It’s fair to say that in my quest to find interesting things to write about, I focus a bit to much on the obscure relative to the obvious. Certainly, me and a lot of guys who look like me put way too much emphasis on the secondary channels of talent acquisition-the Rule 5 draft, non-tender free agents and such-relative to the quality and quantity of contributors who emerge from those channels.
But you know, it’s just fun doing it. So today, I want to take a look at interesting non-roster invitees sprinkled around Florida and Arizona. This isn’t so much about the top non-roster prospects who will be in major-league camps-guys like Philip Hughes, Homer Bailey, and Hunter Pence who might make the 40-man roster and the 25-man squad at the same time-but the failed prospects and journeymen and injury cases who have experience, and who come into the spring playing for what could be a last opportunity.
The Devil Rays lead the way in this category, starting with two candidates to emerge from a crowded first-base battle. Greg Norton and Ty Wigginton are the nominal platoonmates, both coming off peak seasons that weren’t anything special, and neither likely to hit enough to have an impact in ’07. On the other hand, Hee Seop Choi is 28 years old and has more upside than the two veterans combined.
Choi is coming off of a lost ’06 season, when he was released by the Dodgers at the end of spring training, then battled injuries on the way to a .207/.347/.361 line in just 66 games for the Red Sox‘ Triple-A affiliate. For some, the season was the final nail in Choi’s coffin, a confirmation of the Dodgers’ conclusion that he was too passive a hitter with too many holes in his swing to be effective in the majors. I remain unconvinced, and think that Choi has shown too much in his two stretches of unfettered access to the lineup-in 2003 before a collision cost him his job with the Cubs, and in 2004 with the Marlins before he was traded to Los Angeles-to write him off. He won’t hit for a high average and he will strike out; however, he has great pull power and will walk once every six or seven plate appearances. He can be Jim Thome Lite, or maybe Adam Dunn with less power and soft hands at first base. The Rays could use some lefty power and a dose of OBP, and Choi brings that. Given a chance, he could be the biggest bargain in baseball.
If Choi doesn’t win the first-base job, the Rays could still improve upon Norigginton by turning to Carlos Pena. Like Choi, Pena was released in spring training last year, and was unable to get more than a handful of at-bats in the majors despite good work at Triple-A. Pena is a very good defensive first baseman, and like Choi combines a low batting average with walks and some pop, his value hidden by a high strikeout rate that has, at times, frustrated his managers. He fell out of favor in Detroit without changing as a player, and there’s no reason to believe he’s any different now. Again, if the default is a platoon of utilitymen with so-so gloves and an odd ticking sound around them, why not get the same production from one player who might be worth six wins if all goes well?
Al Reyes has been a personal favorite for a number of years, an effective reliever with very good peripherals who had trouble sticking throughout the early ’00s. He had a breakthrough season in 2005 for the Cardinals, only to blow out his elbow at the end of it, damaging not only his career but the Cards’ chances in the ’05 playoffs. In a D-Rays’ bullpen that has no sure things, that had six players record saves last year, and that saw just two pitchers post ERAs under 4.00, there’s opportunity for Reyes to not only win a job, but to be their high-leverage guy. I’ll be rooting for him.
Bad teams tend to have more opportunities for NRIs. The D-Rays are the second-worst team in the AL, and they have a counterpart in the worst team in the NL, the Nationals. Just this week, the Nats snapped up the last reasonable free agent by inviting Ron Belliard to camp. Belliard becomes the team’s best second-base option, allowing them to keep Felipe Lopez at shortstop and turn Cristian Guzman into a conversation piece for the living room, or lawn furniture, or a slightly uncomfortable beanbag chair.
Alas, the more likely scenario is that Guzman keeps his job-the contract must play, you know-and Belliard gets time platooning with Lopez or pinch-hitting a lot. This scenario, where a team has multiple options and lands on the least-productive one, is common enough to warrant a piece of its own.
The Nats, who right now have two Senate pages and an extra from “D.C. Cab” in the rotation, have invited a whole bunch of pitchers to camp. Of particular note are Brandon Claussen, who isn’t that far removed from being on the road to what Chris Capuano actually turned into. Claussen had his left shoulder scoped last year, and isn’t likely to make an impact before the second half. Remember the name, though. The Nats also have live-armed relievers Jesus Colome and Anastacio Martinez looking for jobs. As bad as their bullpen was down the stretch last season, guys who miss bats could advance quickly.
An ex-National looking for work turns up in Kansas City, as Zach Day tries to return to a rotation. The Royals are a good fit in that they don’t really have five starters clearly better than Day. Unfortunately, they also don’t have four infielders better than him, and in fact, will almost certainly feature a poor defensive unit as long as Angel Berroa plays. That means Day’s ground balls become singles, and Day becomes an Omaha Royal. In the right situation, Day is an innings-eater along the lines of Jake Westbrook or Clay Hensley.
He’s 28 now, so it looks like my projections that Kenny Kelly would be another Kenny Lofton or Carl Crawford were slightly optimistic. Kelly came to baseball late, just like those two players, but his immersion in the game didn’t help him develop the way the two stars did. He’s in camp with the White Sox this spring after a lousy year for the Nationals’ Triple-A team (.245/.330/.296!). He might not warrant mention, but the White Sox don’t really have a great outfield, and if I had to pick Kelly or Scott Podsednik for the next 600 at-bats, I’d take Kelly. If the Sox go with Brian Anderson and Ryan Sweeney in the outfield, I’d take Kelly as the fourth outfielder. Kelly retains most of his prospect-era speed, he’s had decent walk rates the last few years, and there’s more power than last year’s .051 ISO indicates. If I don’t end up with him in AL Tout Wars, it’ll be an upset.
Some quick hitters…Chip Ambres probably should have gotten 500 ABs from someone by now. He won’t get them with the Mets this year, but he’s about as good as Shawn Green, and the Mets may need two extra outfielders who can play defense… Making Justin Lehr a starter did nothing for the Brewers or Lehr; now the right-hander is with the Mariners, who have a wide-open bullpen after closer J.J. Putz… The Padres have two utility-infield guys who can get on base in Brian Myrow and Royce Huffman; either could give them what Mark Bellhorn didn’t… Matt Stairs is Frank Thomas insurance in Toronto, and still capable of a .500 SLG… I think I’m the only one defending the Sammy Sosa gamble by the Rangers. I like him for 20 HR and a .520 SLG… Joe Dillon is back from an awful year in Japan, trying to make the Marlins again. He can hit, but then he always could.