Last week I wrote a fan's basic survival guide on how to watch -- or perhaps more accurately how not to watch -- spring training. Towards the bottom of that piece I made some cautionary noises about getting too worked up over your favorite team's non-roster invitees: those guys so old, ineffective, injury-prone or otherwise risky that no team was willing to guarantee them a major league salary and a space on the 40-man roster up front, but whose track records were intriguing enough that someone wanted to bring them in and at least see what they could do in camp.
As things get underway this week in Florida and Arizona, that remains true. There's no reasonable concern that, say, 39-year-old Ramon Ortiz is going to find a spot on the Blue Jays staff. Similarly, the Chicago White Sox inking third baseman Josh Bell, the ex-Dodgers and Orioles prospect who spent last year in the Diamondbacks' minor league system, to a minor league contract with a major league spring training invitation probably doesn't signify anything more than an attempt to give their current backup third baseman, Brent Morel, some spring competition.
Still, there are some very intriguing NRIs in major league camps this spring who have decent shots of making their respective clubs out of the gate as regular contributors.
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Four such players reported last Monday to Goodyear Ballpark in Goodyear, Arizona, the spring training home of the Cleveland Indians. Regardless of how this year plays out on the field for them, the Indians had the most inspired offseason in baseball, using the no-man's land created by the new CBA's compensation rules to acquire Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn at far lower prices than the market would have otherwise borne, dealing Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati to acquire a top-flight pitching prospect (and terrible rapper) from Arizona in Trevor Bauer, and snapping up a number of formerly successful big-leaguers at the nadir of their value and offering them non-roster invitations to camp: former Boston Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, ex-Minnesota Twins and Washington Nationals reliever Matt Capps, former Tiger Ryan Raburn and designated hitter Jason Giambi, most recently of the Colorado Rockies.
There are a number of other interesting NRIs in Goodyear for the Indians -- Scott Kazmir, Ben Francisco, Rich Hill (until he gets hurt again) -- but those guys are much longer shots to do anything significant for Cleveland in 2013. Matsuzaka, Capps, Raburn and Giambi could contribute right now.
Capps is perhaps the most surprising NRI of the offseason. Twenty-eight-year-old relievers with four years of solid work out of the pen, closing experience and career strikeout-to-walk ratios of nearly 4 generally don't have trouble finding work. But the last two and a half years in Minnesota really did a number on Capps; not only did he lose his job as closer in 2011 by pitching miserably in front of a miserable team, he then spent most of 2012 sidelined with a rotator cuff injury to his throwing arm. The injury was not severe enough to require surgery, but lingering concerns about his health have relegated him to fighting for a spot in Cleveland's pen.
Daisuke Matsuzaka is somewhat in the same boat as Capps, but the problem for Dice-K is that it's been much longer since he put up his last (and, really, only) good season in the majors. When you look under the hood of that 2008 season, it's astonishing that Matsuzaka was able to sustain 167 innings of sub-3 ERA ball while leading the league in walks. When you look at every season that comes after that, you see what happens when the luck runs out.
Still, the change of scenery and the less impressive overall offense of the AL Central should help somewhat, and the Indians are starved enough for pitching right now that unless they sign Kyle Lohse or inexplicably fast-track Trevor Bauer to the majors, someone's going to have to be the fifth starter coming out of camp. It might as well be Dice-K. His biggest competition in camp is Carlos Carrasco, who threw 124 innings of 4.62 ERA ball for the Indians in 2011 before undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing the 2012 season entirely. He's got more upside than Matsuzaka -- but as soon as he rejoins the Indians, Carrasco has to serve a six-game suspension dating back to July 2011 for throwing at Billy Butler's head.
It's entirely possible that Matsuzaka's year in the majors will consist of making the start in Cleveland's April 6th game against the Tampa Bay Rays and then being summarily designated for assignment. Then again, depending on how poorly the "Brett Myers as a starter in 2013" experiment goes he could be around a lot longer than that.
Neither Giambi nor Raburn is in any real danger of winning a starting job. Mark Reynolds is already penciled in as the everyday designated hitter, Jason Kipnis has second base locked down and the outfield is mostly set. However, both players have value as bench bats. Giambi still finds his way on base very well, even at age 42, and if manager Terry Francona gets tired of Drew Stubbs' lack of production from right field, the veteran slugger might even become the regular DH with Swisher rotating from first base back to his natural position in right and Reynolds "playing" first -- though due to Giambi's struggles to stay healthy and Reynolds' butchery in the field it's unlikely that experiment would last long. Ryan Raburn, meanwhile, doesn't do a whole lot well by major league standards, but he is useful in moderation against left-handed pitching, and should be able to fit on the bench.
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There's no other team in baseball that reasonably threatens to have four NRI players make their active roster out of camp, though the Mets' bullpen woes bring them close. Scott Atchison is another reliever who should have gotten at least one-year deal somewhere, and unlike Matt Capps, Atchison was both healthy good in 2012. He's also 37 years old, sure, but teams shouldn't be offering non-elite relievers multi-year deals anyway. It's unlikely Atchison ever puts up a 1.58 ERA in 51.1 innings pitched again, but he doesn't need to in order to provide stability and value … in a contender's bullpen. Instead he'll be with the Mets, where he might be joined by fellow veteran NRIs LaTroy Hawkins and Pedro Feliciano. If former Rockies 1B/OF Andrew Brown can make the Mets' bench -- an uphill struggle, because if there's one thing the Mets have a lot of on their roster, it's fourth outfielders -- and Cleveland signs Lohse, they might even exceed the Indians.
The Houston Astros only have one guy in camp on an NRI who projects onto their Opening Day roster, but barring injury he's the closest thing to a lock there is: Erik Bedard, former ace of the Baltimore Orioles. It's been five years since his fantastic final season with Baltimore and subsequent trade to Seattle, which crippled that franchise and laid the groundwork for the madness in Camden Yards last year.
Things could have played out much differently, though. At the time there was another package for Bedard discussed, besides the one that sent Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, George Sherill and parts to Baltimore: Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey and Joey Votto, three prospects from the Cincinnati Reds organization. If the trade hadn't fallen through, maybe it's the Reds signing Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay this offseason instead, because as soon as Bedard hit Seattle everything began to fall apart, starting with his hip. He gave Seattle 80 great innings in 2009, but since then it's been a downward spiral of injury and poor performance ending in camp with the Houston Astros on a minor-league deal.
Bedard joins the Astros at a time when the new front office is selling off anything of value from the old regime that isn't nailed down, however, and right now that means presumptive Opening Day starter Bud Norris. That would leave Bedard, who already is the fifth starter on Houston's depth chart, with another rotation spot of wiggle room -- and considering two of the guys above him are Phil Humber and Jordan Lyles, it's not unreasonable that he might leapfrog them in the pecking order if he stays healthy and effective. The problem for Bedard, of course, is that it's been two years since he's managed to do that.
Yuniesky Betancourt will probably be on Philadelphia's bench when camp breaks due to the particular weaknesses of Charlie Manuel and the Phillies front office when confronted with an otherwise-useless hitter that simply does not strike out, combined with how wholly unimpressive Freddy Galvis and Kevin Frandsen are as alternatives, but I can't justify spending more of my life writing about Betancourt and the Phillies nor can you justify spending more of yours reading it.
Instead, I'll conclude with a late entry to ranks of this year's NRIs, a man who very likely will not make his team's roster but who I pull for nonetheless: 34-year-old Jack Cust will be in camp with the Tampa Bay Rays, having spent last season in AAA with the Yankees and Blue Jays organizations. My primary frame of reference for Cust is as the 24 year old who hit .260/.357/.521 for Baltimore during his September cup of coffee in 2003, then was banished to the minors for the 2004 season while Jay Gibbons hit .246/.303/.379 in right field. It took Cust until 2007 to break in as a regular with the Oakland Athletics, and he spent the next four seasons hammering the ball for them. That's about as much of a lifespan as guys like Cust have -- if a guy's in his mid-twenties and he's already heavyset, slow, and unable to play defense, he's going to be even heavier, slower and worse in the field once he hits his thirties. Cust produced alright in the International League last season and will probably be headed back there when camp's done to join Tampa Bay's AAA affiliate in Durham, but Tampa's current DH, Luke Scott, has been an embarrassment off the field and unremarkable on it for the few weeks he's been healthy the past two seasons. There's some space there, some opportunity, if Cust shows up to Florida ready to hit. Maybe. If Scott, Shelley Duncan and guys like Stephen Vogt all have bad springs.
More than anything else, that's why I'm pulling for Jack Cust over any of the other guys in this article: unlike them, he doesn't really have a chance.