bowden kind of camp, with every last-chance sweepstakes kind of ballplayer showing up, and almost all of them seem to have some past association with some bit of Bowden wishcasting. Picking a name, not really at random-former Reds middle infield glovemeister William Bergolla? Check.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: The herd of first basemen on the roster will have to be thinned somehow, and since the Nats haven't hired any lions to help them with the problem, it'll be up to the front office to make some tough calls, not simply on what to do about Nick Johnson versus Dmitri Young, but also coming to some conclusion for why they should also keep limited-upside prospects like Josh Whitesell and Rule 5 pick Matt Whitney around. Similarly, in the outfield I can't see Ryan Langerhans, Rob Mackowiak, and Willie Harris all sticking around, but only Langerhans is out of options, so only a decision to cut him should he lose out to the other two would really create a spot for the NRI guys. Similarly, among the pitchers, if Redding doesn't make the roster, he'll have to pass through waivers and leave the 40-man.
The Ones Who Will Stick: A lefty to be determined, and perhaps one of the catchers if Lo Duca's knee acts up. Taken as a group, this should make for a pretty competitive team in Columbus, if nothing else, but a crowded field doesn't necessarily yield a major league crop.
Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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