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February 16, 2011

Purpose Pitches

AL NRIs to Watch

by Christina Kahrl

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Come the opening of every camp, there's always going to be some wiggle room for a non-roster player or two to make the club. But who has the best shot as we just get started, and/or who's worth noting for his own sake? Starting with the AL, let's look at the names you might want to note in the inevitable spring training boxscores and the equally inevitable camp rumors to come.

Baltimore Orioles
Pitcher(s): Opportunities already existed in the bullpen, but there may be more than one job to be won, especially with Alfredo Simon on the wrong side of the law and still locked up in the Dominican on an involuntary manslaughter charge. The pen could also use a second lefty better than Pedro Viola, while the rotation might need a long-relief helpmate until questions about Justin Duchscherer and Jake Arrieta are resolved (not to mention a slimmed-down Jason Berken). From among the NRIs, for situational duties Rangers castoff Clay Rapada could wind up getting taken seriously, while swing sponge Mark Hendrickson was born to absorb middle innings in lost causes or after quick hooks.

Hitter(s): There might be a fairly wide-open fight for the last two or three spots on the bench, with NRI additions Brendan Harris, Nick Green, and Randy Winn contending with the rostered Robert Andino, Nolan Reimold, and Jake Fox. Much depends on whether Reimold can get enough at-bats backing up Luke Scott and Nick Markakis in the outfield corners; Showalter has generally preferred to carry veterans in reserve roles, which ought to help Winn. Showalter also likes to have some power on the bench, and used to manage a young Jim Leyritz, which should bode well for Fox, a latter-day five-corner flatfoot. Harris or Green offer slightly more pop at the plate than Andino.

Boston Red Sox
Pitcher(s): Absent injuries, just about everyone among the NRI guys is pre-doomed to a summer in Pawtucket. The man with the best shot is another southpaw aspiring for the presumed second slot beyond Hideki Okajima—hefty lefty Dennys Reyes. Beyond Reyes' brand of situational magic, Rich Hill and Andrew Miller both have live arms; the organization has picked up the Lotto tickets both represent, on the thought that either could get back on track.

Hitter(s): We all know Jed Lowrie's answer to whether he's man or Meissen leaves him stacked with the china, so utility infield aspirants are the guys with some modicum of hope. However, Drew Sutton, Nate Spears, and Hector Luna can't really play shortstop, which leaves Brent Dlugach hoping that his relative dispensability will help him get a few weeks of service time in such a scenario early in the season, while prospects like Jose Iglesias or Yamaico Navarro play every day in the minors.

Chicago White Sox
Pitcher(s): Competition for the last slot in the pen should be fairly open. Among the NRIs, hard-throwing Cubs castoff Jeff Gray (and his string-straight heat) and beefy Brian Bruney (on his fourth organization in 12 months) are the ones you probably remember best. Oft-injured control artist Josh Kinney is also in the mix; if he can demonstrate that the elbow problems that shelved him for the better part of two years and his more recent shoulder trouble are things Herm Schneider's staff can handle, he might be the dark horse surprise for the men in black.

Hitter(s): I looked at the case for Lastings Milledge two weeks ago, and it remains much the same now that Grapefruit and Cactus League activities are getting in gear. He'll be contending with Alejandro De Aza for a final outfield slot, and has the advantage of batting righty where Juan Pierre and Mark Teahen both bat lefty—as does De Aza. Maybe Milledge represents the latest White Sox salvage act, rehabilitating a blue-chip prospect who disappointed initial expectations, and maybe not. The other noteworthy position player in camp without a guaranteed contract is Dallas McPherson, owner of a career .580 SLG in the bushes, as well as a 44.4 TTO percentage. Between Teahen and Adam Dunn, there isn't much space for him, though.

Cleveland Indians
Pitcher(s): It's really just all Alex White, all the time, because the organization's top 2009 pick is expected to make it up to the majors at some point in 2011. But whether that winds up as a matter of staging a soft landing or manipulating service time, it's overwhelmingly likely to happen during the season, rather than in time for Opening Day.

Hitter(s): At least two bench jobs are open, and Jayson Nix and Orlando Cabrera might be starting in the infield, so obviously standards are fairly low. Happily, there are NRIs who can rise to that sort of challenge. Jack Hannahan could end up being the good-glove lefty bat to alternate with Nix at the hot corner (also freeing Nix to play some second base), but if not Hannahan, then Adam Everett might stick in a futility infielder role. In light of the infield's circumstances, Stanford product Cord Phelps could hit his way into the picture after hitting a combined .308/.368/.457 between Double- and Triple-A. In the outfield, Travis Buck and Jordan Brown could get some measure of consideration if they hit well, assuming the Indians make room for a fifth outfielder; Brown's experience at first could also help, considering Matt LaPorta's struggles.

Detroit Tigers
Pitcher(s): Because the rotation is tissue-thin and banking on no further setbacks for Rick Porcello, complete health from Brad Penny, and a successful reconversion from relieving for Phil Coke, the odds that something goes wrong and creates an opportunity at the back end of the pen are more likely than Dave Dombrowski might care to admit. Aussie Chris Oxspring is back stateside after spending the last five years pitching in Japan and Korea; he could give Brad Thomas company and the staff a full-fledged Down Under contingent. The alternative to Oxspring would be chunky strike-thrower Enrique Gonzalez. Fu-te Ni has a slim shot at rejoining the big-league bullpen, but with Thomas and Daniel Schlereth already lined up in his way, the operative word is “slim.”

Hitter(s): It isn't a strong group of likelies, with perhaps Omir Santos representing the best of a bunch of long bets, just in case Jim Leyland chooses discretion over valor and carries a third catcher to compensate for Victor Martinez's more regular gig at DH.

Kansas City Royals
Pitcher(s): Beyond Joakim Soria and Robinson Tejeda, nobody in the bullpen should take their opportunit for granted, especially with Ned Yost running his first Royals camp and bringing to the table his own preferences. There should be outlets for prospects like the diminutive Tim Collins or righties Louis Coleman or Patrick Keating, but also for a journeyman like Steven Shell, or even Zach Miner if his recovery from TJS allows it.

Hitter(s): Here, it's a matter of whether or not they want to add one of two different non-rostered flavors of third baseman—young and sweet, or old and gamey, in the form of Mike Moustakas and Pedro Feliz. Doing so would free up Mike Aviles and Wilson Betemit for use at other positions, which seems likely to be necessary once Chris Getz and Jeff Francoeur hand their jobs back. If keeping Moustakas' service-time clock from starting trumps the hitting show he ought to put on in Arizona, horrifyingly enough Feliz might sneak in as a platoon caddy for Betemit, while Aviles moves back to second base. However, Moustakas could conceivably make the choice for them, wiping Feliz from the options menu while earning an Opening Day start—Royals fans have to hope for something, right?

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Pitcher(s): There aren't a lot of sneaky backdoor candidates who might slip onto the roster from among this lot, so it might be best to just tip the cap to 34-year-old Eric Junge, who has logged time in Japan and two separate stints in the Atlantic League to try to get back to the majors for the first time since 2003.

Hitter(s): You don't need this space to know about Mike Trout, or to know that he won't break camp with the club. Mostly, he bears watching to see whether he casts a spell over Mike Scioscia the way that Jason Heyward did over Bobby Cox, and gets the distinction of being one of the last cuts of camp.

Minnesota Twins
Pitcher(s): Because of all of the turnover in the big-league bullpen, there are chances for people to slip into the picture. One to watch might be 2004 first-rounder Kyle Waldrop, with seven years, a shoulder surgery that shelved him in 2008, and a 2009 comeback as a reliever under his belt. He won't dominate, but as a big strike-throwing righty with a good sinker (generating 2.4 grounders for every caught fly) and a good move to first, he might be cut out for a mid-game fireman's role.

Hitter(s): Jeff Bailey might merit a courtesy mention, if just barely, because failing to deliver a .200 ISO in Reno last season is what makes sure that even the limited exposure he used to get with Boston might be the extent of his career highlights. The other interesting invite is Chase Lambin, because the 31-year-old journeyman played with Tsuyoshi Nishioka for Chiba Lotte in 2009, so you can expect he'll get plenty of questions about his teammate's feats in Japan.

New York Yankees
Pitcher(s): We've already gone over Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon as the big names coming to camp without a guaranteed roster spot, but you can also add Mark Prior to the ranks of the ex-famous knocking around in pinstripes like it was Old-Timers Day for the players who always wished they'd been able to pitch in the Bronx. In a standard-issue “you can never have too many lefties” vein, a pair of Chicago discards, Neal Cotts and Andrew Sisco, are also both in camp, and with Damaso Marte out for months yet, there's a chance either might slip in as the second southpaw behind Pedro Feliciano.

Hitter(s): Since I've already talked about Ronnie Belliard and Eric Chavez, the more interesting examples to bring up are Jesus Montero and Austin Romine behind the plate. Even with the doubts attached to Montero's glove work, there are your additional reasons why Russell Martin's deal is one-year. Romine hit .313/.362/.481 away from breezy Trenton last year, so a move to Triple-A this year wouldn't be out of line, but the likelihood does create one of the more interesting camp determinations for the organization: Who gets the playing time behind the plate in Scranton?

Oakland Athletics
Pitcher(s): With at least 14 pitchers with plausible cases for making the team already on the 40-man, finding space for a non-roster invite seems doubtful. So at most you can append some curiosity to the A's latest Cuban import, Yadel Marti, following in the footsteps of the immortal Ariel Prieto. The short right-hander defected in December of 2008 after starring for Team Castro in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Already 31 and standing just 5-foot-10, Marti is armed with excellent control of a low-velo fastball, curve, and slider. Between the age, the frame, and the stuff, set against his expectations, you can understand why he went unsigned until almost two years later, but after he turned in a decent eight-start run in the Mexican League with Veracruz, the A's made him an offer in August that he couldn't refuse.

Hitter(s): You wouldn't think that Andy LaRoche would have much going for him after playing his way out of Pittsburgh, but the A's are stuck with Kevin Kouzmanoff at the hot corner, and LaRoche was a top-20 prospect in long-ago 2006 and 2007. Various defensive metrics rated LaRoche's defensive performance in 2009 as very good, with Colin Wyers' new FRAA putting him almost nine runs in the black. In 2009, LaRoche produced a .265 TAv in his age-25 seaon, and it was considered a disappointment; Kouzmanoff delivered a .267 TAv for the Pads in his age-27 campaign, and that was considered an asset. PECOTA projects LaRoche to a .254 TAv to Kouzmanoff's .251. If offense is a push and LaRoche is the better defender, that's enough to suggest that if Geren lets this be an open fight, LaRoche could win.

Seattle Mariners
Pitcher(s): Even without the annual questions about when or whether Erik Bedard might pitch, Michael Pineda is the obvious choice here, because while he might need some small amount of polish for his off-speed stuff, there's also the chance that he wins a rotation job outright. However, he's not alone among the non-rostered, because this is a staff where as many as a half-dozen slots might be there for the taking, what with David Aardsma and Sean Kelley headed for the DL and Bedard's secret identity as the Riddler. As a result, young veterans like Charlie Haeger, Fabio Castro, and Manny Delcarmen and veteran situational relievers like Royce Ring and Justin Miller should get taken seriously. The result, thanks to the Mariners' defensive overcompensations and a pitcher's park, might leave them with a solidly mediocre staff just the same.

Hitter(s): A trio of outfielders might have varying opportunities to stick, although Milton Bradley's escape from his latest legal problems (no charges were pressed) doesn't make things any easier for them. Slick-fielding Ryan Langerhans probably possesses a slight advantage over Gabe Gross and Jody Gerut, but Gerut deserves to remembered better than his bat going stone cold rotting on the Brewers' bench—not every player can make the adjustment to role play. In the infield, given the organization's fascination with punchless wonders, Adam Kennedy might be able to come to camp and make them think they've found Rogers Hornsby, or at least settle for reminding people that his 2009 comeback (.273 TAv) wasn't so long ago.

Tampa Bay Rays
Pitcher(s): As noted last month, the Rays' bullpen may have endured plenty of turnover, but Tampa Bay has been as sharp as ever in assembling a new slate of alternatives. Juan Cruz is looking to shake off his Royals experience and resume the useful portion of his career, it wasn't so long ago that Cory Wade was a big-league bullpen asset, and R.J. Swindle could stick as a situational lefty.

Hitter(s): Because of Joe Maddon's intricate platoons, you can't say for sure how any one new piece fits into his fast-morphing puzzle, but Felipe Lopez could fit into the infield as a backup to Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez up the middle. And while there's some measure of indignity associated with having to take the reliably disappointing Casey Kotchman seriously as a starting option, his projected production (.249) isn't that much worse than scrap-heap hero Dan Johnson's (.255).

Texas Rangers
Pitcher(s): From among the veteran discards, the best they can boast are a pair of former Brewers familiar to pitching coach Mike Maddux: the reliably wild Seth McClung and Dave Bush, the modern era's Bruce Kison, as much as that's something to brag about. As far as people you should be excited to see, there's Tanner Scheppers' bid to determine what his role might be, with the big-league bullpen beckoning for an earlier arrival if he doesn't get his changeup working.

Hitter(s): Brian Barden and Esteban German are the two utility guys wondering if they somehow luck into jobs in the wake of a Michael Young trade, but the better notion would be to sign the still-out-there Russell Branyan for DH duties in such a scenario.

Toronto Blue Jays
Pitcher(s):
Given that the 40-man's carrying 24 arms, and 21 of them already have some major-league experience, you can see how the numbers game is already stacked against the NRIs in Toronto. Given how thoroughly stocked the pen is for alternatives, the best we might do is give the flat-capped Chad Cordero a courtesy mention—he'll be just 29, and he did manage to strike out 36 batters against just eight unintentional freebies in 35 2/3 IP in Triple-A last year.

Hitter(s): Perhaps as much as any NRI anywhere, Corey Patterson may well be a lock as the club's fourth outfielder. All it will require is some conveniently injured pitcher to land on the 60-day DL—aha, so that's what Dustin McGowan's for—and you can just about ink him in for Opening Day.

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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Prospectus Hit and Run... (02/16)
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Purpose Pitches: Pitch... (02/14)
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Spinning Yarn: The Rea... (02/16)

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