Camps open this weekend on the wonderfully appropriate date of February 14, which means we’ll have video of players in t-shirts and windbreakers wearing caps and gloves and throwing things as opposed to ones in sweaters wearing an awful lot of product and saying stuff. I mean, not that the last few days haven’t been just all kinds of fun, but let’s get to the baseball already.
With an eye toward the early days of camp, here’s a look at some of the non-roster invitees who have sparked my interest for one reason or another. In the next few days, I’ll mention a handful of guys in every camp who could go from being low-profile to rostered by April 6 (the American League version is here). Some of these are veterans, some are rookies, all are fighting for jobs this spring. In the case of the rookies mentioned, these are guys who probably won’t be in MLB camps too long, so if you’re taking the trip to Florida or Arizona early, try and get a peek at them.
Atlanta Braves: Tommy Hanson will get a look-see from the Braves. A top-ten prospect overall, Hanson combines a pitchers’ build, above-average mechanics, a power arm and a deep repertoire. Hanson got half a season at Double-A in 2008, and while there’s some chance the Braves could plug him into the rotation with a good spring, the more likely scenario is that he comes up as a much-needed boost in June. There’s every chance Hanson is to the ’09 Braves what Roy Oswalt was to the ’01 Astros.
Jason Heyward, the organization’s top prospect, is in camp as well, but not for long. Also, after stagnating at Triple-A since 2005, utilityman Brooks Conrad is in camp looking for a job. Braves benches have been a bit short of power recently, and Conrad could provide both pop and in-game flexibility. His inability to make contact is the kind of thing that will hurt him in a job battle for a last roster spot where style points matter, though.
Arizona Diamondbacks: The D’backs have no left-handed-hitting outfielders on the roster, which would seem to create an opportunity for Brandon Watson. Watson is a slap-hitting speedster who actually started the ’06 season as the Nationals’ center fielder and leadoff hitter, but was demoted after batting .179 with no extra-base hits and drawing a single walk in a ten-game trial. Watson may have been over his head as an everyday player, but the D’backs have room for a guy who can slap singles, play some defense and pinch-run. Former Blue Jay and Ranger Ryan Roberts is battling for a bench job, and could benefit from the somewhat chaotic situation in the team’s infield.
Chicago Cubs: I can’t believe this, but Chad Fox is still going at it. The 38-year-old has thrown eight professional innings-all last year-since April of 2005. He hasn’t been effective since 2003. I begrudge no man his right to pursue a career, but what exactly do the Cubs expect to happen here? Fox’s right elbow can’t hold up to the strain of pitching. We know that with near-absolute certainty. Why go down this road again?
Cincinnati Reds: Jonny Gomes has one skill: mashing left-handed pitchers. With lefty-hitting Chris Dickerson set to claim the left-field job, Gomes seems like an excellent choice as a platoon partner. Per Minor League Splits, Dickerson has a career .228/.328/.319 line against southpaws. Gomes has hit .266/.369/.510 against lefties in the majors, and he’d have pinch-hitting value as well. Drew Stubbs was the team’s top pick in 2006, reached Triple-A last year, and is in camp with a chance to make that two-year, $6 million contract given to Willy Taveras look even sillier.
Colorado Rockies: The Rockies have very few NRIs in camp. The most notable one is probably Scott Podsednik, who is expected to win at least a fourth outfielder-type job, and who could steal a chunk of playing time in center field for a team seemingly determined to block Dexter Fowler. Podsednik brings speed, but little else: he’s been a viable player twice in his eight-year career.
Florida Marlins: Four of the Marlins’ top five prospects are NRIs, including 2008 first-round pick Kyle Skipworth and 2007 first-rounder Matt Dominguez. But it’s a 22nd-round pick, first baseman Logan Morrison, who could make the most noise. The sweet-swinging lefty played at High-A last season, then ripped up the Arizona Fall League. It would be a big jump, but the Marlins have few options at first base-Gaby Sanchez, a lesser prospect, is the default option-and a desperate need for some lineup balance.
Houston Astros: The right-handed Jose Capellan’s career drifted off the tracks after a strong 2005 in the Brewers’ bullpen. Shoulder problems took a chunk out of his effectiveness, and his behavior upon demotion by the Brewers in ’07 affected his reputation. The Astros have a number of right-handed relievers of moderate talent, but no real strikeout pitchers, so there may be a role for Capellan if he can harness his command. Also, Reggie Abercrombie (Tools!) is back; he’s unchanged as a player, but the Astros could always use a set of legs for Carlos Lee, and if there’s any place where a right-handed batter with power and no plate discipline could hang some numbers, it’s Minute Maid Park.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers’ wasted offseason leaves them bringing in the likes of Jeff Weaver to fill out the rotation. I’ve long felt Weaver was unappreciated and overly criticized, but he had an ERA above 6.00, with peripherals to match, in 22 appearances at Triple-A last year. More intriguing is Steven Randolph, the former Diamondbacks lefty reliever who has posted unholy strikeout rates at Triple-A the last two years: 174 whiffs in 114 innings. His command is lousy, but… man, that’s a lot of missed bats.
Milwaukee Brewers: A limited number of interesting NRIs is led by Chris Duffy, who had a Capellanesque fall with the Pirates after losing the center-field job to Nate McLouth. An assortment of unrelated injuries ruined his 2008 season, but there’s opportunity with a team that, like the Diamondbacks, is righty-heavy in the outfield. Trot Nixon is also in the Brewers’ camp, and while he brings a different set of skills, by and large he’s fighting for the same roster spot.
New York Mets: Freddy Garcia threw 73 major league innings in the past two years, allowing 45 earned runs and missing a bit more than a year after shoulder surgery. While he’s an NRI, his contract-incentive-heavy up to the high seven figures-is an indication that he’s expected to win the fifth-starter slot ahead of Tim Redding and Jon Niese. He is more than capable of being a league-average starter in the NL, and a contributor to a playoff run. Fernando Martinez and his amazing talent got an NRI to camp, and while both have to work on staying healthy, Martinez is the kind of player you want to go out of your way to see if you’re down in Florida.
Philadelphia Phillies: The world champs swapped out left fielders, but will be returning most of their bench and bullpen, so NRIs aren’t going to have a big impact on camp. Two prospects, Jason Donald and Anthony Hewitt, will be around early; Hewitt is a tools project, while Donald is a finished product with nowhere to play-although there’s some chance he could fill in at second base while Chase Utley heals, showcasing himself as a trade chit.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Jason Davis has walked more men than he’s struck out at the major league level in each of the past two seasons, so my belief that he can be a back-end starter may be misplaced. He hasn’t been much better than that at Triple-A, and in fact has been discarded by four teams in the last two years-the Pirates actually dropped him from the 40-man roster over the winter. However, given the dreck at the back of the Pirates’ rotation-and in fact, the failures at the front of it-there should be some opportunity for Davis.
St. Louis Cardinals: David Freese hammered Triple-A last season, skipping Double-A entirely to do so. He’s 26 and has mediocre plate discipline (266/135 K/BB in 1,403 career PA), so you can’t get too excited about it. The team does need someone to play in Troy Glaus‘ stead, and it’s unlikely that they’ll launch Brett Wallace’s career on Opening Day, so that leaves Freese and Brian Barden as the main contestants for the job. Freese is a capable defender who’d be a low-OBP power bat in the majors, a less extreme version of Pedro Feliz.
San Diego Padres: You can’t possibly be sick of me pumping up Chris Britton, who is all set to ape the Heath Bell career path. Relief pitcher with lots of skills washes out of a New York organization, heads to San Diego, and becomes a middle-relief monster.
San Francisco Giants: From where I’m sitting, I can see the spine of Baseball Prospectus 2003, which features the follow-through of Josh Phelps, no doubt just after he’d rocketed a ball deep to left field, part of his .309/.362/.562 half-season for the Jays in ’02. Phelps hit reasonably well in ’03 (.268/.358/.470) before his strikeout rate and K/BB ate his production. The Giants have yet to sign a third baseman, which would leave Pablo Sandoval there and open first base to a bunch of competitors, Phelps being one of them. It’s his last chance, and I’m rooting for him.
Washington Nationals: Brad Eldred is like Josh Phelps, but younger and more of a cartoon character. The Nationals’ first-base situation is almost as amusing as that of the Giants-Nick Johnson and Ronnie Belliard are the listed options. Eldred is more healthy than Johnson and taller than Belliard, and he does have absolutely insane power-when he makes contact. He’d be an entertaining use of a roster spot for a team that is otherwise really, really dull.