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February 6, 2013

The Lineup Card

8 Interesting NRIs

by Baseball Prospectus

‚Äč1. Scott Kazmir
I’ve been following baseball for so long that I remember when Scott Kazmir was a good major-league pitcher. OK, it wasn’t that long ago, but it seems like an eternity since Kazmir was truly elite, contributing 5.5 WARP for the 2007 Rays while going 13-9 with a 3.48 ERA and 3.52 FIP in 34 starts and 206 2/3 innings in his age-23 season.

Kazmir’s career then gradually went downhill. He hit rock bottom in 2011 when he made one start for the Angels and was banished to the minor leagues despite having a $12 million salary. He has not pitched in a major-league game since, and he spent last season with the Sugar Land Skeeters—Roger Clemens’ team—in the independent Atlantic League, posting a 5.14 ERA in 14 games.

The Indians signed Kazmir to a minor-league contract this offseason, and he will be in major-league camp. Kazmir figures to get a legitimate chance to win a spot in the starting rotation because the Indians’ pitching depth is thin. The odds seem stacked against Kazmir, though. If he couldn’t get Atlantic League hitters out with any consistency, it stands to reason he would have a hard time with big-leaguers. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting low-risk gamble and, though it seems eons ago since he was a rising star, Kazmir is still just 29 years old. John Perrotto

2. Nelson Figueroa 
On Nelson Figueroa's quest to pitch for every team in baseball, this is not a positive step. It's a repeat. Arizona is where he made his major-league debut, and Arizona is where, on the verge of turning 39, he will hope to keep a remarkably nomadic career alive. He's been to The Show with the Diamondbacks, Phillies, Brewers, Pirates, Mets, Phillies again, and Astros. He's also had minor stops in Kingsport, Columbia, Binghamton, Tucson, Scranton, Indianapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, Buffalo, Lehigh Valley, Indianapolis again, Oklahoma City, Pawtucket, and Scranton again. Oh, and we're still not done. There's also the Long Island Ducks, the Mexican League, Taiwan, China and winter-league teams around the Caribbean. And this winter, the native Brooklynite will pitch for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.

He was in camp with the Blue Jays last year and never played a game in their organization, and ever seeing Phoenix is a steep long shot. But he'll find someplace this year. Whether it's Reno or another repeat, he'll find a place where they need a 39-year-old who is smart enough to get Triple-A hitters out, who can pitch every fifth game because it's on the schedule, who won't get hurt, and who is a magnet in the clubhouse. Realistically, Figueroa's last act in the majors was probably the eight games for the 2011 Astros in which he posted an 8.69 ERA throwing 87-88 mph and a billion breaking balls, but he isn't ready for that to be the end. —Zachary Levine

3. Addison Russell
Players drafted out of high school don't often earn invitations to big-league camp in the spring immediately following their selection, and those that do are typically only there because of a clause in their first professional contracts. Russell, the 11th overall pick in the 2012 draft, got no such guarantee with his $2.625 million signing bonus, but he will be with the big club in Arizona anyway—because the organization feels that he has earned the spoils.

A graduate of Pace High School in Florida, Russell could be a watershed player for the A's, who have traditionally steered clear of teenagers and emphasized collegiate talent in the amateur draft. The last prep-school prospect that the Athletics drafted, developed, and graduated to the majors in Oakland was right-hander Trevor Cahill. The last position player? You'd have to go all the way back to Eric Chavez, the 10th overall pick in 1996, who debuted on Sept. 8, 1998.

And that's why Russell, who was also the first high-school position player that the A's have selected with their top draft choice since Chavez, is poised to create a stir at the team's camp in Phoenix. He won't make the team this year, and ge still has a long way to go before a ticket to The Show is in order, but Russell is Oakland's best hope to snap the streak and add more flash to a Yoenis Cespedes-led lineup in the coming seasons. —Daniel Rathman

4. Aaron Cook
Aaron Cook is one of those players who maybe reminds us of ourselves. He's not good—let's get that out of the way. He was downright awful last year for Boston, and he doesn't figure to be any better this year. But he does one thing very well, and that's get ground balls. Well, he does it well in the sense that when he does it, he does it well. When he doesn't do it well, he turns into a pitching coach tossing from the mound during the Home Run Derby. "Come on, guys, you can hit it!" Last season, Cook struck out 1.91 batters per nine innings. That's... put it this way: A drunken gerbil could get within 1.91 K/9 of that number. In 94 innings, Cook struck out 20. He had 18 starts, 13 of which he struck out one or fewer and eight of which he failed to strike out anyone. This lack of a basic pitching skill makes Cook NRI material. It also makes him closer to you and I than maybe any other major-league pitcher.

So Aaron Cook is like you or me in that he can't strike out major-league hitters. He's not like you or me in that he can sometimes, occasionally, get major-league hitters to get themselves out. This makes him different from you and me, though really not all that different. You and me, we like players like us. We like players who show us that we could be major-league players ourselves even though we can't. Aaron Cook might just be the closest to you and I left in the major leagues. He's hooked on with the Phillies, the new team of Delmon Young and Michael Young. On such a team there might just be room for Aaron Cook yet. Here's hoping so. For our sake. —Matthew Kory

5. Rick Ankiel
Most interesting NRI? Rick Ankiel of the Houston Astros! Consider how hard it is to make it to the major leagues, and then consider that Ankiel essentially did it twice. Ankiel famously debuted as a pitcher in 1999 and was second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2000, when he started Game One of the 2000 NLDS. I remember watching him (in my dorm lounge!) during that game and feeling bad for him. He soon had Tommy John surgery and was never the same as a pitcher again, and by 2004, his once-promising career was over at the age of 24.

Except that it wasn't. He went back down to the minors and focused on offense, turning himself into a decent hitter with some power who was athletic enough to play a league-average center and re-emerged at age 27 as a semi-regular and even had a couple of good years. The past few years have seen a drop-off in Ankiel's production at the plate, and now he's hanging on by a thread, but he made it. There was even a rumor floating around that if the whole outfield thing didn't work, he might give pitching another try. It probably won't happen (he hasn't pitched in most of a decade), but if it did, how awesome would that story be? —Russell A. Carleton

6. Pedro Feliciano
Feliciano used to pitch in a lot of games. He appeared in more games than any other pitcher in baseball each year from 2008 through 2010. He then signed a two-year deal with the Yankees, and he didn’t throw a single pitch for them. Instead, he suffered from shoulder injuries while he cashed a sizable check every week and created a bit of tension between the Mets and the Yankees.

In 2010, Feliciano dominated left-handed hitters (.211/.297/.276 over 139 PAs), but he struggled against right-handers (.336/.436/.395 over 141 PAs). His velocity was down when he made a few rehab appearances later in 2012, and he’s a long shot to make it back to his former glory days, but the southpaw is an interesting player who has a chance to add something to the cross-town rivalry if he can get back to the majors with the Amazins. —Hudson Belinsky

7. Bobby Crosby
In 2004, former first-round pick Bobby Crosby won the American League Rookie of the Year Award with ease. He hit .239/.319/.426 with 22 homers for the A's, and his 3.8 WARP ranked fourth in the circuit among shortstops. Crosby followed with an even better half-season punctuated by two long DL stints, which sadly would become the defining characteristic of his career.

Crosby missed 63 games due to injury in 2006, and 62 in 2007. The next year he remained mostly healthy, but his skills had eroded: At age 28, he hit .237/.296/.349 with seven homers and a pedestrian 0.9 WARP. After another disappointing season in Oakland, the team that had taken Crosby with the 25th pick overall out of Long Beach State let him go.

Crosby signed with the Pirates in December 2009. He did very little for four months before being traded to Arizona, where he did even less and was released after only a few weeks. He followed that by not playing baseball in 2011 and 2012.

This spring he's back with the Brewers as a non-roster invitee. It's hard to imagine that the now-33-year-old Crosby has anything left to offer, but Milwaukee needs infielders and, well, he used to be one of those. —Geoff Young

8. Yangervis Solarte
Who is Yangervis Solarte? And why, in God's name, would he be included on a list of "intriguing" non-roster invitees? Because he can hit. I first saw Solarte two years ago at Double-A with the Twins in New Britain. And boy could he hit. The switch-hitter showed good bat speed from both sides of the plate and strong contact abilities. In that series, he also made a pair of spectacular defensive plays, which proved to be a rarity. See, while Solarte can hit (.288 career in the minors), he has been a less-than-stellar defender. He has all the physical tools to play second base (and the bat to play there, to a degree), but for whatever reason, his defense has always lagged behind. Maybe it's because he focuses on his offense? (Did I mention he can hit?)

Solarte is no shortstop, so he likely won't make the Rangers team out of camp, but entering his age-25 season, there's always the chance he gets a cup of coffee as a utility bat, because, man, can he...well, you know the rest... —Mike Ferrin

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