keyboard_arrow_uptop

Grapefruit and Cactus League games are just starting, a time when it’s
tough to identify many of the players without a program, especially those
with numbers higher than Tiger Woods’s scoring average. In hockey those
numbers are often worn by the likes of Jaromir Jagr or Eric Lindros, but in
baseball, they’re given to players who are merely hoping to catch
somebody’s eye. Many are doled out to the species known as the non-roster
invitee (NRI).

Every club has at least a dozen NRIs. Some teams, like the Reds, have more
NRIs than the Diamondbacks have uniform combinations, although less than a
handful have even a slim chance of wearing the team colors come April
Fools’ Day. The primary benefit of giving a player a non-roster invitation
is that it allows the team to defer making judgments on who to move off the
40-man roster, after they’ve seen players in game conditions. Teams are
just like the rest of us: they prefer to avoid making tough decisions,
especially when they could lose a useful player by trying to slip him
through waivers, or when an athlete’s career hangs in the balance.

NRIs generally fall into two groups. The first group is the hot prospects.
These players don’t occupy spots on the 40-man roster because they haven’t
played professionally long enough to require that they be added. It’s a
no-lose proposition for the parent club to see what they have in the
minor-league pipeline. Some high draft choices have it written in their
contract that they’ll attend major-league spring training.

The other, more desperate, group is comprised of veterans who accept
non-roster invitations because they (or their agents) believe it’s their
best chance to remain in or return to the major leagues. Some hook up with
a particular team because they have relationships within that organization
that could lead to post-career employment. This group of NRIs has split
contracts with different wage scales depending if they make the squad or
are sent to the bushes. That’s another benefit of a non-roster invitation:
It minimizes the risk of giving a major-league contract of at least
$200,000 to players who are probably not going to make the team.

Another obvious benefit is that NRIs allow teams to play intrasquad games
without having to resort to ghost runners. And every club has at least
three NRI catchers because somebody has to squat for the dozens of pitchers
getting in their work. Teams would otherwise have to drop a cache of
greenbacks on catch nets.

Armed with that brief background, let’s examine the NRIs in the AL West who
have a fair chance of tacking some service time onto their major-league
pension.

Anaheim Angels

This offseason, Bill Stoneman has been quieter than a "Hatch
2000!" rally, but he has managed to collect more than his fair share
of NRIs. The Angels have a grave shortage of quality pitching, and new
sheriff Mike Scioscia doesn’t have any pre-existing ties to players in the
organization, so they should leave Tempe with more NRIs on their 25-man
roster than most other teams.

With Tim Belcher unlikely to be ready by the time the regular season
rolls around, Anaheim may well have two NRIs in its starting rotation.
Kent Mercker and his terrifying five-inning high wire act appear to
be a shoo-in for the fourth spot, while 42-year-old knuckleballer Tom
Candiotti
has washed up on the left coast and actually has a decent
chance of being handed the fifth-starter job.

The main competition is roster pitchers Jason Dickson, Brian
Cooper
and Scott Schoeneweis. Dickson is coming back from
shoulder surgery and hasn’t pitched effectively since June 1997. Although
Cooper finished last year in periwinkle, he has had only five starts in
Triple-A, isn’t overpowering and would be best served with at least a few
months at Edmonton. The left-handed Schoeneweis was adequate as a mop-up
man last year, but really struggled when demoted and inserted into the
Trappers’ rotation.

Greg Cadaret received a non-roster invite and is in the mix to be
the second left-hander in the bullpen, along with Juan Alvarez and
Mike Holtz. Cadaret epitomizes the Night of the Living Dead
southpaw, having played for half of the teams in the American League,
including Anaheim in 1997 and 1998. Alvarez is the hardest thrower of the
trio and should have the inside track, while Holtz has ditched his funky
delivery in hopes of regaining command of his sweeping curveball and making
last year’s 8.06 ERA train wreck a distant memory.

Stoneman cornered the market on NRI second basemen, bringing in seven
(Jason Bates, Justin Baughman, Archi Cianfrocco,
Carlos Garcia, Pat Kelly, Keith Luuloa and Brian
Oliver
) to compete with Scott Speizio and Trent
Durrington
for the keystone job. In ancient Rome, they would have all
been thrown into a pit with a lion or two and whoever emerged would be
declared the victor. After missing all of last season, Baughman’s
splintered leg has finally mended. The Angels are infatuated with his speed
and are forgetting the .277 OBP he posted in ’98. Spiezio’s decent on-base
skills and power potential make him the best choice if Scioscia can get
past the fact that he’s weak in the field and built more like a catcher
than a middle infielder.

Unless a trade is made, it looks like one of the Magnificent Seven will
leave the desert as the utility infielder. At this point, there’s no clear
favorite and none of the choices are especially attractive. Bates has the
most experience in that role, while Luuloa offers the most upside.

Oakland Athletics

As with the Angels, there is a good chance that the Athletics’ fifth
starter will be an NRI. However, unlike the Angels’ NRI hurlers, a
defibrillator isn’t needed to get your heart pumping about these guys. The
rapid progress of Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, the A’s
first-round picks the last two years, have landed them both in Phoenix with
an opportunity to join the rotation. Both are left-handers, with Mulder
having a little more life on his fastball and Zito better command of his
off-speed pitches. A strong camp could win Mulder a big-league job, but
Zito is almost assuredly ticketed for Sacramento even if he performs well,
as the A’s want to give him a little more seasoning.

Art Howe would very much like to add a left-hander to his rotation, and
others vying for the five spot include NRI Doug Johns, Ron
Mahay
and right-hander Ariel Prieto, who is trying to put arm
miseries and a well-deserved loss at the arbitration table behind him.
Mahay is attempting to ape Ron Villone, as he has worked almost
exclusively as a reliever since his conversion from the outfield. He is
being touted as the front-runner and only a disappointing spring combined
with an exceptional run by Mulder or Johns will change that. If Mulder
doesn’t land the job, he’ll join Zito in triple-A, giving Oakland two
viable options should any of their starters be ineffective or get injured.

If Mahay or Johns loses the contest to be the fifth starter, the
consolation prize could be the second left-hander role in the bullpen,
since the only serious competition is Tim Kubinski, another NRI. The
organization knows what Kubinski has to offer, and it’s nothing out of the
ordinary. If all three toss mortars in Arizona, there’s no guarantee that
any of them will board the plane to Oakland. Howe doesn’t micro-manage to
the extent that he’ll carry a second left-handed reliever on the roster
merely for the purpose of adhering to every article in the LaRussa Doctrine.

Seattle Mariners

NRIs in Peoria should wander over to the Padres’ complex because they have
virtually no chance of making the Mariners’ 25-man roster. It had become an
annual rite of spring for the M’s organization to turn over rocks looking
for help on the mound, but that isn’t the case in this year. Seattle has
arguably the deepest supply of pitching in the history of the franchise.
It’s unlikely that any of the NRI pitchers, including überprospect Ryan
Anderson
, will survive past the Ides of March.

Only an injury is going to create room for NRI position players, and that’s
what has happened at catcher. Tom Lampkin tore his medial meniscus.
Although he claims to be a quick healer and has the complete Benny Hinn
library on order, it’s unlikely that he’ll be ready come Opening Day.
Lampkin’s surgery has created an opportunity for Lou Piniella’s old
Cincinnati crony, Joe Oliver, to take up a roster space for the
first couple weeks of the season.

Although they have practically no chance of making of the squad, either of
Mike Neill or Rich Butler is a better option as part of a
left-field platoon than any of Seattle’s roster players. General Manager
Pat Gillick is banking on the demand for pitching to swell as the days grow
longer, and intends on taking advantage of that fact to swing a deal for a
left-handed-hitting outfielder.

Texas Rangers

The Rangers plan on opening the regular season with two rookies in the
everyday lineup. That creates opportunities for NRIs at those positions
since teams generally aren’t nearly as patient when a rookie struggles as
when a veteran does.

The NRI most likely to wear the Rangers’ new uniforms is perennial BP
favorite Tom Evans. A mediocre spring by Michael Lamb could
clear the third-base job, and that’s definitely within the realm of
possibility. Although Lamb has been a hitting machine throughout his
career, he is attempting to make the jump from Double-A. If Evans earns a
job, it doesn’t mean that the Rangers appreciate his value, but instead
they recognize how thin they would be in the infield if Frank
Catalanotto
were made the starter at the hot corner. Evans would also
make a nifty platoon partner with Lamb or even at DH with Lee
Stevens
, if Mike Simms‘s Achilles tendon continues to act up.

Top prospect Ruben Mateo is ruffling feathers in Port Charlotte with
his cocky attitude despite having had no extended success in the majors. If
Mateo’s winter woes (both physical and performance) continue into March,
Texas will be forced to turn to a group of NRIs that includes Jason
McDonald
, David Hulse and Scarborough Green. Just the
thought of the latter two should scare the bejesus out of Rangers’ fans,
while McDonald has enough on-base and secondary skills to make him an
adequate short-term fill-in. Another way one of the trio could make the
club is if Johnny Oates decides he would rather have a backup center
fielder on the 25-man roster than Simms’s lumber. This would necessitate
owner Tom Hicks swallowing hard and eating Simms’s $1.1 million guaranteed
contract.

Additionally, a pair of NRIs, Edwin Diaz and Jon Shave, are
competing with Scott Sheldon for the utility infielder role. Sheldon
would seem to be the obvious choice, as his potent bat could make him one
of the more valuable spare parts in the game. However, Shave was in
Arlington all last season, picking up plenty of splinters as well as the
coveted "Proven Major Leaguer" label. It’s yet to be seen,
however, whether Oates can resist the allure of Diaz’ sexy glovework.