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April 6, 2008

Every Given Sunday

The NRIs Who Made It

by John Perrotto

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Every year, there are always a handful of names that appear on Opening Day rosters that raise eyebrows or cause heads to be scratched. Some of those names leave fans scurrying for their Baseball Prospectus annual to try to figure exactly who these guys are. Others elicit a bit of surprise because most fans thought they were already out of the game.

This year, 14 such players fit one category or the other, as non-roster players who made their clubs after either never having played in the major leagues before or being away from the big leagues for at least a year. Here's a look at them:

SS Brian Bocock, C Steve Holm, and RHP Keiichi Yabu, Giants: It might seem as if San Francisco's roster is filled primarily with players who are either past their prime or part of the federal witness protection program. Perhaps the most mysterious of the lot is Bocock, who wound up with the starting shortstop job because the Giants didn't have very many options when Omar Vizquel needed knee surgery early in spring training. Bocock was San Francisco's ninth-round draft pick from Stetson in 2006, and had EqAs of .226 at Low-A Augusta and .182 at High-A San Jose last season. Bocock's stay in the major leagues figures to be short, as Vizquel is likely to come off the DL this week.

Holm kicked around the lower levels of the Giants' farm system for six seasons after being the team's 17th-round draft pick from Oral Roberts in 2001, before finally getting to Double-A Connecticut last season. The Giants thought enough of him this spring to designated backup catcher Eliezer Alfonso for assignment, and now Holm is noted for more than being from McClatchy High School in Sacramento, also the alma mater of Nick Johnson, Larry Bowa, and Rowland Office.

Yabu, the man with the name that sounds so much like a 1970's Patti LaBelle hit song, may ring a bell, as he made 40 relief appearances for Oakland in 2005. Since then, the veteran of 11 seasons with Hanshin in Japan spent 2006 in the Mexican League and 2007 out of baseball before resurfacing in the Giants' bullpen.

3B Blake DeWitt and RHP Ramon Troncoso, Dodgers: DeWitt is at least a somewhat familiar name, as he was a first-round draft pick in 2004. However, he was supposed to begin this season at Double-A Jacksonville, where he finished last year by posting a .242 EqA in 45 games. Spring training injuries at the hot corner to Nomar Garciaparra, Andy LaRoche, and Tony Abreu forced the Dodgers to initially go with DeWitt in his age-22 season, and they are satisfied enough that they decided not to pursue veteran third baseman Wes Helms, who was designated for assignment by Philadelphia and subsequently traded to Florida.

Troncoso, 25, has always been a strike-thrower, and walked just 21 batters in a combined 78 innings with High-A San Bernardino and Jacksonville last season, while posting 3.7 WARP. Despite that success, he was given almost no shot of making the club coming into spring training.

RHP Franklyn German, Rangers: Once considered a stud closer prospect, the gigantic German last pitched in the major leagues with Florida in 2006, making 12 relief appearances. His 3.49 ERA and 1.6 WARP in 59 1/3 innings for Texas' Triple-A Oklahoma farm club got German back on the map, and he pitched well enough this spring to land a spot in the Rangers' bullpen.

2B Elliot Johnson, Rays: This infielder's claim to fame figured to be plowing over Yankees catching prospect Francisco Cervelli in a Grapefruit League game last month, causing Cervelli a broken wrist and inspiring New York reserve Shelley Duncan to create a bench-clearing incident three days later when he slid high into Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura. However, Johnson played well enough to make the team as a backup infielder, and was aided greatly by the Rays deciding to delay the arbitration clock of third baseman Evan Longoria by assigning him to Triple-A Durham while playing the mercurial Willy Aybar at the hot corner.

RHP Mike Lincoln and LHP Kent Mercker, Reds: It's easy to be cynical and say that these two veterans--both of whom didn't pitch in the majors last season--making the Opening Day roster is a testament to the awfulness of the Reds' bullpen. However, it is also a tribute to both that they have both fought back from reconstructive elbow surgery, particularly in Lincoln's case, as he has had two Tommy John operations since washing out with St. Louis in 2004. Lincoln throws harder now than before the surgeries, and his fastball had scouts raving along Florida's Gulf Coast during the exhibition season. Mercker last pitched in 2006 with the Reds, and also showed perseverance to return from TJ surgery at the age of 40, when it would be easy to just go home and sit on the couch.

RHP Darren O'Day, Angels: This side-arming reliever wasn't even drafted after finishing his career at the University of Florida and earning a pre-med degree along the way. The Angels signed him as a free agent in 2005, and he has reached the major leagues three years later, taking advantage of early injuries to relievers Scot Shields and Chris Bootcheck. O'Day started to get noticed last season, when he had a 0.75 ERA in 24 innings with High-A Rancho Cucamonga before moving up to Double-A Arkansas and seeing his ERA rise to 3.99 in 29 1/3 innings.

INF Tomas Perez, Astros: The venerable utility man has resurfaced in the major leagues by taking advantage of Kaz Matsui's misfortune--anal fissure surgery certainly sounds unfortunate--to win a bench spot in Houston after utility infielder Mark Loretta had to move into the starting lineup at second base. While Perez seems like the itinerant bench player, this is actually just the fourth team of his 12-year major league career, as he spent four seasons with Toronto (1995-98), six with Philadelphia (2000-05), and one with Tampa Bay (2006) before splitting last season between the Dodgers' Las Vegas and White Sox's Charlotte farm clubs in Triple-A.

OF Alex Romero, Diamondbacks: Once considered a fairly decent prospect in the Minnesota organization, this outfielder's star started to fade once he moved to the Arizona system on a waiver claim. However, Romero was impressive enough in spring training to beat out veteran Trot Nixon for a reserve role. Romero had a .237 EqA at Triple-A Tucson last season, though, while Nixon had a .252 mark with Cleveland.

OF Clete Thomas, Tigers: Jim Leyland has always had a thing for gamers, and fell in love with Thomas right from the start of spring training. Thus, when center fielder Curtis Granderson was forced to begin the season on the DL with a broken finger, Thomas, 24, found himself on the Opening Day roster despite posting just a .241 EqA in 137 games at Double-A Erie last season. His previous claim to fame was as the Tigers' sixth-round pick in 2005 out of Auburn.

INF Rico Washington, Cardinals: Washington was Pittsburgh's 10th-round draft pick back in 1997, and was once a prospect of note in the Pirates' system until his career stalled at Double-A Altoona, though he married a local girl and became something of a local legend in the central Pennsylvania rail town. After 3,980 at-bats in the minor leagues, the 29-year-old finally made it to the majors when backup infielder Brendan Ryan was forced to begin the season on the DL. Washington is in the big leagues a year after playing just a combined 77 games at Triple-A Memphis and Double-A Springfield because of torn knee cartilage and a fractured cheek bone.

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Bill James was profiled last Sunday night by veteran journalist Morley Safer on CBS' 60 Minutes, and gave his picks for best player in baseball (Albert Pujols), most underrated player (Chase Utley), and player he would take to start a franchise (David Wright). His choice of Wright raised some eyebrows on the Florida Marlins, since James ranked the Mets' third baseman as the fourth-best player aged 25 or younger; James had Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez rated second. For what it's worth, James is a special adviser for the Red Sox and Boston dealt Ramirez to the Marlins in the Josh Beckett trade following the 2005 season.

Marlins first baseman Mike Jacobs believes Ramirez will have a better career than Wright. "Don't get me wrong, David is a great player, but Hanley, I think, is going to hit for a higher average," Jacobs told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "In time he's going to hit more homers and he's got unbelievable speed."

When Wright was asked by the Sun-Sentinel for who he would choose to start a franchise, he would not commit to one player but immediately mentioned Ramirez. "Obviously you've got a pretty good guy in Hanley down here in South Florida," Wright said. "He's got everything: speed, power, he gets on base, he knows how to play the game and defensively he's only going to get better. It depends what you're looking for. If you're thinking win-right-now, you look at a guy like Derek Jeter, obviously, or Utley. If you're talking about youth, you can look at Hanley or Jose Reyes. A guy like Grady Sizemore would be a good pick, he can do so much. So I don't know. If you look at it like a fantasy football draft, I'd almost rather be picking late so I could snake around and get two guys back-to-back."

Wright said he was kind of embarrassed that James thought so highly of him. "Obviously it's nice to be thought of in that manner by somebody who's been around the game that long and is that respected, but I feel somewhat undeserving," Wright said. "There are a lot of guys out there that you could pick, and I don't feel like I'm the answer to that question."

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No general manager seems to have a bigger chip on his shoulder than the White Sox's Ken Williams, who can also be a very eloquent and personable man. Asked prior to the Chicago's opener on Monday in Cleveland what was at stake for him this season, Williams talked about how he feels there is a "bias" against him and that blame for Chicago's 72-90 finish in 2007 was unfairly placed at his feet. Williams would not say what bias that is, though.

"We had a bad year," Williams told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Prior to that, we had a number of years where the record wasn't so bad. Even following up the World Series (victory in 2005), hell, we won 90 games with a team that was banged up a little bit. I can't control what is said or written about me. I have to take everything that is said with a grain of salt because, for whatever reason, there is a certain bias or certain agenda. You know what? The only way to control it is to win another one. After the next parade, maybe then I can tell people what I really feel."

---

The Giants have handled Tim Lincecum like an expensive piece of crystal ever since selecting him in the first round of the 2006 draft. The word on the right-hander coming out of the University of Washington was that he could be susceptible to arm problems because of his slight frame and violent delivery. That is why the handling of Lincecum by manager Bruce Bochy in Wednesday night's game against the Dodgers was rather shocking.

Lincecum was scheduled to pitch against another highly-regarded youngster, the Dodgers' Chad Billingsley. However, when the weather forecast called for rain to reach AT&T Park around the third or fourth inning, Dodgers manager Joe Torre decided to scratch Billingsley and go with Hong-Chih Kuo. Bochy thought that was a good idea, and started reliever Merkin Valdez in Lincecum's stead. Then Bochy brought Lincecum in to begin the fourth; rain then halted the game at the end of that inning. Yet, following a 74-minute delay, Bochy kept Lincecum in the game, and he wound up throwing 84 pitches and working four innings for the win.

Bochy defended his decision, telling the San Franicsco Chronicle, "If we thought we were going to hurt his arm, we wouldn't have done it."

Lincecum admitted the move could be considered risky, though he did not think it was. "My arm felt good," Lincecum said. "People have called me a freak of nature before. This will give them another reason."

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NL Rumors and Rumblings: Left-hander Jorge De La Rosa figures to be the player to be named going from Kansas City to Colorado to finish the spring training trade for reliever Ramon Ramirez. Scouts believe the best strategy to use against Florida now, particularly with Miguel Cabrera having been traded to Detroit in the offseason, is to walk Ramirez in key situations and let Dan Uggla try to beat you. The Mets keep looking for a starting pitcher and now appear to be targeting Robinson Tejeda, who was designated for assignment by Texas, after free agent Claudio Vargas told them he had no interest in going to Triple-A. While Aaron Heilman is often the target of Shea Stadium boo birds, Mets closer Billy Wagner endorses the right-hander as his eventual successor. Atlanta signed troubled infielder Scott Spiezio to a minor league contract as a free agent with the warning that there will be a zero-tolerance policy, meaning one slip-up and he will be gone. Should right-hander Ryan Franklin continue to struggle, look for veteran righty Russ Springer to begin getting chances to pitch the eighth inning for St. Louis in front of closer Jason Isringhausen. While Pittsburgh manager John Russell says he has a catching tandem, Ryan Doumit has clearly surpassed Ronny Paulino as the main man behind the plate in the minds of most people around the Pirates. Third baseman Corey Koskie, who missed all of last season with Milwaukee because of post-concussion syndrome, is still hopeful of resuming his career, but continues to suffer the effects of the spill he suffered two seasons ago while chasing a foul pop. Wrigley Field's surface, which was completely redone at the end of last season by White Sox grounds-keeping wiz Roger Bossard, has gone from the slowest in the league to one of the fastest, and Cubs fielders have had a hard time adjusting in the early days of the season.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: Boston continues to dangle center fielder Coco Crisp in trade talks, and both Chicago teams appear to have the most interest, though Oakland and San Diego are also in the picture. Detroit needs relief help badly and has strong interest in trading for Washington's Jon Rauch. Tigers manager Jim Leyland plans to limit Kenny Rogers' innings after the left-hander missed a large chunk of last season because of injuries. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has fallen in love with Alexei Ramirez, starting the rookie he calls "The Cuban Missile" in center field on Opening Day, and saying that Ramirez could eventually move to second base. Toby Hall's throwing has deteriorated so much that scouts says the White Sox backup is the easiest catcher in the league to run on. Seattle used fifth starter Miguel Batista to get a save the day after closer J.J. Putz went on the disabled list, but look for Mark Lowe to get the bulk of the save opportunities. Jason Giambi improved his defense so much this spring that Yankees manager Joe Girardi does not plan to remove him in the late innings this season.

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Fun facts from Week One of the regular season:

  • Mets right-hander Pedro Martinez gave up home runs to Uggla in the first inning and Luis Gonzalez in the second in his start Tuesday against the Marlins. While Martinez has given up multiple homers 44 times in his career, he never before had allowed hitters to take him deep in each of the first two innings.
  • The Yankees set a major league record Tuesday when they beat Toronto 3-2 in their home opener. The Yankees have won 11 straight home openers, one more than Pittsburgh did from 1945-54.
  • Atlanta reliever Chris Resop began the 10th inning on the mound, moved to left field for one batter so manager Bobby Cox could get a lefty-on-lefty matchup, then returned to pitch and gave up the game-winning single to Pittsburgh's Xavier Nady in a 4-3 loss. Resop became the first pitcher to pitch, move into the field, then return to pitch in the same inning since the Cubs' Les Lancaster did so against the Mets in the first game of a June 13, 1990 doubleheader.
  • Philip Hughes started for the Yankees on Thursday night against Toronto in their third game of the season. At 21, Hughes became the first pitcher that young to start in one of the Yankees' first three games since Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt pitched the second game in 1921.
  • Milwaukee's Rickie Weeks saw his streak of consecutive games with a run scored end at 17 on Saturday, tying the NL record and coming one short of the major league record set by the Yankees' Red Rolfe in 1939 and matched by Cleveland's Kenny Lofton in 2000.

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Series to watch this week (with rankings from Jay Jaffe's Prospectus Hit List):

No. 3 Indians at No. 6 Angels, Monday-Wednesday, April 7-9
Probable pitching matchups: Fausto Carmona vs. Joe Saunders; Jake Westbrook vs. Ervin Santana; Paul Byrd vs. Dustin Moseley

No. 1 Yankees at No. 7 Red Sox, Friday-Sunday, April 11-13
Probable pitching matchups: Clay Buchholz vs. Chien-Ming Wang; Josh Beckett vs. Mike Mussina; Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. Phil Hughes

No. 8 Brewers at No. 2 Mets, Friday-Sunday, April 11-13
Probable pitching matchups: Manny Parra vs. Johan Santana; Ben Sheets vs. Nelson Figueroa or Orlando Hernandez; Jeff Suppan vs. Oliver Perez

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

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