Non-Roster Invitees with the Best Chance of Making Opening Day Rosters
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When spring training begins next week, teams will have dozens of players to get a good look at in the weeks to come before the season arrives.
All the while, they'll have a magic number in mind: 25. They need to take a couple dozen and somehow, some way cut it down to 25.
This is going to involve saying "thanks, but no thanks" to the majority of the non-roster invitees they've invited along for the ride. For non-roster invitees, spring training may as well be one great big Thunderdome: Many will enter, few will leave.
I have my eye on 10 non-roster invitees with solid chances of starting the season in the big leagues.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
10. Chone Figgins, Miami Marlins
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It was only three years ago that Chone Figgins signed a four-year, $36 million contract with the Seattle Mariners. He was on top of the world then.
Not so much now. After three seasons of highly disappointing production, the Mariners finally got fed up and jettisoned Figgins earlier this winter. On Friday, he signed a no-risk minor league contract with baseball's resident punching bag: the Miami Marlins.
The Marlins are the perfect team for Figgins to catch on with because, let's face it, they have a sorry shortage of major league talent on their roster. Just as problematic, they lack depth up the middle and an insurance policy at third base in case Placido Polanco gets hurt again.
These are all jobs for Figgins. He can play third base, second base, outfield, you name it. All the Marlins need him to do to prove he belongs is hit in spring training.
They picked a good year to go after him. For whatever reason, Figgins likes hitting during the spring in odd years, as he hit .380 in spring training in 2009 and .373 in 2011 (via MLB.com). If that pattern holds, his bat will come alive in 2013.
Still, after hitting .185 with a .502 OPS over the last two seasons, there's only so much faith that can be put in Figgins. I like his chances, but not too much.
9. Kyle McClellan, Texas Rangers
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Kyle McClellan was an intriguing story in 2011 when he posted a 0.78 ERA in five spring starts on his way to his first season as a major league starter with the Cardinals.
And then, "Pluh."
McClellan didn't pan out as a starter in 2011, and he was unable to stay healthy in his return to full-time bullpen duty in 2012. His season ended early thanks to elbow surgery. After that, he had shoulder surgery. Double whammy.
Nonetheless, the Texas Rangers are taking a chance on McClellan. The latest word is that McClellan's recovery is going well, with The Dallas Morning News reporting earlier this week that he's throwing off a mound. The Rangers going to bring him along carefully, but they're going to give him a chance to compete for either a bullpen spot or the No. 5 spot in their rotation.
McClellan will be in line for either. He showed his upside as a reliever in 2010, posting a 2.27 ERA in 68 relief appearances. And though he didn't pan out as a starter in 2011, he did have a 3.11 ERA in his first 10 starts before the wheels fell off.
It bodes well for McClellan's chances that the Rangers' bullpen mix isn't overly crowded, and that there's no clear favorite for the No. 5 spot in their rotation. With good health, McClellan will be in good shape to break camp with the big club.
8. Ramon Ramirez, San Francisco Giants
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The San Francisco Giants' bullpen was a major strength in the 2012 postseason, but it's looking pretty thin right about now. The team's official site has only six relievers penciled into the club's bullpen.
That's good news for the pitchers the Giants are bringing to spring training as non-roster invitees, a group that includes old friend Ramon Ramirez. He signed a minor league deal to return to the team earlier this week.
Ramirez had a rough season with the New York Mets in 2012, posting a 4.24 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP in 58 appearances. His arm, however, would seem to be fine, as PITCHf/x data shows only a minor drop in average fastball velocity between 2011 and 2012.
Ramirez, of course, spent the 2011 season with the Giants, and it was a good one. He made 66 appearances, posting a 2.62 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and a career-high 2.54 K/BB ratio.
The Giants already have three left-handed middle relievers lined up for their bullpen. They could use another right-hander, and Ramirez looks like a guy with a leg up on the competition.
7. Lyle Overbay, Boston Red Sox
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A year ago, first base was pretty low on the Red Sox's list of worries. That was Adrian Gonzalez's spot, and he had it taken care of.
It's turned into quite the adventure over the last couple months. Mike Napoli is the man for the job after finally agreeing to a one-year contract with the team, but the Red Sox can't move forward with only him lined up to play first base in 2013.
Good thing they have Lyle Overbay, who signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox in late January. He's just the kind of first base depth the Red Sox were looking for.
Overbay endured a brutal end to his 2012 season with the Atlanta Braves, posting a .293 OPS in 20 games. But before that, he managed an .815 OPS in 45 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks. In all, he had a solid .751 OPS against right-handers.
The Red Sox need a first baseman they can plug in against right-handers, and they also need a late-inning defensive replacement for Napoli. Overbay fits the description of what they're looking for.
His odds of making the team will be fine as long as he performs well, as he can opt out of his contract if he isn't on the major league roster at the end of spring training. If the Red Sox want him, they need to put him on their roster.
6. Ryan Sweeney, Boston Red Sox
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While we're on the subject of the Red Sox, Ryan Sweeney is a strong candidate to make the team out of spring training as well.
An opportunity arose for Sweeney to return to Boston when it was determined that Ryan Kalish needed to have shoulder surgery, thus knocking him out of the mix for spring training. Next thing anyone knew, Sweeney was brought back on a minor league deal.
Sweeney is going to be in a tough battle with Daniel Nava for Boston's fourth outfielder job, but he has an edge for several reasons.
One, Sweeney is a more versatile defensive outfielder than Nava. He can play all three outfield positions, and he plays them very well.
Two, there's not much difference between the two players' abilities to hit right-handers, which is all the Red Sox need them to do seeing as how Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino can handle lefties very well. Sweeney has a .749 career OPS against righties, and Nava has a .768 OPS against righties.
Three, Sweeney has an opt-out clause in his deal just like Overbay's. If he's not on the big league roster, he can become a free agent and sign elsewhere. If the Sox want him, they need to break camp with him.
5. Don Kelly, Detroit Tigers
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Every team needs a good utility man. And let's face it, the Tigers just wouldn't be the same if Don Kelly and Jim Leyland weren't sharing the same dugout in 2013.
There's a strong chance that will happen. The Tigers let Kelly go early in the offseason but brought him back on a minor league deal in mid-January.
Kelly insisted to the Detroit Free Press that he had offers, but he just couldn't bring himself to part with Leyland.
“He’s been a huge supporter,” Kelly said. “Definitely having Skip there was a big plus in coming back. I’m looking forward to getting down to spring training and having the opportunity to compete again.”
Kelly has played all over the field for Leyland in the past, including in left field, right field, third base, first base and shortstop. He can't hit much (career .628 OPS), but his scrappiness and versatility have been enough to endear him to Leyland in the past.
Look for Kelly to be Detroit's super utility man once again in 2013.
4. Matt Diaz, New York Yankees
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The Yankees are going to break camp with a right-handed hitter for their outfield and designated hitter spot. It looks like a question of whether it will be Matt Diaz or Juan Rivera.
My money, as you can see, is on Diaz.
All the Yankees are really looking for is a guy who can hit lefties well with a little bit of pop to boot. Diaz fits that description better than Rivera does, as his career .863 OPS (.498 slugging) against lefties beats Rivera's career .820 OPS (.488 slugging) against lefties.
In addition, the writing is on the wall that Rivera is washed up. He played in 109 games with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012, and he managed only a .661 OPS and nine home runs. He had problems with his legs in the early portion of the season.
Diaz missed even more time than Rivera in 2012, but it was due to a bizarre problem with his right thumb that was corrected with surgery.
If Diaz's thumb holds up in 2013, he'll be in line for a nice bounce-back season.
3. Scott Atchison, New York Mets
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The Mets' bullpen was a huge source of frustration in 2012, and GM Sandy Alderson still isn't entirely confident that the problem has been solved.
This is good news for the Mets' collection of non-roster pitchers coming to spring training, a group that includes right-handers Scott Atchison and LaTroy Hawkins and left-handers Pedro Feliciano and Aaron Laffey. At least one of them should be able to make the team out of spring training.
Keep an eye on Atchison. He dealt with an elbow problem in 2012, but he was very effective when he was healthy.
Atchison made 47 appearances for the Red Sox, compiling a 1.58 ERA and walking only nine in 51.1 innings for a BB/9 of 1.6.
The Mets could certainly use a good control pitcher in their bullpen after what went on in 2012. Per FanGraphs, their relievers combined for a 3.98 BB/9, fourth highest in baseball.
If Atchison's elbow holds up and his control is still sharp, look for him in the Mets' bullpen in April.
2. Rick Ankiel, Houston Astros
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If there's an ideal scenario for a non-roster invitee, it involves trying to make a team that has a severe shortage of quality major leaguers.
It's a wonder, then, that more players didn't try to catch on with the Houston Astros like Rick Ankiel did. He signed a minor league deal with the club in January.
Ankiel had a rough couple of seasons for the Washington Nationals in 2011 and 2012, compiling a .669 OPS and hitting only 14 home runs in 190 games. He slugged .506 in 2008, but hasn't slugged higher than .411 since. His power has largely disappeared.
One thing that Ankiel does have is experience, and Astros manager Bo Porter likes the sound of that.
“I firmly believe that if Rick comes into camp and performs the way he’s capable of performing, to his potential, that he will be a member of our 25-man roster when we break camp,” said Porter in January, via Dave Zangaro, CSNHouston.com.
Another thing that could put Ankiel on the Astros' major league roster is his potential to be trade bait. If he enjoys a bounce-back season in 2013, the Astros could look to move him at the deadline.
If he plays well this spring, he'll be a lock.
1. Erik Bedard, Houston Astros
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Rick Ankiel isn't the only veteran likely to break camp with the Astros this spring. Erik Bedard should be right there with him.
Bedard signed a minor league deal with the Astros in January, and GM Jeff Luhnow said right away that he likes Bedard's chances. Brian McTaggart of MLB.com noted that the Astros have a need for a lefty starter in their rotation, and Luhnow thinks there's a "strong chance" Bedard will be the man for the job.
After not pitching at all in 2010, Bedard has certainly had a tough time getting back on his feet over the last two seasons. He's made 48 starts, compiling a 4.31 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP.
However, Bedard did show signs of life early in the 2012 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He posted a 3.12 ERA in his first 10 starts in April and May, striking out 51 in 52 innings.
There's not much standing in the way of Bedard joining Houston's rotation. If he pitches well and shows he's healthy in spring training, he should break camp with the big club.
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