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March 2, 2008

Transaction Analysis

NL Central NRI Review

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

CHICAGO CUBS
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Total NRIs: 21.
Ex-Famous People: Nobody, really. The closest you get are a pair from the Former Catching Prospects Department--C-Ss Koyie Hill and J.D. Closser, but both are doomed to a season in the cornfields unless Geovany Soto struggles or Henry Blanco gets hurt again. I suppose perhaps also RHP Shingo Takatsu, but after a really bad year pitching for the Yakult Swallows, he's probably here more in a big buddy role for Kosuke Fukudome.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: OF-L Tyler Colvin and RHP Jose Ceda are the headliners of the type. Last year's supplemental first-rounder out of Auburn, C-R Josh Donaldson, is getting a look-see as one of the requisite receivers needed to work with the legion of pitchers in camp this early in the year, as is C-R Wellington Castillo. RHP Esmailin Caridad is interesting, in that he's a Dominican who started off pitching for the Hiroshima Carp organization, and who signed with the Cubs in December.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: RHP Chad Fox is making that always-interesting comeback attempt by a pitcher who's been effective when healthy, but who is almost literally never healthy; I wrote him up back in January, and now that we're here, he's basically gunning to outshine the other back-end guys in the pen: Kevin Hart, Angel Guzman, Jose Ascanio, and perhaps also Ryan Dempster once his bid for the rotation turns out about the way we all expect. Similarly, journeyman LHP Les Walrond is hoping that LHP Neal Cotts falls on his face in a bid for the second lefty job in the pen.
Now or Never: It's really already too late for INF-S Alex Cintron, even in light of 2B-R Mark DeRosa's recent health problem. With 2B-L Mike Fontenot having already proven something and with SS-R Ronny Cedeño out of options, there aren't really the roster spots to include Cintron as well, and any deal that sends Cedeño to the Orioles would bring in 2B-S Brian Roberts, which only helps Cintron if Lou Piniella decides he's frightened of having Fontenot and DeRosa as his back-up shortstops-a dubious proposition, since the skipper's punted defense in that situation before.
Rehabbing Pitchers: LHP Edward Campusano was snagged by the Tigers out of the Cubs' system at the 2006 Winter Meetings, but had to have Tommy John surgery, spent the year on the 60-day DL, and was returned to the Cubs in October when everyone has to come back onto the 40-man.
Not Dead Yet: OF-L Josh Kroeger was briefly seen as a top prospect in the D'backs' system, but then, like a few too many of their products, he turned out to have been perhaps a bit overrated because of the park-inflated hitting he'd benefited from.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: Guzman's, as the injury-prone sometime prospect has a lot to prove, and he's out of options. Perhaps also RHP Adam Harben's, as he's coming back online after a year lost to Tommy John-style ligament transplantation, but admittedly it would be strange to risk putting Harben on waivers after re-adding him to the 40-man this winter. But effectively it's slim pickings for what is already a group of long shots.
The Ones Who Will Stick: Fox has the best shot, and I wouldn't bet on it. Basically, this is a crew whose chances at getting a crack depend on injuries.

CINCINNATI REDS
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Total NRIs: 21
Ex-Famous People: LHP Kent Mercker's still famous, isn't he? An ex-Brave, ex-prospect; a man who's had his moments. I think he counts. INF-R Andy Phillips had a certain notoriety in the Big Apple, but he's another example of somebody who might make it in New York, but really can't just about anywhere else; he's sort of the Buster Poindexter of baseball.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: CF-L Jay Bruce doesn't really belong on this list, but it's a Dusty road he has to walk, and unless he finds some product that's the opposite of Just For Men to convince his manager he's old enough to be a Red, he might not get to win the victory he'd earn in a fair fight against the likes of OF-R Norris Hopper or Dusty's wishcasts for Kenny Lofton. Similarly, RHP Johnny Cueto shouldn't be far from ready, so once the Reds realize that having both Josh Fogg and Matt Belisle in the rotation really puts a crimp in contending, he'll come into the picture. In that sort of situation, we can safely say that LHP Matthew Maloney isn't getting anything more than a courtesy look.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: C-L Paul Bako will never be able to outhit C-S Javier Valentin or C-R David Ross, but he's a veteran with a great rep as a catch-and-throw guy, and Dusty's no doubt noticed he's been a catcher on playoff teams. If Valentin's glovework isn't to Dusty's taste, there's a chance for Bako to worm his way into the Opening Day picture. Phillips might have a shot at sticking around as Scott Hatteberg's right-handed caddy at first base, but that's only because Joey Votto has options and there's some Baker-inspired confusion over what the best possible Reds lineup looks like. Once he heals up, SS-R Jerry Gil probably deserves to be taken seriously if Alex Gonzalez is down for any length of time, but the Reds are still stuck with the mistake of having brought in Juan Castro.
Now or Never: The Reds have a couple of right-handed swingmen who could stick and provide some value as utility pitchers (Tom Shearn, Panzer Lehr), at least if you're using the Saarloos Scale to determine value. The guy who's really running out of chances is RHP Brad Salmon, because he pitched his way off of the 40-man last season, but if he shows anything in camp, he should at least win some consideration as a pickup for somebody who's short in the pen.
Rehabbing Pitchers: Mercker's coming back from getting his elbow reconstructed, an injury which disabled him for all of 2007. RHP Mike Lincoln is coming back from back-to-back Tommy John surgeries-who says anything's guaranteed when you get on the table?-and three years out of the game.
Not Dead Yet: RHP Jim Brower returns to the site of his best year ever (2001), hoping to give it one last roll of the dice; at 35 and with nothing resembling success the last three years, it's a long shot. LHP Scott Sauerbeck's even older than Brower, but he's a southpaw, and if bad things happen to Mike Stanton, Bill Bray, and Jon Coutlangus, I suppose he could escape Louisville. UT-R Jolbert Cabrera is another 35-year-old, a utilityman with limited utility after flopping in Japan in 2006, but Dusty's seen him play before, so he'll get taken seriously. LHP Adam Pettyjohn had to put in a year-plus pitching for the Long Beach Armada in the Golden League to keep his career going, but that stint was enough to get him back into the affiliated minor leagues the last two years and get him this invitation. He's closing in on the ten-year anniversary of the day he was picked by the Tigers in the second round after stardom at Fresno State.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: Rule 5 pick Sergio Valenzuela seemed like a reach at the time, although to be fair to Wayne Krivsky, so did Jared Burton a year before, and that turned out well. OF-L Drew Anderson's a thoroughly fungible fifth outfield type who would almost certainly slip through waivers.
The One Who Will Stick: In a rational world, Bruce would, but we'll have to see how it plays out. If Mercker's healthy enough to contribute, he probably will get overmuch consideration for a bullpen job that should belong to either Coutlangus or Bray, but he could also be one of those veterans given a courtesy release to take a second-lefty role someplace else, or dealt in a really minor swap.

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Total NRIs: 16.
Ex-Famous People: They've got a Niekro in camp! Wait, it's just Lance. Jose Cruz! Nope, it's Cruz Jr. OK, let's see... Scuffy Moehler? Rany Jazayerli used to live and die with the ups and downs of Runelvys Hernandez's career, but he's been out of therapy for that several years now. It's a generally scary lot that won't really help the organization resolve its talent depletion issues.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: If the Astros had prospects, they'd have ones to invite, but forgoing having any certainly helps keep things simple.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: OF-Rs Victor Diaz and, to a much lesser extent, Nick Gorneault could have value as righty-swinging power bats in a park that rewards pull power. Gorneault's situation is more urgent, while Diaz, at 26, should have something more to offer, but they're both gunning for jobs in an outfield where there are only four locks (Pence and Lee in the corners, Bourn presumably starting in center, and Erstad).
Now or Never: C-R J.R. House might be able to stick as a general-purpose reserve and pinch-hitter at the very bottom of the roster, since he might be able to help out at first base as a sometime spot-starter for Lance Berkman against tough lefties. Besides, can the great state of Texas ever have too much J.R.? As a catcher-only proposition, that seems a bit unlikely, because I'd bet they'd turn to Humberto Quintero because of his catch-and-throw skills should anything unfortunate happen to J.R. Towles (see!) or Brad Ausmus.
Rehabbing Pitchers: Runelvys Hernandez sadly seems born to be rehabbing, but last year he wasn't so much wounded as wandering, from organization to organization. RHP Carlos Hines missed time last year, but he's a reach from the get-go. Also, Mike DeJean, sort of, but we're just about to get to him.
Not Dead Yet: OF-L David Newhan and C-R Alberto Castillo might both seem like worthy candidates, but perhaps the most surprising NDY NRI is RHP Mike DeJean. Although he spent last year sort of pitching through shoulder woes in the Rockies' system, he's now 37 and five years removed from his best season.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: OF-R Reggie Abercrombie's spot has to be looking pretty juicy to Cruz, Diaz, Gorneault, and Newhan; Abercrombie's also out of options, so if he struggles, he's a goner. RHP Fernando Nieve's a decent proposition to wind up on the 60-day DL, since it's dubious he'll be ready to return to the majors before June or July. A guy like RHP Dave Borkowski could lose his job and spot on the 40-man (and perhaps in the organization) with a bad camp, and being out of options doesn't help him. Quintero's another guy out of options; he'd also probably make it through waivers.
The Ones Who Will Stick: Cruz Jr. seems like a lock, but beyond that, it'll take a huge spring performance for guys like Diaz or Newhan. Bet on one of them to make it, and then yo-yo up and down from Round Rock when they struggle in a last-man/pinch-hitting role on the bench.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Total NRIs: 9, or just barely enough guys to field a team, although it would involve having pitchers hit and play the field. Not only will the big-league club be homegrown, so will Triple-A Nashville.
Ex-Famous People: Not a one.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: First and onliest, last year's top pick, LF-R Matt LaPorta, although you can expect that he's going to move up through the system pretty quickly.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: This is basically a group of guys hoping for a major outbreak of leprosy on the 40-man roster, but the one guy who might have a barely-there shot is CF-L Laynce Nix. Last year's .268/.329/.539 line for the Sounds was good for a .267 Equivalent Average, not too shabby for a prospective fourth outfielder type. Between the fact that CF-R Mike Cameron has his 25-game suspension to serve, and OF-L Gabe Gross is out of options and might be deal-worthy because of it, there's a chance here, but it's potentially transient, if not simply illusory. However, he does hit lefty and play a decent center, and that's enough to help him put pressure on Gross and Kid Gwynn for the right to be the lefty reserves behind an all righty-batting starting trio in the outfield.
Rehabbing Pitchers: LHP Chris Narveson is bouncing back from his latest round of injuries; last year, it was a shoulder and a knee. Still, having missed chunks of more than half of his eight years as a pro, the former Cardinals second-rounder is only 26. RHP Scott Cassidy also lost time to a knee injury while he was Pads property last year.
Not Dead Yet: Abraham Nuñez must have confused people by insisting that career no-hit utility infielders get both the benefits of backup catchers-roster unflushability after you get that IBBC union card and Nichols' Law of Catcher Defense (that a catcher's defensive reputation is inversely proportional to his ability to hit). You would think that zero-value batters would die off in the era of 11- or 12-man pitching staffs, but here he is, still going, and perhaps representing some form of defensive replacementdom should Bill Hall struggle afield at the hot corner.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: If there was anybody who could mount a challenge, they could take advantage of the fact that guys like LHP Randy Choate, RHP Claudio Vargas, backup catchers Mike Rivera and Eric Munson, and Gross are all out of options. But there isn't, so while there might be some problems keeping all of them on the 40-man, however that plays out isn't likely to be influenced by any of these nine pushing from behind.
The Ones Who Will Stick: Shirley, you must be joking.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Total NRIs: 26
Ex-Famous People: 1B-L Doug Mientkiewicz is trying to remind people that he was something more than A-Rod's little buddy; that may have been how he started his career, but understandably wouldn't be how he'd like to end it. Speaking of Yankee-killers, RHP Jaret Wright drifted up on the banks of the Monongahela.
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: CF-R Andrew McCutchen, 3B-S Neil Walker, C-L Steve Lerud, LHP Daniel Moskos. You know, the future.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: The gaggle of non-roster catchers has to be watching developments involving Ryan Doumit with bated breath, because if the Bucs decide Doumit can't catch, they've got big-league job prospects. The guy with possibly the best shot would be C-R Raul Chavez as your Bilardello-level no-hit backup, with former Reds prospect C-R Miguel Perez having some potential should he prove he's recovered from last year's season-shortening removal of a rib. There's also Cubano Michel Hernandez, another one of those much-coveted émigrés who really didn't become something once he got here.

Another area for challenge is the team's infield reserve situation, where Jorge Velandia and Luis Rivas might have a shot at Josh Wilson's job, although Wilson's lack of options might help preserve him from a challenge from either retread. That said, it's not a great bet: Velandia's never been able to stick despite some defensive gifts, and although Rivas played a good amount of shortstop for Buffalo last year, he was a bit too obviously a second baseman playing out of position. Not even considerations of handedness should put UT-S Jose Macias into the mix, not after a 2006 flop in Japan with Nippon Ham, followed by an equally miserable year with Nashville (.242/.276/.323).
Rehabbing Pitchers: Wright, of course, to start off with. RHP Adam Bernero's coming back from having his elbow Tommy John'd, LHP Sean Burnett's still trying to come back from elbow problems, and RHP Elmer Dessens had all sorts of things go wrong for him last year (shoulder, oblique, hammy).
Not Dead Yet: Minky deserves some credit here, since he's come into camp breathing fire and venting Patton-esque motivational speeches and expressing a willingness to play anywhere-which might work, since he's that odd first baseman who bats lefty and throws righty. On the other hand, he's just Doug Mientkiewicz, years removed from even his overrated value afield, and pretty much incompatible with Adam LaRoche since they both bat lefty. (Of course, should new GM Neal Huntington be able to move LaRoche to somebody who could use lefty power at first, Minky makes a decent back-up option for righty-hitting prospect Steven Pearce. I'm just sayin'...)

The other semi-interesting NDY guys are LHP Casey Fossum and RHP Hector Carrasco. Fossum's always been something of a coachability/adaptability problem, and now 30, he might never really get turned around, but he has better-than-average velocity for a lefty, and maybe he clicks with pitching coach Jeff Andrews. Carrasco's just your basic survivor, still vamping after his 2005 comeback with the Nats got him a nice big check from Arte Moreno; he's "only" 38, but it seems a bit of a stretch to expect he's going to put himself into an obviously messy pitching picture.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: OF-R Kevin Thompson would be an NRI in almost any other organization. Several pitchers could get ditched, either to make a point, or as a reflection of their ready replaceability-Ty Taubenheim and Phil Dumatrait, for example.
The Ones Who Will Stick: I could see Wright and Minky both making it if they have good camps and some of the competition falters. Wright's shot depends on Zach Duke's health as well, because if the Duke's down, Wright's the obvious candidate to replace him, but even then, he'll have to out-pitch John Van Benschoten and the rest of the field.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Total NRIs: 27
Ex-Famous People: Juan Gonzalez is in camp. Yes, the Juan Gonzalez, Juan Gone, the overmuscled DH. He's apparently healthy at long last, and if that lasts more than a few weeks, who's to say he won't hit his way into the outfield picture? Somebody put Josh Phelps on the cover of their book back in 2004, and that has to be good for some sort of notoriety, right?
Prospects Just Getting a Taste: CF-L Colby Rasmus could obviously stay for the full meal, and dessert besides, but he's a non-roster player, so he gets mentioned here. Padres product 3B-R David Freese is a more straightforward "prospect here to watch and go down" prospect, while C-L Bryan Anderson is obviously somebody with some promise, but a likely challenger to Jason LaRue for the job of backing up Yadier Molina. Beyond that trio, a number of pitchers are in camp, but don't seem likely to stick in April, although they're names you've already heard about from Kevin Goldstein: Adam Ottavino, Chris Perez, Jaime Garcia, Mitchell Boggs, and Clayton Mortensen.
The Failure of My Rival Is My Opportunity: INF-S D'Angelo Jimenez has had opportunities slip out of reach through traumatic injury, poor timing, and a seeming knack to make himself unpopular, but he's never not hit when he's gotten to play regularly, and on a team counting on guys like Adam Kennedy, Aaron Miles, and Cesar Izturis to handle the middle infield chores, you'd think he'd have an opportunity, because he can outhit all of them. LHPs Rons Villone and Flores are gunning for Randy Flores' job, and after Randy's flop last season, it won't take much in the way of March failure for either to stake a claim.
Rehabbing Pitchers: RHP Cliff Politte's trying to come back from the shoulder trouble that handicapped last year's comeback attempt. RHP John Wasdin is in camp after seeing his season with the Pirates undermined in part by a sprained thumb on his pitching hand.
Not Dead Yet: You tell me whose comeback seems more improbable: Dewon Brazelton's, or Juan Gonzalez's? Or that of C-L Mark Johnson? OK, I know, that last doesn't really measure up to the other two, but it's interesting to me that he's still knocking around. Brazelton did some good work in Double-A Altoona after washing out with the Royals organization early in the year, but he's now almost seven years removed from the day when he was the third overall pick in the draft.
Obvious 40-man spots to target: Scott Spiezio's already been pried out of his, so there's already one opening, and it seems safe to suggest that Juan Encarnacion will be spending the year on the DL after last season's tragedy, so that's two. Guys like MI-S Aaron Miles and INF-R Brian Barden would seem to be at risk, and Gonzalez and Rule 5 pick Brian Barton should probably be mutually exclusive. RHP Chris Carpenter seems like a lock for the 60-day DL, and a setback for LHP Mark Mulder could mean a trip there for him as well, which would open up another couple of slots.
The Ones Who Will Stick: I still think Rasmus is looking at an arrival in May, after the Cardinals give Skip Schumaker his moment in the sun. Gonzalez's bid depends much on whether or not Barton strikes the fancy of the club's brass, as well as whether or not they're comfortable using Ryan Ludwick as a reserve in center. Much as I might be pulling for Jimenez to catch a break in a decidedly weak middle infield, I'm not optimistic.


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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