The Cincinnati Reds are prepping their Goodyear, Ariz. practice facility for another season of spring training, and five non-roster invitees are looking to carve out their path to the team's 25-man roster.
In analyzing the team's depth chart and active roster, it becomes clear that there's only one spot where a non-roster invitee has a clear-cut path to roster inclusion. The team lacks a backup shortstop, and with no player on the 40-man roster ready to assume that responsibility, it looks as though one of the team's non-roster invitees will get the opportunity to win that role.
The position battle there will come down to the two infielders with the most big league experience: Ramon Santiago and Chris Nelson. After that, players will likely have to rely on injuries to others to make the active roster.
The positions most likely to see an injury this spring look to be the outfield and the starting rotation.
Heading into the 2014 season, there are some significant concerns surrounding Johnny Cueto and his long-term stability. On top of that, both Tony Cingrani and Mat Latos experienced soreness in their throwing arms by the end of the 2013 season.
Should one of these players go down, then Jeff Francis and Chien-Ming Wang are the two non-roster invitees with the best chance to secure a spot in the starting rotation.
In the outfield, Ryan Ludwick's health is a major question mark. Although he's almost a year removed from a devastating shoulder injury that cost him nearly the entire 2013 season, another injury to his shoulder could pave the way for Roger Bernadina to make the 25-man roster.
So, of these five players—Santiago, Nelson, Francis, Wang and Bernadina—which one has the best odds to make the 25-man roster as a non-roster invitee? Let's find out.
Chien-Ming Wang kicks the list off at No. 5 as the group's least-likely candidate for roster inclusion. He, like most of the players behind him on the depth chart—and like the two players in front of him on this list—will need a player ahead of him on the depth chart to go down with an injury.
Over his past four seasons of work (2009, 2011-13), Wang has been anything but a reliable option as a starting pitcher. In those four seasons, the 33-year-old boasts a 6.60 ERA, a 1.71 WHIP and averages of 4.6 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 1.48 K/BB and 12.3 H/9.
To put it kindly, he has been dreadful since 2009. However, based upon his pre-2009 performance, there is some hope that he could contribute in some meaningful way if needed.
Between the 2005-2009 seasons, he was a key contributor to the success of the New York Yankees. Over those five seasons, he allowed a 3.79 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP while averaging 4.0 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 1.58 K/BB and 9.1 H/9.
While his numbers don't stack up well in defense of his inclusion on the 25-man roster, the Reds don't many options. They lack big league-ready depth, and aside from Jeff Francis, Wang leads every non-roster invitee—and obviously every Reds prospect—in innings pitched at the big league level.
Overall, Wang isn't a great or even good option to become the team's fifth starter. But after the next player on this list, he is the best option to assume a spot in the starting rotation.
Francis has been in this situation with the Reds before.
Prior to the 2012 season, the 33-year-old signed a minor league deal with the Reds. He did not make the team out of spring training and accepted an assignment to Triple-A Louisville. He pitched with the Reds' Triple-A team for a little while but chose to exercise a June 1 opt-out clause in his contract and signed with the Rockies shortly after.
Heading into spring training, Francis owns the edge over Chien-Ming Wang as the pitcher who is most likely to make the club as a non-roster invitee. He, like Wang, will need an injury in the starting rotation to earn a spot, but he has a significant edge over Wang in the event that an injury does occur.
Though Francis doesn't have the best track record in recent years—he has a 5.26 ERA since the start of 2010—he's better than any of the big league-ready options who are not already in the team's starting rotation.
Essentially, the competition for a potential spot would be between Wang and Francis. Even with Francis' recent struggles, he's the clear-cut favorite. Consider the performances of the two players since the 2010 season:
A quick note of importance here: Wang did not pitch in the 2010 season due to a foot injury.
Now, aside from the massive difference in appearances, starts and innings pitched, you'll notice that Francis bests Wang in nearly every statistical measure available. The discrepancies are even more apparent when you consider that Francis made 67 of those 98 appearances as a member of the Colorado Rockies, whose home games are played in the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field.
Francis still needs an injury to occur in the starting rotation, but should that come, he's the best option available.
Roger Bernadina is the final player on this list who needs an injury from the current 25-man roster to secure a spot.
The team's current 25-man roster consists of four outfielders: Ryan Ludwick, Billy Hamilton, Jay Bruce and Chris Heisey. Even Skip Schumaker can play some outfield. The 29-year-old Bernadina would have to beat out in-house option Donald Lutz for that final outfield spot if an injury occurs.
Lutz and Bernadina are vastly different players in terms of what they bring to the team.
Lutz is an aggressive batter with high strikeout and power potential. Over 400 games in the minors, he averaged 32 doubles, seven triples, 23 home runs and a 149:36 K/BB ratio per 162 games with a .272/.338/.470 slash line.
Bernadina, on the other hand, has spent the last six seasons in the bigs, working to a .239/.307/.359 slash line with 162-game averages of 17 doubles, three triples, nine home runs, 19 stolen bases and a 97:36 K/BB ratio.
Defensively, there's little comparison. Lutz fields his position relatively well when you consider his large frame—6'3", 250 pounds—but Bernadina's speed and ability to cover each outfield position give him a huge edge in that department.
While all of this is nice, it doesn't negate the fact that an injury is essentially a prerequisite for Bernadina's inclusion in the discussion for the 25-man roster. At best, he is a huge long shot for the 25-man roster.
Chris Nelson, and the next member of this list, is the player with the most realistic chance to make the Reds' 25-man roster. The 28-year-old is capable of locking down second base and third base, but he also has a little experience as a shortstop with 24 MLB innings and 532 minor league games at the position.
He has a few things working in his favor heading into spring training.
Among non-roster invitees, only Nelson and Ramon Santiago have spent time playing shortstop at the big league level, which gives them a clear edge over the rest of the field.
So how does he stack up to Santiago? We'll examine them offensively first:
Offensively, Nelson is the superior player, besting Santiago by 25 points, one point and 69 points in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, respectively. In nearly three times as many games and at-bats, Santiago has only 100 more RBI and 22 more home runs.
Clearly, Nelson is the superior offensive player, but defensively, that's far from the truth.
For his career, he owns a UZR/150 of 0 at third base—his most-played position—and minus-3 at second base. Santiago, at those same positions, owns a UZR/150 of 6.7 and minus-2, respectively. On top of that, he possesses a UZR/150 of 3.4 at shortstop—a position where the Reds desperately need a backup.
It's not just the UZR/150 that indicates his superiority as a defensive asset. At second base and shortstop, the two most important positions in this battle, Santiago bests Nelson in TZL, DRS, RZR and OOZ.
Nelson's path to the 25-man roster becomes significantly more difficult when you take into account the large gap between the defensive merits of the two players. As it stands, Nelson will have to outhit Santiago by a massive margin to grab the backup shortstop job.
Ramon Santiago has, by far, the easiest route to securing a spot on the 25-man roster during spring training.
As it stands, the Reds have no backup shortstop on the active roster. In fact, they only have two other non-roster invitees who have logged time at shortstop while playing for a big league club: Argenis Diaz and Chris Nelson.
If you look at the Reds' active roster—aside from starter Zack Cozart as well as their non-roster invitees—only four players (including Santiago) have logged any kind of considerable time at shortstop in their big league or minor league careers. The chart below shows the career statistics of those players:
|Ramon Santiago (MLB)||845||2257||77||28||197||275||28||.243||.311||.330|
|Chris Nelson (MLB)||255||761||36||16||93||91||3||.268||.312||.399|
|Rey Navarro (MiLB)||761||2797||123||34||304||351||69||.267||.307||.365|
|Argenis Diaz (MiLB)||839||3000||136||8||288||359||57||.264||.325||.333|
The first thing you'll notice is that the statistics referenced for Navarro and Diaz are from their time spent in the minors. That's because only Santiago and Nelson have spent substantial time at the MLB level—Diaz played his first 22 games (15 innings) in 2010 but has yet to be re-called.
Nelson is the closest competitor, but as discussed in the previous slide, he's a significant defensive downgrade compared to Santiago.
Santiago's resume is hardly awe-inspiring, but he's a switch-hitter, and the 34-year-old was one of the more highly coveted bench players on general manager Walt Jocketty's radar. According to MLB.com's Mark Sheldon, the GM gave Santiago a ringing endorsement shortly after the signing:
He's a solid defensive player at second base, shortstop and third base. He's a switch hitter that runs well. He'll put the ball in play. His numbers aren't great but he handles the bat well enough that he's not going to be a dead out. He's another good character guy and a good guy for the clubhouse.
Santiago, as Jocketty points out, does a good job of putting the ball in play—his career in-play percentage is 72 percent. Despite what his career .311 OBP might suggest, he'll at least make teams work to keep him off base, and that's something the team has lacked from its backup shortstops over the years.
As Sheldon notes in the article, over the last three years, the team's backup shortstops have combined for a .228 batting average and a .275 on-base percentage.
With Santiago's experience, status as a switch-hitter and ability to play solid defense at both middle-infield positions, he's the favorite to make the team as a non-roster invitee.