One of the most enjoyable aspects of spring training during the month of March is getting to see players you wouldn't ordinarily see get playing time and try to earn a roster spot. Every year, each team goes into spring training with a few spots on the roster open to competition and it's always fun to see who emerges as contenders.
Spring is always thought to symbolize the season of re-birth, so it is only fitting that a number of former major leaguers and once-highly-touted prospects attempt to reinvigorate their baseball careers in spring training. Most of these players appear in exhibition games as non-roster invitees.
For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a "non-roster invitee" is simply a player who breaks into camp with the franchise but does not appear on the team's 40-man roster and is currently signed under a minor league contract.
Usually, the non-roster invitees primarily consist of former major leaguers unable to obtain a major-league contract, career minor leaguers, and occasionally, low-level prospects whom the team would like to get some seasoning against major-league talent (albeit in games that generally do not matter).
For those of us die-hard fans, it's always fun to see who re-appears on the scene after years of obscurity - usually evoking a hey, I remember that guy! - and who could potentially factor into the major league club's plans if they can rediscover the formula that once made them a household name.
They are the players donning jersey numbers you usually only see in football; the types of guys who, when they come into the game, send announcers scrambling to figure out their identity.
The 2013 Toronto Blue Jays will go into spring training with a multitude of guys like that and we'll take a look at the most intriguing names on the list of this year's non-roster invitees.
The most intriguing names in this case, however, aren't the up-and-coming prospects just in camp to get some seasoning (e.g. Sean Nolin), but rather those players with the most interesting backstories and those who could contribute at the major-league level if an opportunity presents itself and they can return to the higher level of play at which they once performed.
Without further adieu, here are the most intriguing non-roster invitees in spring training for the Blue Jays this year.
Two of the most intriguing non-roster invitees expected to break camp with the Blue Jays are former starting pitchers just trying to find a role on a major league pitching staff in any available capacity.
One of those two is a former Blue Jay himself, Dave Bush.
Bush, now 33, was a second-round pick of the Blue Jays in 2002 and quickly worked his way through the minors to put together two impressive partial seasons in 2004 and 2005.
However, in a start on May 28, 2005, Bush was yanked from a start by then-and-once-again-now manager John Gibbons and wasn't happy with the skipper's decision. Reports were that Bush and Gibbons then had it out in a verbal confrontation in the dugout. Bush was optioned to the minors the next day and although he returned, he was traded to the Brewers at the end of the season.
Since then, Bush spent five seasons in Milwaukee as the prototypical No. 5 starter in their rotation along with a short stint for the Rangers as a long reliever which did not end well in 2011.
Unable to get a major-league contract after his abysmal 2011 season, he spent 2012 pitching for SK Wyvern of the Korean Professional Baseball League.
Now in 2013, he's back in Toronto on a minor-league deal. He has a career 4.70 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 6.0K/9IP in 187 starts and 23 relief appearances. His numbers are the epitome of mediocre. The one thing he could do was eat up his fair share of innings.
He probably won't have that opportunity in 2013, with five solid starters in place and J.A. Happ likely waiting in the wings at AAA. There's a longshot he could find a niche as a mop-up man in Toronto at some point.
The same best case scenario probably also holds true for another former starter, Justin Germano.
Germano, now 30, was a former high-ranking prospect for the Padres a decade ago, but has spent the past thirteen seasons in the minors, interspersed with the occasional major league stint.
He spent almost the entire 2007 season in the majors with San Diego and he was a serviceable back-end starter, going 7-10 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 23 starts. Since then, however, he has bounced around, only pitching in the majors on an as needed basis.
Since 2004, he has appeared in AAA for the Padres, Reds, Phillies, Padres (again), Indians, and Red Sox. On the bright side, he had perhaps his most encouraging AAA season last year at Pawtucket, going 9-4 with a 2.60 ERA in 16 starts.
Unfortunately, he also went 2-10 with a 6.20 ERA in 14 appearances (12 starts) in the majors in 2012.
At 30 years old, he's achieved journeyman status at a young age, but he isn't too far removed from once being considered a "promising pitcher." However, like Bush, he'll be buried on the depth chart and a lot will have to go wrong for the Blue Jays in 2013 for him to make even a single start in Toronto.
Both pitchers are the types of guys you like filling out the rotation at AAA, but wouldn't want to start at the major-league level. Either could make an impact as a long reliever in the bullpen and offer some experience if injuries occur, but unless they're lights-out this spring, it is unlikely at this time.
Four noteworthy relievers—two lefties, two righties—also appear on this year's list of non-roster invitees.
All four are between the ages of 28 and 31, and given the propensity of relievers to emerge out of obscurity each season, it's possible at least one of these players could have a profound impact in the bullpen in 2013.
First, right-handed Chad Beck, 28, had been a starting pitching prospect for the Diamondbacks and Jays, but was converted to a reliever in 2012 after uninspiring numbers in the rotation at the higher levels of the minors.
Beck responded well to the change, posting a 1.31 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 48.0 innings in relief in 2012 despite pitching in the hitters' haven that is the PCL.
Unfortunately, he only struck out 24 hitters in that time span and his inability to fool major league hitters as he did in AAA resulted in an unimpressive stint in Toronto, recording a 6.32 ERA in 15 appearances.
He was designated for assignment by the Blue Jays for another reliever on this list, but the Jays brought him back as a non-roster invitee after the promise he showed as a reliever in Las Vegas last year.
The man Beck was DFA'd for is lefty Tommy Hottovy, now 31, who was also a solid starting pitching prospect early on in his career (this time for the Red Sox).
Apparently, Hottovy was developing well as a starter, but was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2008 and hasn't been the same pitcher since. Hottovy has adapted, becoming a side-armed pitcher, which has resulted in positive showings in the minors as a reliever over the last two seasons.
In 2012 as the AAA Omaha Royals' closer, Hottovy struck out 61 hitters while walking only 16 in 50.1 innings, and recorded 7 saves. He only has 13.1 innings of major-league experience—with mixed results—but he has a good pedigree and seems to be adjusting well to the changes he's made post-surgery.
Also in the mix is another lefty who has significant minor league experience as both a starter and reliever: 30-year-old Alex Hinshaw.
The book on Hinshaw is pretty simple: he has good velocity on his pitches, can overpower hitters times, but has consistently struggled with control. He has a mighty impressive 11.1 K/9 IP rate in the minors, but it comes with an unsightly 6.2 BB/9 IP.
I liked what I saw of Hinshaw in his major-league debut in 2008 as a reliever for the Giants. He had a 3.40 ERA and struck out 47 in 39.2 innings of relief, but walked an unacceptable 29 batters in that span. He looked like the type of reliever who could suddenly start dominating if he worked out his control issues.
Unfortunately for Hinshaw, he has yet to solve that problem and 2008 has since been his most successful campaign. He still has upside and can miss bats, but he gives too many free passes to be an effective reliever at this time.
Finally, there's 28-year-old Aussie, Rich Thompson, formerly of the Angels. No, not the same Blue Jays' base-stealing outfield prospect of a decade ago.
This Rich Thompson spent 2002-2010 in the Angels' system after being signed as an undrafted free agent at 17years-old. His 2011 season was the culmination of his long minor-league odyssey, posting a 3.00 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 54.0 innings at the major-league level while striking out 56.
Unfortunately, given how expendable relievers are, Thompson was back down at AAA for almost all of 2012 - this time for the A's. He was solid yet again, unfazed by being back in the minors, posting a 3.34 ERA and striking out 58 in 62.0 innings at AAA Sacramento.
He isn't a flashy name, but Thompson has proved his worth in the minors and his major-league numbers are acceptable enough (4.21 ERA and 105 strikeouts in 104.2 innings) and teams could do worse than having him as the last man in the bullpen.
All in all, each of the four relievers offer some intrigue and have the potential to make an impact in the majors if given the opportunity. All have made good impressions in the minors despite their flaws, and given the unsettled state of the Blue Jays' bullpen, more than one of these pitchers could see some time as a reliever in Toronto this season.
Two other pitchers' names are intriguing simply based on past familiarity and major-league experience.
Ramon Ortiz, 39, and Claudio Vargas, 34, aren't expected to make any real major-league impact in the twilight of their careers, but are worth noting given how long they have been around.
They'll provide some veteran guidance in spring training and they may have more accomplished resumes than some of the other names they'll compete against, but they are long shots for any role at the major-league level.
Ramon Ortiz has been around so long that he was already in his fourth season when he helped the Angels win the World Series a decade ago in 2002. He was a full-time starter from 2001-2006 before moving to a mop-up role in 2007.
He didn't pitch in the majors from 2008-2009, only returning as a below-average reliever for the Dodgers and Cubs in 2010 and 2011 respectively. He spent all of 2012 as a starter for AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre of the Yankees system.
He has a career record of 86-84 with a 4.93 ERA and World Series ring. It's been a nice career for Ortiz. But he'll be 40 before the season starts and should not expect to have any success beyond a mentor starter at AAA.
Claudio Vargas is a bit younger at 34, but has been a non-factor for nearly as long as Ortiz has. Vargas had an impressive debut as a rookie in 2003 for the Montreal Expos (yes, he has been around that long), and bounced around a bit as a back-end starter/long reliever for the five years after that.
His most impressive body of work came in 2009, when he posted a 1.74 ERA in 36 relief appearances between the Dodgers and Brewers. Since then, however, Vargas hasn't been the type of guy you want anywhere near a major-league pitching staff.
He recorded a 7.32 ERA in 19.2 innings as a reliever for the Brewers in 2010 and bouncing around the minors between the Rockies, Brewers and even the Vaqueros Laguna, a AAA-level team in the Mexican League, over the last two years.
He had a decent career, going 48-40 with a 4.83 ERA in 217 career major-league appearances (114 starts) in eight major-league seasons, but like Ortiz, most of the intrigue surrounding him is what he has accomplished and not what he can still accomplish as his career nears an end.
The list of hitters on the Blue Jays' non-roster invitee list is headlined by a trio of L's: LaRoche, Langerhans, and Loewen.
Andy LaRoche, younger brother of Nationals' first baseman Adam, is a 29-year old former highly-touted third base prospect capable of playing all over the infield and flashing some pop.
Every year for four years (from 2005-2008), LaRoche was rated in Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects, peaking at No. 19 in both 2006 and 2007. He started with the Dodgers, where he hit 18 or more homers each season from 2004-2007 in different levels of the minors before he was sent to the Pirates in mid-2008 in a three-way trade that sent Manny Ramirez to Los Angeles.
It's been downhill for the once-promising hitter since then. He spent all of 2009 with the Pirates, where he had the most success in the majors, hitting .258/.330/.401 with 12 home runs and 64 RBI. It was a decent enough first full season, but LaRoche would struggle in year two, hitting .206 with 4 home runs in 102 games.
He got another shot with the A's in 2011, but he continued to struggle and spent the majority of the season in the minors. He split last season between the Red Sox and Indians' AAA affiliates, not showing enough (.251/.335/.422) to warrant another shot in the majors.
He's still under 30, can handle multiple positions without being a defensive liability, and has always maintained positive walk and strikeout rates. He's young enough where he could still put together, but he'll need to reverse his downward trend over the last four seasons.
Joining LaRoche on the list of this year's non-roster invitees is Ryan Langerhans, a 32-year-old lefty outfielder who was a former third-round pick of the Braves.
Langerhans has spent parts of ten seasons in the majors, but has never really capitalized on the opportunities for extended playing time that he has been given. He has a career batting line of .226/.332/.372 in almost 1,500 plate appearances.
A one-time projected starter, Langerhans has put together a nice minor league resume with 109 career home runs in 1,124 games and like LaRoche, he has a strong ability to draw walks (career .369 OBP in the minors). Unfortunately the power and ability to hit for average haven't translated to the majors.
He's no longer being looked at even as a platooner, but he could still provide some lefty pop off the end of the bench in short stints and he's considered a good defender in the outfield. He hit .311/.437/.573 with 22 home runs and 60 RBI in AAA just two years ago, so he may not be done yet.
Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, is Adam Loewen.
Loewen was drafted 4th overall by the Orioles in the 2002 draft, which is particularly noteworthy because he was drafted not as an outfielder (which is where he plays now), but as a pitcher. He was even named the organization's top prospect by Baseball America in 2004.
Loewen worked his way through the minors, making gradual progress and showing poise as an above-average strikeout pitcher before making his major-league debut in 2006. He spent parts of the next three seasons in the majors as a pitcher, but never really achieved considerable success, posting a 5.38 ERA in 164.0 innings.
In 2009, Loewen decided to try and convert to a position player, his hand forced by perpetual elbow soreness and injury. The Blue Jays signed him to a minor league deal and watched him work his way through the system as an outfielder, culminating with an impressive 17 home run campaign in AAA in 2011.
He spent last year primarily in AAA with the Mets, but struggled at the plate. However, the 6'6'', 235 lb. lefty still showed promising power and good development for a player in just his fourth season as a hitter. He showed enough for the Blue Jays to bring him back for another shot to make an impact with the club.
Loewen is still only 28 years old and this will be just his fifth season as a full-time hitter. There is still some upside here, even though he's currently behind left-handed first baseman David Cooper on the organization depth chart. However, Loewen can also handle all three outfield spots and unlike Langerhans and LaRoche, hasn't really been given an extended chance to show what he can do against major-league pitching.
If an injury occurs or Adam Lind is sent packing, Loewen could find himself in the majors at some point to provide some power, but first, he'll need to cut down on his strikeout rate.
Finally, the list of intriguing non-roster invitees is rounded out by a pair of utility men, one of which Jays' fans should be familiar with and the other who may be worth remembering for the 2013 season.
Mike McCoy and Eugenio Velez have a lot in common: they're both capable of playing multiple defensive positions and filling a variety of roles off the bench.
Mike McCoy is one of the more recent additions to the long line of workman-type, all-around scrappy fan favorites following in the footsteps of the lovable Lou Merloni and late Ryan Freel.
McCoy doesn't do anything particularly above-average, but he's a prototypical "25th man" who can fill-in defensively all over the field, offer some speed as a pinch-runner, or lay down a bunt in a tight game. He's a fundamentally-sound role player who can draw a walk and give you solid defense.
McCoy is now 31 years old and the Blue Jays have enjoyed having him in AAA as a reserve for the last three seasons, offering the major league club some flexibility if the bench is temporarily shorthanded.
In 380 career plate appearances, McCoy has hit .190/.273/.256. He offers very little power (three career major-league home runs), but is an adept base stealer (21 steals in 25 attempts).
He's been a slightly better hitter in the minors, but he's never going to wow anyone at the plate. McCoy knows what he does well and so do the Blue Jays, which is why he's back to give them another option in the outfield, or infield, or wherever really.
Competing against McCoy for a potential spot as a utility man and last hitter off the bench is Eugenio Velez.
Velez is a year younger than McCoy, but has significantly more experience - and success - at the major-league level. Velez saw a good amount of playing time in 2008 and 2009 for the San Francisco Giants, where he was passable as a No. 8 hitter.
In 718 career plate appearances, Velez has a .241/.287/.367 batting line with eight home runs and 31 stolen bases. He's a slightly better hitter than McCoy and has a bit more upside at the plate.
Velez was primarily a second baseman early on in his career, but has since added the ability to play anywhere in the outfield to increase his chances of one day playing a significant role in the majors again. He has a career range factor per nine innings of 4.50 at second base - significantly better than the league-average 3.17 during his playing time.
Velez had a solid year in AAA for the Cardinals in 2012, hitting .280 with 11 home runs and 58 RBI. He could re-emerge as a solid utility option in the future, but in order to do so for the Jays, a number of injuries would have to pile up.
He offers a bit more offensive upside than McCoy, but a bit less defensive flexibility (as Velez hasn't played shortstop since 2006) and significantly less familiarity with the organization.
Both McCoy and Velez don't do anything at a level of greatness, but both could be capable short-term fill-ins if called upon and it would not be a surprise to see either one come off the bench a few times for the Blue Jays in 2013.