Spring training is alive and well in Florida and Arizona , and the battles that will define the 23rd through 25th spots of many teams' active major league rosters are heating up with the weather. That far down the roster, the fight is more to make the team as a bench player or bullpen depth than it is for a starting job. Generally speaking, most of the starting lineup and rotation spots are filled before anyone arrives at camp, even if the team doesn't quite know which particular roster player will be filling which role yet.
But there are certain non-roster players -- some of them picks in the Rule 5 draft (players that either need to make their new team's 25-man active roster by the time spring training ends or return to their previous organization), some of them more traditional non-roster invitees in camp on minor league deals -- who are not only in prime position to make their teams, but make an impact with those teams. Here are five of the most likely to go from on the cusp of being cut to regulars in the boxscore in 2014.
Michael Almanzar, 3B, Baltimore Orioles
Almanzar, a 23-year- old member of the Boston Red Sox organization before his selection by Baltimore, has two things going for him to make the Orioles' major league squad. First, the Orioles' starting third baseman, Manny Machado, is still likely to miss at least a bit of the beginning of the season recovering from the knee injury he suffered at the end of last year; Second, each year since Dan Duquette took over as Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations in Baltimore, the Orioles have not only made a selection in the Rule 5 draft but carried that player on their MLB roster for the rest of the season. In 2012, it was Ryan Flaherty from the Chicago Cubs (currently the favorite to win the everyday job at second base), and in 2013, it was lefthander T.J. McFarland from the Cleveland Indians, who could either end up a lefty specialist in the bullpen due to Troy Patton's 25-game suspension for amphetamine use or begin the season with Triple-A Norfolk.
The good news about Almanzar is that he comes from an organization so deep that it pretty much can't protect its borderline prospects while still keeping all its major league talent in order. The bad news is that the last time Almanzar made any sort of splash whatsoever in prospect circles was all the way back before the 2009 season, when Baseball America ranked him the 8th best prospect in Boston's system. The book on him then was a lot of raw tools that needed to be refined, and Almanzar would spend the next four seasons trying to get out of Single-A, in the process becoming a non-prospect. Like Flaherty (.617 OPS in 2012) and MacFarland (4.22 ERA in relief in 2013) it's likely he'll stick with Baltimore more out of positional need and organizational stubbornness than merit, and then once his rights belong to Baltimore he'll be sent back to the minors in 2015 for more work.
Seth Rosin, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
I've already discussed Rosin a bit -- he's a dark horse candidate in a crowded race for the #5 spot in the Dodgers' rotation -- but even if he doesn't end up starting, he could still be a valuable relief arm for the Los Angeles organization, especially given he could theoretically be stretched out and used in a starter's role again. Rosin, 25, was actually selected by the New York Mets in the Rule 5 draft and then dealt to the Dodgers afterwards, though the same rules apply -- Rosin must remain on the Dodgers' 25-man roster for the duration of the season or be offered back to Philadelphia. The Phillies acquired Rosin from the San Francisco Giants in the Hunter Pence trade, meaning that at the moment, the result of Pence's time in Philadelphia is some fond memories and the knowledge that the Phillies managed to turn Jonathan Singleton, Jarrod Cosart and Domingo Santana into Tommy Joseph.
Rosin has had an electric beginning to his time in Los Angeles -- five scoreless innings pitched with eight strikeouts against no walks -- but the usual caveats apply about reading too much into spring training lines. It also works against him that the Dodgers added or returned J.P Howell, Paul Maholm, Chris Perez, Brian Wilson and Jamey Wright to a bullpen that already had incumbents Kenley Jansen, Brandon League, Paco Rodriguez and Chris Withrow, so space is limited. Still, it's much better to be doing well than to be doing poorly, regardless the context at this stage of spring.
Adrian Nieto, C, Chicago White Sox
The White Sox had a lot of holes to address over the offseason and limited budget space and trade assets with which to work. Considering that within those constraints they still managed to acquire Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, Matt Davidson and (late last year) Avisail Garcia -- along with the context of a relatively weak free agent catching market after Brian McCann signed with the New York Yankees -- it's somewhat forgivable that the Sox have no everyday solution at backstop going into spring training in 2014. By the time camp breaks at the end of the month, the White Sox will have to choose two of Tyler Flowers, Josh Phegley, Hector Gimenez, Miguel Gonzalez (no relation to the pitcher -- either pitcher) or Adrian Nieto, the organization's pick in the Rule 5 draft and formerly a part of the Washington Nationals organization.
Rule 5 draft picks generally have a better chance of making the major league club out of spring training than any other type of non-roster player of the same talent level -- it's not possible for their new team to depress their service time by stashing them in the minors, and since the Rule 5 draft is an optional process, teams who go through the trouble of making a selection in it will by definition have a measure of investment in their selection's success that might not be present with a guy who was signed just to be a warm body for camp. That said, there's generally a reason teams leave Rule 5 eligible guys off of their 40-man rosters and open for selection: in Nieto's case, Washington is set at the major league level with Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton.
More importantly, Nieto is a 23-year-old who spent five years in the Nationals organization and never managed to make it to Double-A ball. It's safe to say the White Sox won't be keeping him around for his bat, which is something that's unfortunately likely to be true of Flowers, Phegley, and every other catcher the White Sox invited to major league camp. But Nieto is known for having very advanced defense and his bat has come around a little bit in the past season (the Nationals had him slated to begin the year at Double-A for the first time in his career before his selection), so he should make for a serviceable backup catcher -- should the White Sox retain him. Very few catchers selected in the Rule 5 draft stay with their new teams, with the Nationals themselves responsible for selecting one of the very few exceptions to this rule, Jesus Flores.
Dean Anna, 2B/SS/3B, New York Yankees
The Yankees are currently flush with middle infielders -- there's five of them under contract for next season already, a full fifth of the roster. Derek Jeter, Brian Roberts, Brendan Ryan, Kelly Johnson, and Eduardo Nunez are all more or less locks to make the team, with Nunez presenting the sole shadow of doubt. The only reason the Yankees can afford to carry five middle infielders, of course, is the reason they've been looking into adding a sixth -- their Hall of Fame third baseman has been suspended for the season, and so one of the shortstops or second basemen has to man the hot corner instead. Kelly Johnson is currently penciled in there for the start of the season, but the Yankees could use one more backup utilityman that could play every infield position. There's been talk, most of it fan-generated and wistful, about the Yankees looking at Seattle second baseman Nick Franklin, who after the Robinson Cano signing suddenly finds himself out of a starting job -- but the Yankees might already have a better option close to home.
Given the recent injury setbacks suffered by Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma -- not to mention that even with them healthy, the Mariners' rotation could have used a new fifth starter -- Seattle is likely trying to move Franklin for pitching. Anna, 27, who the Yankees acquired at the end of last season from the San Diego Padres, has played everywhere in the infield except first base in the minors and almost OPS'd .900 in the PCL last year -- inflated numbers thanks to the league context to be sure, but not bad at all. He was a college player drafted out of Ball State in 2008 and has hit at every level of the minors; the Padres moved him thanks to their blessing of riches on the middle infield front with Jedd Gyorko, Everth Cabrera and Chase Headley manning their major league infield.
Franklin might be the trendier pick due to his relative youth and shiny prospect status -- not to mention some proven MLB performance already under his belt, shaky as it is -- but Anna's already in the organization. If he impresses this spring, it might make any talk of trading for a sixth middle infielder moot.
Mark Reynolds, 1B/3B, Milwaukee Brewers
Did you know the Brewers gave shortstop and career .673 OPS hitter Yuniesky Betancourt 55 games of playing time at first base last year? Did you know they gave an additional 21 games at first to shortstop and career .686 OPS hitter Alex Gonzalez? Do you know where either of those two men are now? (Betancourt recently signed with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan, while Gonzalez is back at shortstop on a minor league deal with the Orioles, and is a non-roster invitee at their major league camp.)
The first base situation in Milwaukee was dire even before Corey Hart officially closed the door on a return to the Brewers by signing with the Seattle Mariners. For 2014, general manager Doug Melvin is attempting to address the issue much the same way that the Yankees addressed their first base problem last year after Mark Teixiera injured his forearm and sidelined himself for most of the season: bringing in Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds and seeing what sticks. You'll recall how well that worked out for the Yankees (they received 644 PA of .690 OPS hitting from the position in 2013).
Of the two hitters, Reynolds is the more elusive and infuriating. He has legitimate elite power -- when he connects -- but has the baseball awareness of a blind man. Literally. His biggest specific problem is that he has a contact tool to rival the worst "defensive shortstop" in your favorite team's farm system, but with none of that defensive upside. At his best, he's a home run machine, and little else; at his worst, he's a strikeout machine, and little else. Well, scratch that. He's always a strikeout machine. The Brewers will just have to hope he'll bring the long ball with him to Milwaukee, and with power like that, as long as Reynolds is healthy, he'll always get another chance.
It's worth noting that this is just a sampling of some of the top names who could go from off the roster to in the boxscore this April and is by no means comprehensive; a lot can happen between now and Opening Day: injuries, trades, service time demotions. These five might surprise you with how often they show up in the first few months of the season, though, if they're given the chance.