On Wednesday, I covered 15 players with compelling backstories who've been invited to spring training with American League clubs. Per that article: "These are the NRIs, the non-roster invitees promised almost nothing — not a job, not a major league deal, nothing more than a chance to come to camp, overcome often astronomical odds, and somehow make the Opening Day roster."
Matt Pagnozzi, Braves/Michael Brenly, Cubs: Want to feel old? Peruse the NRI lists of all 30 teams. You'll find a small group of last names that look awfully familiar, even if you can't quite place the first names. That's when you realize oh, crap, I remember watching that guy's dad, or his uncle. Brenly is the son of Bob Brenly, a longtime catcher himself who retired in 1989 and is now a broadcaster. Pagnozzi is the nephew of Tom Pagnozzi, the former Cardinals catcher who retired in 1998 — which doesn't seem that long ago, until you realize it’s a year before “Mambo No. 5” came out.
Pagnozzi the younger is the only one of the two likely to sniff the big leagues this year, tentatively slated to back up Gerald Laird in Atlanta until Brian McCann returns from offseason shoulder surgery. He's got a long way to go to elevate the Pagnozzi uncle-nephew combo into the highest levels, though:
Matty Alou–Moises Alou: 3,911 total hits
Fred McGriff–Charles Johnson: 3,430
Jesus Alou–Moises Alou: 3,350
Roberto Clemente–Edgard Clemente: 3,064
Don Buford–Randy Winn: 2,962
Tom Pagnozzi–Matt Pagnozzi: 755
Source: Elias Sports Bureau
Jose Fernandez, Marlins: Fernandez is a dynamic pitching prospect, cited by ESPN's Keith Law as having maybe "the best year of any pitching prospect in full-season ball," with potential number-one starter upside. Given the Marlins' strip-mining tendencies, he's a sorely needed commodity. But Jose, bubeleh maybe don't try to decapitate the one recognizable player the team has left? Jeffrey Loria has a place for people who do things like that, and it's not hosting his art shows.
Aaron Cook, Phillies: Baseball could stand to be more progressive in many ways. That it took this long for the sport to start getting (sort of) serious about instant replay and getting calls right is just the most visible of a bunch of flaws that make the sport feel, at times, old-fashioned and behind the times. But there's a flip side to that philosophy: By playing the same game for more than 150 years, and stubbornly preserving most of its basic rules and customs from the beginning, we get tradition and a sense of continuity. And when anything stays the same for that long, it gets tougher and tougher to become surprised by something new.
So when something fresh does come along, it's a delight to watch. Pitching for the Red Sox last year, Aaron Cook became the first pitcher in 37 years to post strikeout and walk rates below 2.1 per 9 innings. That's unusual enough. What made it even wilder is that, for a time, this extreme balls-in-play approach worked really well. Cook made a spot start against Baltimore on May 5, got creamed, then got sent down. He returned to start on June 24, tossed five innings, struck out none, walked none and held his own, ceding six hits and two earned runs en route to a 9-4 Boston win over the Braves. The Sox kept him in the rotation this time, and the move paid off. In Cook's next start against the Mariners, he threw a masterpiece, striking out only two and walking none, while shutting out Seattle on just two hits. In the five-start stretch starting with his effort against Atlanta, Cook fired 33⅓ innings, posted a 2.16 ERA, and limited opposing batters to a line of .206/.217/.365. He gave up just 26 hits over that span, allowing three homers. And in a stat line that looks like it must be a typo, Cook's 33⅓ innings produced a total of three strikeouts and two walks. It all fell apart after that, as Cook ended the year with a 5.65 ERA, likely ensuring he'd never again receive a guaranteed major league contract. But he's in camp with the rotation-loaded Phillies, and he bears watching. It might be another 37 years before we see another like him.
Micah Owings, Nationals: Pitchers converting to position-player duty aren't quite as rare as what Cook pulled off last year, given Rick Ankiel and a few others have done what Owings is trying to do. His career batting line as a pitcher is impressive: .288/.317/.508, by far the best mark for anyone with anywhere near as many at-bats. The trickiest part with conversions, though, is wasted time. Owings has gotten by on his athleticism to date. But he's now 30 years old, and hitters tend to peak in their mid-to-late 20s. It's entirely possible that now that he's fully committed to swinging the bat, his skills will start to erode. At any rate, no one's projecting Owings for any Triple Crowns. He's minor league depth for now, and will stand by in case a loaded major league roster springs multiple holes and needs his services.
LaTroy Hawkins, Mets/Kevin Gregg, Dodgers: Count 232 saves between these two former closers, with a handful of other former ninth-inning guys also toiling in NRI-land this spring. At least Hawkins and Gregg lost their closer privileges earlier in their careers. Matt Capps made nearly $12 million combined in 2011 and 2012, coming off a 42-save season in 2010. Saves aside, there were certainly flashes of solid performance, with 2007, 2008, and 2010 standing out as strong years for Capps and his low-walk résumé. Problem is, relief pitcher performance is so incredibly volatile as to render all but the most iron-clad performance histories moot for the purpose of future results and even then, the Reaper will come eventually. That doesn't mean there's absolutely no value in landing a pitcher with a combination of strong peripherals and ninth-inning experience; if you're a high-revenue team, by all means spend a few extra bucks for a potential security blanket. Just don't shell out for a pitcher who's got little on his résumé other than a bit of closing experience. Gregg's spring training bullpen mate Brandon League hasn't thrown a single regular-season pitch under his new, $22.5 million contract. But we can already start projecting a non-roster invite for League in the spring of 2016.
Billy Hamilton, Reds: We mentioned him in our recent prospect roundup, but it bears repeating: Jump all over Hamilton in fantasy this year. If the Reds call him up to be the everyday center fielder by the All-Star break, he could easily steal 40-plus bases; even a dog-days call-up could net 20 and change. It's conceivable that some loon at your draft table spend a 10th-round pick, or $15 at auction, for the allure of steals. But the more likely scenario is that others will shy away because of doubts about playing time. Even with the game becoming a little more balanced with the height of the PED era behind us, big steals guys are hard to find. Roll the dice here.
Bobby Crosby, Brewers: Not counting his cup of coffee in 2003, here's Crosby's career, by Wins Above Replacement:
2004: 3.0 (Rookie of the Year)
Peter Gammons's infamous MVP prediction for Crosby never panned out. But we can't simply wave Crosby's wasted potential away as a lack of skill. In his second season, he compiled that near-four-win season while playing just 84 games. He went on to top 100 games played just once for the rest of his career, thus crushing the career of a player who owned the rarest of skill sets: a strong defensive shortstop who could actually hit. That's the thing about so many of these NRIs: Their bodies broke down before we could ever find out what they might become.
Gerrit Cole, Pirates: Baseball's service time rules heavily incentivize teams to be conservative when bringing along top prospects. After all, you don't want your potential star to struggle for two or three years while getting comfortable in the big leagues, thus squandering their window as cheap labor. But there's a balance to be struck, too. You'd have a hard time convincing me that Cole, a no. 1 draft pick who whiffed more than a batter an inning last year and finished the season with a start at Triple-A, isn't better than at least one of the unimpressive rotation candidates that the Pirates will take north at the end of March. On the other hand, if Pittsburgh's roster's that thin in the first place, you could argue that Cole should get more seasoning, in the hopes that his call-up will roughly coincide with the Pirates contending for their first playoff spot in more than two decades.
Don't even start with Dylan Bundy, though. Between Peter Angelos hoarding his MASN money and the team apparently content to let Bundy toil in the minors while their iffy rotation tries to miraculously lead the team back to the playoffs, you have to be at least a bit annoyed as an O's fan.
Oscar Taveras, Cardinals: Having second thoughts about a column I wrote six days ago, a new record. Yes, the Cardinals have more holes now than they did heading into the 2012 season. But they're also teeming with more near–major league–ready talent than anyone else. We know that Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, or both will likely play a big role on the Cards' staff, given the absence of Chris Carpenter and (probably) Kyle Lohse. But the well runs much deeper than that. Kolten Wong may well seize second base from the ineffectual Daniel Descalso. And while Taveras might appear blocked from a job behind the excellent outfield of Holliday, Jay, and Beltran, a talent this explosive probably can't stay bottled up for much longer. Projection systems assume some number of injuries for every team, and that the players who'd be their replacements probably won't amount to much. In the Cardinals' case, the guys standing by at multiple positions might actually prove to be upgrades. Never underestimate the importance of depth.
Mark Teahen, Diamondbacks: Time for a "Where Are They Now?" on the seven players tapped by the A's in the first 39 picks of the 2002 Moneyball draft.
Nick Swisher, no. 16: The best player of the bunch, and owner of a brand-new, $56 million contract to play for the Indians.
Joe Blanton, no. 24: Career 20.4 with a big 2007 peak as a near-six-win player, about to start his own two-year deal as the Angels' fifth starter.
John McCurdy, no. 26: Infielder played just 77 games above Class A before shutting down his minor league career in 2006.
Ben Fritz, no. 30: Huge right-handed starter made it as far as Triple-A, but lousy command and injuries prevented anything more.
Jeremy Brown, no. 35: Maybe they needed more jeans models? Brown shot up from a 19th-round pick in 2001 to a (ahem) sandwich pick in '02. He did get a cup of coffee in The Show, going 3-for-10 with two doubles. The scene in the Moneyball movie of an obese player crushing a ball, falling down, then being guided back up and told he'd just hit a home run wasn't real Jeremy Brown footage. Still pretty fun, though.
Steve Obenchain, no. 37: Another big righty who never made it, Obenchain called it quits after an indy league stint in '07.
Mark Teahen, no. 39: He might look like a disappointment, given his huge .290/.357/.517 effort in his second season. But Teahen's now played seven seasons in the big leagues, banking $21 million. There are worse fates.
Scott Proctor, Giants: The Giants have fewer NRIs than any other team, with just nine. One of them is poor Scott Proctor, the living embodiment of what happens when a manager makes the perfectly logical, self-preservational decision to ride a temporarily rubber-armed setup man until it all blows up.
Tommy Manzella, Rockies: We turn now to Denver Post Nuggets beat writer and renaissance man Benjamin Hochman, who as a cub reporter in New Orleans covered Manzella when he played shortstop at Tulane. Take it away, Benjamin:
The shortstop comes deep-fried with a side of gumbo and an Abita, lathered in frost. Tommy Manzella is New Orleans — he’s a 6-foot-2 embodiment of our planet’s best city. He grew up in the land of Mardi Gras and Mel Ott, staying home to play his college ball at Tulane, where one would’ve thought, looking at his uniform, that the team colors were green, blue and also brown. In my early days as a reporter, down at the Times-Picayune, I covered Tommy, forever diving into the hole.
He loved being a New Orleanian — and he got what it meant to be a New Orleanian, this rare bond of community, culture, cuisine and customs.
Katrina came in ’05, the year he was drafted by the Astros. His family’s home was demolished. Ten feet of water. But the shortstop did what people did down there — sought solace in the city. I’ll never forget the night the Saints lost the 2006 NFC Championship Game. I went to the airport to cover the scene — even though the Saints lost to the Bears, thousands of fans waited after midnight for the team to arrive. The Saints’ surge that magical season resuscitated a tattered and battered city. That night, it rained and rained, but the fans chanted “Who Dat?” and drank Abitas and, even in a storm, escaped the storm for a night. And there, amid the crowd, I spotted Tommy Manzella, not a pro ballplayer, but a New Orleanian, safe at home.
Sold. Go, Tommy.
Cody Ransom, Padres: Twenty years from now, only a small number of die-hards will remember Ransom's uneventful career as a utility infielder. But if you want to know how tough it is just to get to that point, consider what kind of athlete he is. A 60-inch box jump, like the one Ransom does here, is basically superhuman. We honor Ransom's skill, even if his numbers don't add up to much. That and we regret that no one ever thought to stage a Cody Ransom vs. Joey Gathright jump-off.