It happens every spring. You enjoy opening weekend, taking in as much baseball as possible, but find yourself wondering who some of these guys are. Not every player with a new role on Opening Day is a former top prospect or an established veteran. Some never even made Kevin Goldstein’s top-20 rankings. To fill in some blanks, here are 12 pitchers and players who may have flown under your radar until recently.
Brad Brach, RHP, Padres
Brach’s major-league debut came last August and didn’t make headlines. The lack of attention he garnered is no surprise, but Brach reaching the majors at all might be one. Not only does Brach hail from a northern state (New Jersey) and a non baseball-factory university (Monmouth University, home to one other major-leaguer—Ed Halicki), he was also a 42nd-round selection. Brach doesn’t require sympathy since he has enough skills to project as a future late-innings reliever. Start with the 6-foot, 6-inch frame and the arm strength that allows him to toss 96-mph fastballs, add in a funky delivery, and a usable splitter and slider combination and you have a solid relief prospect. Then watch Brach and realize that, as Jason Parks wrote, Brach has the mental toughness to pitch in the majors, and it’s clear that Padres fans could see at-bats like this one, against Andre Ethier, for a few years to come:
That is Brach fanning Ethier on three pitches, all whiffs. To set the scene further: Matt Kemp had homered to end the previous at-bat. Yet Brach showed resiliency, bouncing back by getting Ethier to miss—just barely—a splitter down and away. He then blew a fastball by Ethier before getting the two-time All-Star to chase a slider down. The fact that Brach may also have an idea about sequencing to go with his raw power stuff is a good sign for his future.
Lendy Castillo, RHP, Cubs
Castillo is the first of a few Rule 5 selections to make the list. Formerly an infielder in the Phillies system, Castillo hopped on the mound two years ago and hasn’t looked back. Learning the craft of pitching within two years is impossible. Unfortunately, Castillo’s journey is about to become more difficult. Despite never playing above Class A as an infielder or pitcher, Castillo will now have to face major-league batters. One look at Castillo’s arm strength (his fastball can get into the upper-90s) and you can understand why Chicago is willing to deal with the growing pains. The Cubs’ status as unlikely contenders allows them to nurture a greenhorn pitcher, so look for Castillo to receive low-leverage opportunities in between working with pitching coach Chris Bosio to fine-tune his tools.
Rhiner Cruz, RHP, Astros
Like Castillo, Cruz is another Rule 5 pick with a live arm. Unlike Castillo, Cruz is no newcomer to pitching. Houston plucked Cruz out of the Mets system, where Cruz had spent the past season pitching for Double-A Binghamton. The story on Cruz is a common one: he can throw serious heat, but his command and secondary offerings are lacking. Those who enjoyed Cruz’s major-league debut against the Rockies on Saturday night saw both sides of the coin. Throwing from a three-quarters arm angle, Cruz got a blazing fastball and slider past Michael Cuddyer. On an 0-2 count, Cruz threw a 98-mph fastball that went whizzing behind Cuddyer, who had the wherewithal to get out of the way. Cruz would strike Cuddyer out on another slider. Brad Mills experienced life with a Rule 5 pick last season, when he babied Aneury Rodriguez long enough to keep the righty in the system. This season, the front office is asking Mills to teach two Rule 5 picks (Cruz and shortstop Marwin Gonzalez) how to handle the majors, with the idea being that both can develop into serviceable players. Just hope that Cruz doesn’t maim someone first.
Nathan Jones, RHP, White Sox
Taken out of Northern Kentucky University in 2007, 11 rounds ahead of college teammate Josh Lueke, Jones is a long, tall righty with enough arm strength to get into the upper 90s. Jones’ development stalls every time the White Sox try him in the rotation, and it seems like the team has come to grips with his future as a reliever. Still, there are worse fates than having an electric righty with a power breaking ball coming out of the bullpen. Chicago could find itself with a tantalizing young relief trio if Jones, Addison Reed, and Hector Santiago develop into late-innings options.
Erik Komatsu, OF, Cardinals
Transaction-log loyalists will recall Komatsu’s involvement in last summer’s trade that sent Jerry Hairston, Jr. to Milwaukee. Komatsu struggled during his short stint in the Nationals organization, and was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft. The Cardinals did what good teams do and chose to add a useful piece for relatively nothing. No, Komatsu will not wow with his tools or upside. Yet he is a left-handed batter who makes contact, draws walks, flashes speed, and can fake it in center field. Such a combination makes him an ideal reserve outfielder.
Lucas Luetge, LHP, Mariners
Yet another Rule 5 selection, Luetge isn’t a power arm by any stretch of the definition. He throws from the left side with deception, but he also maxes out his stuff by mixing and locating well. Here is what Kevin Goldstein wrote about Luetge during spring training:
While just a handful of Rule 5 picks are still battling for roster spots, Luetge got some good news when the Mariners released Hong-Chih Kuo. While plenty of left-handers remain in the Seattle bullpen, Luetge has dazzled hitters by striking out seven betters over five innings while allowing just three hits and a walk. All of this by throwing more pitches in the lower 80s than the upper part of that register, rarely touching 90 mph. “It's all deception, location and movement,” said and American League scout on the former Brewers product, “He's pitching backwards by using his breaking ball early and fastball late, but he can make it work for him well enough to be a situational reliever.”
Jordan Norberto, LHP, A’s
Oakland acquired Norberto, along with Brandon Allen, in last summer’s Brad Ziegler trade. Norberto is a short left-handed reliever with marketable attributes. His velocity is impressive—particularly for a lefty—as his fastball can hit 96. Norberto has two quality secondary offerings (a diving curveball and a changeup) as well. The big question is whether Norberto will throw enough strikes to merit a roster spot. Since coming to the Athletics, his walk rates have declined, and without a noticeable drop-off in strikeouts. Pitching well in the Pacific Coast League isn’t easy, and neither is pitching well in the majors, but Norberto could find himself at the beginning of a lengthy career as a left-hander with enough stuff to get righties out.
Danny Otero, RHP, Giants
Otero is a 27-year-old Tommy John survivor. Being a pitcher and having a jersey number that resembles your average fastball velocity is usually a bad sign. It can mean one of three things: 1) you throw softly, 2) you throw hard, but the team doesn’t think much of you 3) you throw hard and chose a high number just to be cute; Otero falls somewhere in between the first two categories. His fastball sits in the high-80s, touching no higher than 92 miles per hour, while he wears number 87. All signs point to Otero departing once Ryan Vogelsong returns. Still, Otero himself does offer one fun factoid: In 213 1/3 minor-league innings pitched, he walked 30 batters—20 percent (six) of which were intentional.
Shane Robinson, OF, Cardinals
Robinson is your typical fifth outfielder. Listed at 5 feet, 9 inches, Robinson suffered a broken orbital bone after an outfield collision in 2011. He missed most of the season, but hit .299/.366/.455 when he did play, and snuck onto the Cardinals’ September roster. Short outfielders are typically associated with leadoff men, but Robinson’s career Triple-A OBP .313 in more than 800 plate appearances. Scouting reports suggest Robinson can play some defense, giving him an avenue to provide value. Once Allen Craig returns, look for Robinson to return to the minors.
Hector Santiago, LHP, White Sox
Fantasy baseball players probably know who Santiago is, or rather, what he is: the pitcher who recorded the White Sox’ first save. As if a southpaw tossing mid-90s heat isn’t intriguing enough, Santiago also employs a screwball—a tool acquired from the tutelage of former big leaguer Angel Miranda during winter ball in 2010. The combination looks good enough that rookie manager Robin Ventura is willing to put his neck out there by entrusting Santiago with closing duties—though Ventura talks as if he made the decision in order to preserve Jesse Crain and Matt Thornton’s roles.
Stephen Vogt, OF, Rays
The Republican National Convention takes place at Tropicana Field in late August and is forcing the Rays to take a Sunday off from play. Naturally, then, the Rays chose to open the season with a player named Vogt—pronounced like “vote”—on the active roster. Vogt is a left-handed, line-drive hitter without a real position. He entered the system as a backstop but has since taken to playing the corner outfield spots and first base. Vogt can hit, but a far-from-elite bat makes it likely that his future is as a pinch-hitter or as part of a platoon. For the time being, expect Vogt to staff the Rays bench, though a demotion could be in order once B.J. Upton returns.