10 Non-Roster Invites That Can Make, Impact 2014 MLB Rosters
Jeff Baker, Marlon Byrd, LaTroy Hawkins and Scott Kazmir each took advantage of spring training invites in 2013, earning a spot on the Opening Day roster of their respective teams and following up with strong seasons.
Rookies Jose Fernandez, Evan Gattis and Jedd Gyorko, each spring training invitees without a day of big league service time, were seemingly ticketed for the minors where they could continue to develop and save their teams some money in the future by remaining there for the first couple of months of the season. They forced their respective club's hand, however, and broke camp with the big league club before making a significant impact during the regular season.
So who will be this year's version of the aforementioned group of players? Here are 10 to keep an eye on.
Scott Baker, SP, Seattle Mariners
The Chicago Cubs took the risk last offseason by guaranteeing Scott Baker $5.5 million on a major league deal despite the fact that he would be less than 12 months removed from Tommy John surgery on Opening Day. It didn't work out, as the former Minnesota Twins ace didn't pitch in a big league game until September and ended up making just three meaningless starts.
A year later, the Seattle Mariners could be the beneficiaries of Baker's fall underneath the radar, inking him to a minor league deal that will pay him just $1 million if he makes the team and another $3.25 million if he reaches all of his incentives.
Nearly two years removed from the surgery, the 32-year-old is much more likely to return to his previous form when he went 55-37 with a 3.98 ERA, 2.1 BB/9 and 7.4 K/9 from 2007 to 2011. He's also a near-lock to win a rotation spot behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma and could even slot ahead of rookies Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, who could have some pressure taken off of them with the veteran Baker pitching in front of them.
Roger Bernadina, OF, Cincinnati Reds
The Cincinnati Reds are in need of a good backup plan for rookie center fielder Billy Hamilton, who is penciled in as Shin-Soo Choo's successor in the leadoff spot of the batting order. He'll have a tough time coming anywhere close to Choo's overall production, however, especially in on-base category (Choo had a .432 on-base percentage in the majors; Hamilton had a .309 on-base percentage in Triple-A), and it wouldn't be a surprise if he's returned to the minors to start the season.
The team's failure, at least so far, to bring in much competition or a fallback plan for Hamilton could benefit Roger Bernadina, who was recently signed to a minor league deal. By default, he could be in line to be the team's starting center fielder should the 23-year-old Hamilton struggle.
He won't just be handed the job, though. But if the 29-year-old can show flashes of the potential that earned him several chances with the Washington Nationals early in his career—he also is just two seasons removed from posting a .777 OPS with a .372 on-base percentage, five homers and 15 stolen bases in 227 at-bats—the Reds will have no problem giving him the job so Hamilton can continue to develop down in the minors.
Bernadina has fallen well short of expectations as a big leaguer, thus far, but he could have a sense of urgency and extra motivation knowing that he has a decent chance to win an Opening Day roster spot.
Andrew Heaney, SP, Miami Marlins
The Miami Marlins have already proved that they have no issue with their best pitching prospect making a huge jump from the low minors to the Opening Day roster. Jose Fernandez did so in 2013 when he made the team despite having just 11 High-A starts under his belt.
And while Fernandez's "ace" ceiling was much higher than Andrew Heaney's mid-rotation profile, the 22-year-old lefty could be just as ready to make a big league impact.
The ninth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Heaney dominated in High-A ball in 2013 with an 0.88 ERA, 2.5 BB/9 and 9.6 K/9 in 61.2 innings. A late-season promotion to Double-A didn't slow him down as he posted a 2.94 ERA in six starts.
With Miami's current crop of uninspiring fifth starter candidates, including Tom Koehler and Brian Flynn, it would be tough to hand any of them the spot if they're outpitched by Heaney. And the likelihood that they're clearly outpitched by Heaney is strong.
Jason Kubel, OF, Minnesota Twins
A late-season trade back to the AL Central wasn't what the doctor ordered in the case of Jason Kubel, who went 3-for-18 with the Cleveland Indians after a disappointing season with the Arizona Diamondbacks (.612 OPS in 89 games). But maybe a return to his original team, the Minnesota Twins, will help the 31-year-old return to form in 2014.
Signed to a minor league deal that would pay him $2 million if he makes the team with another $1 million attainable in incentives, Kubel has a very good chance to make a roster that lacks very much competition in the designated hitter spot.
In 753 career games with the Twins from 2004 to 2011, Kubel posted a .794 OPS with a 162-game average of 23 homers, 31 doubles and 93 runs batted in. His first season after signing a free-agent deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks was also solid, as he posted an .833 OPS with 30 homers.
If last season was a mirage and he can get back on track, he's a lock to hit in the middle of the Twins order behind Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham.
Colby Lewis, SP, Texas Rangers
By bringing back Colby Lewis on a minor league deal, the Texas Rangers improved their starting pitching depth while making a low-risk investment on a pitcher who had a 3.93 ERA, 2.4 BB/9 and 8.1 K/9 in 80 starts prior to elbow and hip injuries that have kept him out of action for the past season-and-a-half.
His likely destination, however, was Triple-A until Derek Holland sustained a knee injury that will cause him to miss at least half the season. Combine that with Alexi Ogando having spent three stints on the disabled list in 2013 and Matt Harrison having missed most of the season with a back injury, not to mention Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery to his non-throwing shoulder in September, and Lewis' importance to the 2014 team is likely much greater than anticipated.
Of course, it's hard to rely heavily on a 34-year-old who hasn't pitched in nearly two years. Still, he'll have a very good chance to win a rotation spot and work his way back to form.
Mark Mulder, SP, Los Angeles Angels
If you think Kazmir's return to form with the Oakland A's at age 29 following a two-year absence from the majors, which included a stint in an Independent League, was a great story, think about the potential storyline in Los Angeles Angels camp this spring.
Mark Mulder, who is attempting a comeback at age 36, has been out of baseball since 2008 and hasn't had a full big league season since 2005, when he went 16-8 with a 3.64 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals.
While shoulder problems forced him into early retirement, the two-time All-Star is encouraged with how the ball is coming out of his hand after tweaking his delivery to emulate Dodgers reliever Paco Rodriguez. If the Angels fail to land another starter via free agency or trade, Mulder would appear to have a legitimate chance to win the No. 5 starter's job or possibly a spot in the Angels bullpen.
It is a long shot, but crazier things have happened in baseball.
George Springer, OF, Houston Astros
It's hard to argue against the rebuilding Houston Astros holding George Springer in the minors for a few more months.
Considering the home run and stolen base totals he has the potential to accumulate, the 24-year-old could command a huge payday when he's first eligible for arbitration. If he makes the Opening Day roster, he'd be eligible for that payday a year earlier than if he is held out long enough to keep him out of "Super-two" range and would also be eligible for free agency a year earlier. This could all be avoided if they can be patient enough to leave him in the minors to start the season, as the Tampa Bay Rays did with Wil Myers last season.
In Springer's situation, though, he's already proved that the highest level of the minors isn't much of a challenge—he had a 1.050 OPS with 18 homers and 22 stolen bases in 62 Triple-A games and a .978 OPS with 19 homers and 23 stolen bases in 73 Double-A games last season—and another two months in Triple-A probably isn't necessary.
The Astros, who are coming off of their third consecutive 100-plus-loss season, could also feel obligated to put the best 25 players on the Opening Day roster. In that case, Springer would likely be manning one of the starting outfield spots and would likely be in Houston to stay.
Mark Reynolds, 1B/3B, Milwaukee Brewers
The Milwaukee Brewers appear set to head into the 2014 season with a first base platoon of Juan Francisco and Mark Reynolds, who was signed to a minor league deal that will pay him $2 million if he makes the team and another $500,000 in incentives.
And while Reynolds wasn't exactly a hot commodity this offseason, he's never been in a position where he's not being counted on as an everyday player and could benefit from not having his weaknesses exposed.
With a career .834 OPS against left-handed pitching, he should be able to make an impact on a Brewers team without being thrown out there on a daily basis and falling into the fanbase's dog house with extended slumps that have become very common throughout his career.
The 30-year-old Reynolds is also regarded as a solid defensive first baseman, which should also help his value by keeping away from the hot corner, where he has a brutal .928 fielding percentage throughout his career.
For once, Reynolds could be in a position to succeed and find his niche as a major leaguer for the next several seasons.
Marcus Stroman, SP, Toronto Blue Jays
Dark-horse rotation candidate Marcus Stroman isn't any more of a long shot than Jose Fernandez was last season. And like Fernandez, the 22-year-old Stroman has the ability to force his way onto a roster if given the chance. He'll have that opportunity with the Toronto Blue Jays this spring.
While the Jays are very likely to add another starter to a rotation that already includes R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow prior to the start of the season, the last rotation spot is still up for grabs.
It might be tough to move J.A. Happ and his $5.2 million salary in 2014 to the bullpen, but if Stroman can impress this spring—Baseball Prospectus ranked him the organization's No. 1 prospect heading into the season while declaring him "ready for major leagues" in their scouting report (subscription required)—the Jays won't hesitate to break camp with him if they feel he's one of their best five starters.
Delmon Young, DH, Tampa Bay Rays
Like Reynolds, Delmon Young has often been miscast as a major league regular. Keep him in a part-time role where he can fill the designated hitter role against left-handed pitchers and he could make a positive impact on a ballclub.
And the role that the Baltimore Orioles have in mind for Young appears to be just that. After signing the 28-year-old to a minor league deal that will pay him $1 million if he makes the roster with an additional $750,000 in incentives, the O's don't appear to have a better option than Young to fill the DH role when a left-handed starter is on the mound.
With a career .812 OPS against lefties, Young is currently penciled into a platoon with left-handed hitting Henry Urrutia. A bigger role is possible if Urrutia struggles, and a lesser role is possible if the team can sign Nelson Cruz or Kendrys Morales.
But if they can keep him around and manage to make the playoffs, Young is very likely to play a role in the postseason because of his past success—he has a career .859 OPS with nine homers in 33 playoff games.