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February 15, 2009

Prospectus Today

American League NRIs of Note

by Joe Sheehan

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Finally, the American League NRIs (the National League version is here). There's a wider distribution of interesting players-some teams have virtually none of note, some have a lot. If you can believe it, there are guys in AL camps who make Chad Fox look durable.

Baltimore Orioles: After spending last season with the Seibu Lions-he hit .234/.294/.446 with 27 home runs-Craig Brazell is back in the States looking for work. The former Mets prospect may get a chance to play should Felix Pie spit the bit, as that would likely push Luke Scott into the outfield and open up DH at-bats. Brazell crushed Triple-A two years ago, and could be a viable power bat off of the bench, or even a platoon DH. Brazell did play 15 games at second base in Japan, which if nothing else must have been fun to watch.

Boston Red Sox: Former #1 pick Chip Ambres is in camp, and while he's behind Rocco Baldelli on the depth chart, that's not the worst place to be given Baldelli's health. Ambres' speed, pop, and range should make him a very good extra outfielder, though he's not played to that level as a major leaguer (.222/.321/.344 in 218 PA). Also, proto-Stairs Paul McAnulty received an invite, though it's hard to see him getting any playing time absent an injury to Jason Bay or J.D. Drew.

Chicago White Sox: The White Sox' decision to sign Mike MacDougal to a three-year contract after the righty threw 25 good innings for them in 2006 was a bit odd. Now, MacDougal is both in the final year of that deal and off of the 40-man roster, having posted a 51/45 K/BB in his last 59 1/3innings. The Sox are deep in right-handed relief, so MacDougal faces an uphill battle. However, he may be the biggest arm in that pen and he can still miss bats, so there are reasons to believe he could put up a big year.

Cleveland Indians: The best Indians' bullpens of recent years have been cobbled together from spare parts, so it's not hard to see Vinnie Chulk and Matt Herges, both a year removed from strong seasons for the Giants and Rockies, as pieces in the 2009 puzzle. Matt LaPorta, the biggest part of the CC Sabathia trade, is in camp as well. Given the team's weakness in left field and at first base, he could get a very long look.

Detroit Tigers: Fu-Te Ni led the Chinese Professional Baseball League with 132 strikeouts (in 145 innings) and pitched for Taiwan in the Olympics. He's in camp for a team that has had trouble with relief pitching since it reached the World Series in 2006. Ni isn't a circus act; there's a good chance he'll out-pitch the Freddy Dolsis of the world and go north with the Tigers. Scott Williamson and his varied maladies are in camp; he hasn't been healthy and effective since 2004, and threw just 19 1/3innings last year, all at Triple-A.

Kansas City Royals: Luke Hudson was one of the starters in the first game I ever attended at the Arizona Fall League, and I've been overrating players based on what I see in a small sample at the end of a long season ever since. He's missed almost all of two years following shoulder surgery, and he never completely established himself before his shoulder blew up. The back of the Royals' rotation is unimpressive, so a healthy Hudson would have to meet a fairly low standard of performance to restart his career.

Los Angeles Angels: Francisco Rodriguez is in camp? This Mexican right-hander was successfully converted to relief last season, and while he's no K-Rod-he'll turn 26 next week on the same day I turn... uh, never mind-he did improve considerably with the move to the pen. Just for the confusion it might create among casual fans, I'd like to see him make the team.

Minnesota Twins: Maybe the least-compelling pool of NRIs in baseball here, but the Twins do have righty Kevin Mulvey, another piece of the Johan Santana package, in camp. Alejandro Machado and his career .365 OBP in the minors have been invited as well, and it's not at all clear to me that incumbent shortstop Nick Punto is better than Machado. The former Expos-yes, Expos-prospect would at least be a valuable bench player.

New York Yankees: Not that the Yankees are looking for a lefty bat off of the bench, but they do have John Rodriguez and his career line of .298/.378/.434 in camp. Rodriguez hasn't had a bad year since 2003, is overqualified for a role on a major league bench, and could possibly be the good half of a sweet platoon. Then again, Bobby Abreu just signed a one-year deal for very little money, so the demand for Rodriguez's skills is at an all-time low. Teams kicking the tires of Ken Griffey Jr. and Garret Anderson would be better served to grab Rodriguez on the cheap.

Oakland A's: In 67 MLB plate appearances against lefties, Joe Dillon has hit .400/.507/.582. According to Minor League Splits, he's hit .296/.431/.492 against lefties in 304 minor league PA since 2005. It's probably a skill he actually possesses, so he's worth a roster spot for a team that hit .235/.307/.336 (!) against left-handers in 2008. My personal favorite Jerome Williams, still just 27, is in camp as well. He could yet win 50 games in the majors.

Seattle Mariners: Russell Branyan signed a major league deal and is the nominal starter at first base, but the Mariners also brought in Chris Shelton and Mike Sweeney to possibly get some playing time. More interesting is the presence of Freddy Guzman, who has 324 career steals in the minors with an 84 percent success rate, and who went 71-for-82 at two levels last year. Is he really that much less interesting than Endy Chavez?

Tampa Bay Rays: Calvin Medlock was supposed to be the next big thing a few years ago coming through the Reds' system, but they dealt him for Jorge Cantu, who got 57 at-bats in Cincinnati. It's not like the Reds ever need pitching. Medlock has been stuck in middle relief at Triple-A since coming to the Rays' system, and while there's not much room in the major league pen, he's got a chance to be noticed by other organizations this March. Eighteen months ago he was working on a 59/5 K/BB, so there's talent here. Speaking of "next big things," Chad Orvella, who cost any number of fantasy owners their leagues a few years back, is in camp.

Texas Rangers: Get thee to Surprise early, for no team in the majors has a system quite like the Rangers, who have invited Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, and Justin Smoak to camp. None will be around the major league camp for too long, but all are worth the trip-the long trip-out to see them if you're down in Arizona. To see Feliz and Holland throw intrasquad innings in March of 2009 will be a bit like watching Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna share a desk in the summer of 1940.

Toronto Blue Jays: A team that was lousy with starting pitching that they rode to a surprising 86-win season a year ago is scraping a bit this spring after exits and injuries. Matt Clement will have a chance to resuscitate a career derailed by injuries, and Mike Maroth is trying to do much the same. Randy Ruiz finally reached the majors last summer after a decade in the minors, and the Jays don't have nearly enough offense to turn up their nose at the career .302/.369/.524 hitter, even if he is without a position. Adam Loewen, attempting to take the Rick Ankiel path to the majors, is in camp as well.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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