"I’ve always said when it comes to a minor-league contract there’s no such thing as a bad one. There’s no guarantee from the club’s standpoint other than a flight to and from spring training."—Alex Anthopoulos, January 2012

While you’re busy celebrating Presidents Day in traditional American fashion—crossing the Delaware, roadtripping to Mt. Rushmore, trying to keep your anticipation for next week’s 87th Republican primary debate in check—pitchers and catchers will be reporting to training camps across Florida and Arizona. Not quite all of the pitchers and catchers or all of the camps—Mariners pitchers, catchers, and position players reported about a week before everyone else, so Mariners non-roster invitees have already been ostracizing members of their 40-man for days.

Seattle's early spring training report date makes sense, since the Mariners could probably use some extra training this spring. Rangers pitchers and catchers, on the other hand, won’t report until the 22nd. Maybe the Rangers think they’re too good to report before the 22nd. Maybe they think reaching the World Series in back-to-back seasons entitles them to an extra weekend off. (Actually, that sounds pretty reasonable.) But whatever it is that pitchers and catchers do before position players report—pitch, catch, and gossip about position players, presumably—almost all of them will be doing it by the time you report to your cubicle on Tuesday.

Players in camp generally fall into one of three groups. There are the returning regulars and established additions who are assured of breaking camp with the team. There are the promising youngsters from within the organization, some of whom might have a shot at making the Opening Day roster, but most of whom are there to get a taste of what they’re competing for and give the coaching staff a preview of what they might become. And then there are the journeymen, the Triple-A lifers, the past-their prime players hoping to have a hot spring and hang on for one more season.

In the picture of Mariners players I linked to above, the most prominent member of the group ignoring Yoervis Medina is Kevin Millwood, a 15-year major-league veteran. Millwood passed through two other organizations last year en route to the Rockies, where he made nine improbably strong starts. He has a good chance to stick, and even succeed, in Safeco. The other two players in that cluster are a lot less likely to earn any service time. Matt Fox is a 29-year-old right-hander with 7 1/3 major-league innings to his name. He pitched those innings in 2010, for two different teams, then spent all of last season in Pawtucket. Jarrett Grube is a 30-year-old right-hander with no major-league innings to his name. He’s spent eight seasons in the minors, and he has a 5.30 career ERA in Triple-A. Most NRIs in the journeyman group aren’t much like Millwood. They’re more like Jarrett Grube.

No team has yet found a use for Jarrett Grube during the regular season. But they do want him, and others of his ilk, around during the exhibition season. Someone has to pitch to prospects who are trying to impress evaluators and veterans who are trying to shed a winter’s worth of rust. And someone has to eat innings and substitute on defense in split-squad games so those same prospects and veterans aren’t overworked after several months of inactivity. By the time the Grapefruit and Cactus League schedules are completed, most of the Grubes are either out of a job or back in the minors. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to get worked up when NRIs are announced—sure, it would be bad if all of these retreads ended up blocking a prospect or taking playing time away from a more capable player, but the odds of that happening aren’t good.

Starting tomorrow and continuing over the next couple weeks, R.J. Anderson will be going division-by-division in search of interesting NRIs in camp this spring. I encourage you to follow along, since you’ll probably learn something. (I learned that Mike Rivera has appeared in the majors in six straight seasons while totaling exactly 0.0 WARP, and that Ron Mahay is not only still alive but still pitching professionally. And I only read a rough draft.) It’s hard to say how many of the NRIs on R.J.’s lists will amount to anything, but we can take a look at how many non-roster players panned out last spring.*

*Because as every good prognosticator knows, the best question to ask when you want to know what will happen next is often “What happened before?”

Judging by the returns from last season, we should keep our expectations for 2012’s NRIs low. Last February, Prospect Nation compiled a list of non-roster invitees. There were 553 of them—roughly 18 per team.* Of those 553, 193 went on to play for a major-league team during the regular season, though not necessarily the one that invited them to camp. Ten received more than 300 plate appearances, and ten pitched more than 70 innings. The oldest NRI was 43-year-old Matt Stairs. The youngest was 19-year-old Mike Trout. Of the 193 that saw some action, only 11 were worth at least a win. That means that just two percent of last year’s NRIs turned into something more useful than a forgettable replacement player.

*Update* Prospect Nation's list probably isn't 100 percent accurate. As someone pointed out on Twitter, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon weren't on it. It might be missing players who were invited after last February 10, and some might simply have slipped through the cracks, but that probably doesn't change the percentage of NRI successes significantly.

We can whittle that two percent down even further if we exclude prospects from the list. Of those 11 diamonds in the rough, five were under 25 years old, including blue-chippers like Brett Lawrie (who topped the list, WARP-wise) and Eric Hosmer. That leaves the following six veteran players who embodied the NRI dream, hooking on with a team after a down year (or years) and sticking around to have a successful season:

Jack Hannahan, Indians (3.1 WARP)
Hannahan hung around the majors from 2006-2009 and even started for the A’s in ’08, but he spent all of 2010 in Triple-A and had to settle for a minor-league deal in December of 2010. “He can play plus defense at third for a team in a bind,” we wrote in Baseball Prospectus 2011. The Indians were in a bind at third base, so they signed him. The plus defense panned out—Hannahan led all third basemen with 16.8 FRAA despite playing in just 110 games—but something stranger also happened: Hannahan hit. He solidified his hold on a roster spot with a .273/.429/.481 April, then slumped to .187/.282/.265 from May-July. He rebounded in August, but by then he’d been replaced by Lonnie Chisenhall. He’ll have to settle for utility work this season, but this time he’ll head to spring training on a major-league deal.

Jesus Guzman, Padres (2.2 WARP)
Guzman got 20 plate appearances for San Francisco in 2009, then spent all of 2010 in San Francisco’s system. The Padres signed him in November of 2010 and invited him to spring training, after which he persuaded San Diego to call him up by hitting .332/.423/.529 for Tucson in 286 plate appearances. He debuted in mid-June and became the best hitter on an Adrian Gonzalez-less team, posting a .316 TAv in 271 PA. What's more, no one told him Petco was a pitcher’s park—he hit .346/.412/.551 at home. He’s not much of a fielder, and Yonder Alonso will probably push him to the bench, but he’s already given the Padres much more than they expected when they signed him.

Casey Kotchman, Rays (1.9 WARP)
Kotchman entered last season with a .268 career BABIP in over 2300 plate appearances. His BABIP last season was .335. Often it’s too easy to pin all of a player’s improvement on a fluky BABIP. But in Kotchman’s case…well, take a look at this table comparing his successful 2011 to his terrible 2010:



















He was essentially the same hitter in both seasons, but more of the balls he hit fell in last year. Those hits were the difference between a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training from Tampa Bay and a guaranteed $3 million contract from Cleveland. Kotchman even lumbered his way to first safely for 17 infield hits, more than he’d managed in the previous two seasons combined. Unless he’s perfected the art of the impeccably-placed bloop and slow roller, the Kotchman the Indians see might look a lot more like the Mariner model. Regardless, the Rays already got more than their invite’s worth.

Ryan Vogelsong, Giants (1.7 WARP)
Vogelsong was one of the best stories of the 2011 season, maybe even the highlight of San Francisco’s disappointing title defense. Four of last season’s five NL ERA leaders were predictable: if you’d had to name the four most likely pitchers to lead the league in ERA a year ago, Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Tim Lincecum probably would’ve been the first four off the board. The fifth, who finished just ahead of Lincecum, would have been one of the last pitchers picked. Vogelsong hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2006. He had a career 5.86 ERA. He was mediocre in the minors in 2010, and he’d pitched in Japan for the three seasons before that. He won’t be as good again, though his peripherals suggest he won’t pumpkin. But San Francisco already won the non-roster sweepstakes based on last season alone.

Jason Giambi, Rockies (1.2 WARP)
When you’re 40 years old and coming off a season in which you hit .244 without much power, you don’t expect a major-league deal. If you’re lucky, you get a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training, and you hope no one minds that you can barely field a position and hit from the same side as the starter at the one you can nominally play. The Rockies overlooked Giambi’s less attractive qualities as a player and extended that invitation, in part because he’d mentored many of his young teammates in 2010. But in his second season in Colorado, Giambi also contributed outside of the clubhouse, hitting 13 homers in 152 plate appearances. That’s a homer every 11.7 PA, the best rate of any player in baseball who made at least 150 trips to the plate. Giambi will be back at age 41, and he still won’t be able to field or hit from the right side. This time, he'll have a guaranteed contract anyway.

Reed Johnson, Cubs (1.1 WARP)
Johnson was an above-average starter in 2006, when he posted a .298 TAv in 134 games, but in most seasons his struggles to stay healthy and hit righties have limited him to fourth-oufielder duties. He remained useful in that role until 2010, when he hit .262/.291/.366 for the Dodgers with 50 strikeouts and five walks. He also suffered his annual bout of back spasms. He was 33 years old, and his range had slipped. The Cubs invited him to come back to Chicago, where he’d played in 2008 and 2009. He accepted. And yes, he suffered his annual bout of back spasms. But when he wasn’t spasming, he was hitting .309/.348/.467 and backing up at all three outfield spots. His plate discipline was even worse—this time he had five walks but struck out 63 times, easily the worst BB/K ratio of any batter with at least 250 plate appearances. Fortunately, he also had the highest BABIP of any batter with at least 250 plate appearances (.394), and that’s all it took to make the Cubs’ invite worthwhile.

Six successful invites out of 553. There are about as many successful NRIs in a given season as there were Wonka Bars with golden tickets. But they were out there last year, and they’re probably out there again. As Alex Anthopoulos says, it only takes a plane ticket or two.

Thank you for reading

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As part of a piece I am doing for my blog, I consolidated all of this year's NRIs into one handy sheet.

On behalf of all of us: thanks!
Sorry to nitpick, but Johnson struggles to hit righties.

Also, BRef has Vogelsong worth 3.7 WAR, while BP has him worth 1.7 WARP. Is that sort of discrepency fairly common, or was there something special about Vogelsong's season that caused the two metrics to vary so widely?
Fixed Johnson's handedness, thanks. Also added a note about a couple players who were missing from Prospect Nation's list.

Let me look into Vogelsong and get back to you.
I should know this, but it's not clear in the glossary, so I'll just ask it here: is BP's WARP based on FRA or FIP? Looking at Vogelsong, it appears that it's the former. Can you confirm this? Does the league average FRA = actual league RA?
WARP is based on FRA, but as Colin explains, "Fair RA is going to resemble FIP in some cases more than plain RA." League-average RA and FRA should be roughly the same but might differ a bit because of rounding.
Looks like the discrepancy is mostly due to BABIP. Vogelsong's was below-average. B-Ref's WAR credits him for that, while WARP credits his fielders.
Thanks, Ben. I only noticed the Johnson issue because I was adamantly in favor of the Yankees signing him to caddy for Granderson, back when Granderson couldn't hit lefties. Luckily, Cashman wasn't listening.

Vogolsong's WARP just jumped out at me because it seemed low, given his overall numbers. It looks like he got bit lucky, but not crazily so.

I don't mean to get side-tracked in the comments section, though. I enjoyed the article - it'll be interesting to see who makes this list in the spring of 2013.