Surprise, AZ -- They gathered around the overhead TV, watching WBC highlights, a dozen early-morning arrivals suiting up for warmups. On the screen, Fernando Rodney's big changeup looped over the plate for strike three, causing the Rays closer to perform his signature celebration move. Mimicking the left-lidded stopper, two Royals players fired imaginary arrows toward the clubhouse ceiling.
The homage was funny, although maybe a little out of place. Until you looked around the clubhouse. At one end, the imposing, 6-foot-5 Wade Davis strode through. At the opposite wall, utility man Elliot Johnson pulled on his jersey. A few lockers down, Dan Wheeler chatted with a group of fellow relievers. In the far corner stood James Shields, locked in conversation, the "KC" on his hat still looking a bit weird after six straight 200-inning seasons in Tampa Bay. This year's Royals will have a heavy Rays flavor. Shields predicts the similarities won't stop with a few familiar faces.
"I've been saying this for the last month and a half — this team really reminds me of that '07 team, going into '08," said Kansas City's new no. 1 starter, referencing the worst-to-first Rays of 2008. "We have all the talent in the world to succeed. It's just a matter of putting it together. We have a lot of good, young talent, we've got a great bullpen, and our defense is phenomenal. And I believe this team has all the intangibles needed to win."
You'll need to know who you're watching. Unlike in the regular season, when you become all too familiar with your favorite team's designated cipher, recognizing players during spring training often takes a well-trained eye. There are the many players wearing 70-, 80- and 90-something who you won't see on the big league roster for a few years, if ever. Then there are the "Is that who I think it is?" double-takes, the veterans who peaked years ago, only to show up in Mesa or Kissimmee or Peoria doggedly trying to fight their way back for one more shot at glory.
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. Today, we'll review the AL NRIs, one player from each American League team who fits the mold of failed prospect, faded star, or just someone with a story to tell (NL later this week).
It doesn't take much for a young ballplayer to lose his prospect status. One injury. One bad year. Baseball is a cruel game, all too eager to make future stars into screaming failures. When a player falls from mega-prospect all the way to spring training non-roster invitee, it's impossible not to root for a comeback.
This spring, that player is Brandon Wood. In the two Rockies games I've seen in Arizona so far, Wood has gone 5-for-5 with two singles, a double, and two triples. On Saturday in Surprise, Wood was a home run away from the cycle before manager Jim Tracy yanked him from the game. After Wood opened Monday's game with a sharp single and a ringing triple to right-center, Tracy again pulled him from the lineup.