MLB spring training: Each team's most interesting non-roster invitee, from top prospects to journeymen
Jo Adell, Casey Mize, Ubaldo Jimenez and Felix Hernandez are some of the intriguing NRIs
Spring training has arrived., and, late next week, Cactus League and Grapefruit League play will begin. I can't wait. I am so ready for the offseason to be over.
Spring training games are fun in their own way, mostly because they allow us to see players we usually don't get to see during the regular season. Top prospects, reclamation project veterans, and many other minor leaguers will rub elbows with the big league team during exhibition games before returning to the minors in April.
Over the last few weeks all 30 MLB clubs have announced their non-roster invitees (NRIs) to spring training. Those are players who will be in big league camp despite not being on the 40-man roster. Some NRIs are top prospects, some are journeymen veterans, and most are somewhere in between. The big league coaching staff will get a look at all of them.
As always, some NRIs are more interesting than others. Yordan Alvarez and Pete Alonso both went from NRI to Rookie of the Year last season. Hunter Pence went from NRI hanger-on to All-Star. Inevitably, a few NRIs will make an impact during the regular season. And, inevitably, some will have a big spring and show it was all a fluke in April. That's baseball.
With spring training arriving and exhibition games coming next week, this is as good a time as any to examine each team's most interesting NRI. As a reminder, all players on the 40-man roster will be in big league camp automatically, a list that includes top prospects like Luis Robert and Deivi Garcia. Now here is each team's most interesting NRI.
|C Daulton Varsho. For one reason or another, the Diamondbacks always seem to cobble together an interesting collection of NRIs. This year's group includes former first-rounder Pavin Smith, Zack Greinke trade pickups Seth Beer and J.B. Bukauskas, and Varsho, . The catcher-slash-outfielder(-slash-sometimes-infielder) hit .301/.378/.520 in Double-A last year and could force his way to the big leagues this summer. (D-Backs NRI list)|
|RHP Felix Hernandez. With all due respect to the top prospects the Braves will have in camp as NRIs (Ian Anderson, Shea Langeliers, Kyle Muller, Drew Waters, etc.), the King reigns supreme. Felix turns 34 shortly after Opening Day and he will try to revive his career with a new organization this spring. The Braves have had success with seemingly washed-up pitchers in recent years. Last year they got strong work from Josh Tomlin, and two years ago Anibal Sanchez was a low-level ace for Atlanta. In 2020, Hernandez will look to do what Anibal did in 2018. (Braves NRI list)|
|C Adley Rutschman. Easy call here. The Orioles selected Rutschman with the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft and he was arguably the best draft prospect since Bryce Harper in 2010. At the very least, Rutschman was the best catching prospect in the draft since Buster Posey in 2008. There's little chance Rutschman will make the Opening Day roster and he may not make his MLB debut this summer, so make sure you get a good look at him in Spring Training, O's fans. You might not see him again until next spring. (Orioles NRI list)|
|IF Jeter Downs. I was planning to go with right-hander Tanner Houck prior to the Mookie Betts trade, but plans changed. Downs is the headliner in the package that went to the Red Sox and the club gave him a spring training locker between J.D. Martinez and Mitch Moreland, according to the Boston Globe's Alex Speier. That's an unusual spot. NRIs, especially minor leaguers with no big league time, are usually tucked in the corner somewhere. The Red Sox have Downs front and center because they believe in him that much. Through no fault of his own -- Downs didn't ask to be traded for Mookie -- all eyes will be on the kid this spring. (Red Sox NRI list)|
|RHP Brandon Morrow. I was hoping to see hard-throwing lefty (and top pitching prospect) Brailyn Marquez this spring, but he did not receive an NRI. He has barely pitched above Low Class-A and big league camp is not an appropriate place for him at this point in his career. Instead, I'll go with Morrow, who did not pitch last year and is looking to prove himself on a minor league deal this season. When healthy, he's been excellent, and a healthy Morrow can be a game-changer for the Cubs in 2020. (Cubs NRI list)|
|2B Nick Madrigal. Madrigal or Andrew Vaughn, Andrew Vaughn or Madrigal? I'm going with Madrigal because, frankly, you can tune into any spring game and see a great hitting first baseman like Vaughn. How many 5-foot-7 infielders who struck out 16 times in 120 minor league games last year are there? Just one. Madrigal is a unicorn and a fascinating prospect. The White Sox are loaded with young talent and figure to be one of baseball's most watchable teams in 2020. (White Sox NRI list)|
|LHP Nick Lodolo. Tough call here. The Reds will have both Lodolo, the No. 7 pick in 2019, and infielder Jonathan India, the No. 5 pick in 2018, in camp as NRIs this year and . Lodolo gets the nod here because he struck out 30 and walked zero -- zero! -- in 18 1/3 innings as a pro last summer. It's unlikely he will reach the big leagues in 2020, but I don't think it's impossible either. Lodolo has all the ingredients necessary to sail through the minors. (Reds NRI list)|
|LHP Anthony Gose. Not the most exciting NRI list for the Indians this year. Gose, the former MLB outfielder, transitioned to pitching in 2017 and abandoned his attempt to become a two-way player last year. He's focusing solely on pitching now. Gose had 2.48 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 29 minor league innings last season (he also walked 29) and reports indicate he throws very hard. I'm curious to see him on the mound this spring. Few teams are better at fostering pitching talent than Cleveland. (Indians NRI list)|
|RHP Ubaldo Jimenez. Is it weird I am more excited to watch Ubaldo's comeback attempt than Ryan Rolison this spring? It is, isn't it? Well, I don't care. Jimenez did not pitch in 2018 or 2019, but he reportedly looked great in winter ball in the Dominican Republic these last few weeks, so the Rockies gave him a camp invite. I'm a sucker for nostalgia. Jimenez is arguably the best pitcher in Rockies history and I think it would be pretty cool to see him get a few outs in 2020. (Rockies NRI list)|
|RHP Casey Mize. It's going to be a fun spring, Tigers fans. The team is bringing to big league camp as NRIs. That includes Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, and Joey Wentz. Ultimately, Mize gets the nod here because he was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft and he is arguably the best right-handed pitching prospect in the game. Manning is very good in his own right and Skubal is awfully fun. Tune in to watch all of them. (Tigers NRI list)|
|RHP Forrest Whitley. Last year at this time we all figured Whitley would soon reach the big leagues and give the Astros a nice rotation boost at midseason. It didn't happen. He came down with shoulder fatigue and had a 7.99 ERA in 59 2/3 minor league innings. The good news: Whitley looked very good in the Arizona Fall League and is over the shoulder issue. After a quick Triple-A tune-up stint, we should see him in Houston this year. Also keep an eye on righty Brandon Bielak this spring. He's a personal favorite. (Astros NRI list)|
|LHP Daniel Lynch. Bobby Witt Jr., the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft, is a 19-year-old kid and will not be in big league camp this year. He's not ready for it. The Royals will have their top three pitching prospects in camp as NRIs though: Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Brady Singer. Singer is the most famous of the bunch but I think Lynch has the highest upside. Lefties who can touch 97 mph and have a wipeout slider tend to have staying power in the big leagues, even if they're only relievers. I want to see all three pitchers this spring, but Lynch the most. (Royals NRI list)|
|OF Jo Adell. Easy, easy call here. Adell is on the very short list of the game's best prospects and he is electrifying. The speed, the power, the athleticism, you can't take your eyes off him. I'm also curious to see how Luiz Gohara, a former top prospect with the Braves who's been derailed by injuries, looks in camp. Mostly, I can't wait to see Adell. He's a star in waiting. It won't be long before he joins Mike Trout in the Angels outfield. (Angels NRI list)|
|RHP Josiah Gray. The original plan was infielder Jeter Downs here, but he is currently in Red Sox camp after being traded for Mookie Betts (and David Price). No matter. The Dodgers have a perpetually deep farm system and their NRI list is always among the most exciting. Gray came over in last year's Yasiel Puig/Alex Wood trade with Downs and had a huge breakout season in 2019, one that has earned him top 100 prospect love this spring. Gray is probably at least a year away from the big leagues, but, based on last year's dominance, don't be surprised if he arrives sooner than expected. (Dodgers NRI list)|
|LHP Trevor Rogers. Switch-pitcher Pat Venditte will be in camp with the Marlins as NRI and that's always fun, though the novelty has worn off a bit. Rogers was a first-round pick in 2017 and elbow trouble delayed the start of his career. He stayed healthy in 2019 and, if you built a pitcher in a lab, he'd look like Rogers. Lefty, 6-foot-6, lively fastball, three secondary pitches, good delivery. There's a non-zero chance Rogers will make his MLB debut in 2020. (Marlins NRI list)|
|RHP Shelby Miller. Did you know Miller is still only 29? Feels like he's been around forever. The Brewers have an NRI list light on prospects and heavy on journeymen, and Miller stands out given his career arc. He's been awful the last four years (6.89 ERA!) but former top prospects with MLB success in their past have a way of getting second (and third and fourth) chances. Milwaukee needs pitching depth and getting something (anything) out of Miller would be a win. Spring training is the first step on the comeback trail. (Brewers NRI list)|
|SS Royce Lewis. The Twins have a stacked NRI list. It includes their big three outfield prospects (Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Brent Rooker) and Lewis, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft. Lewis had a brutal 2019 season (.236/.290/.371 at two levels) and the reviews from scouts were less than glowing. He rebounded with a monster Arizona Fall League and will look to carry that success over to big league camp. (Twins NRI list)|
|LHP David Peterson. No, it's not Tim Tebow, . So many of are either in the low minors (Matthew Allan, Brett Baty, Ronny Mauricio, Mark Vientos, etc.) or on the 40-man roster (Andres Gimenez), so their NRI list is heavy on journeymen and fringe prospects. Peterson, a former first-round pick, had a solid 2019 season at Double-A and could help the Mets later this season. (Mets NRI list)|
|RHP Clarke Schmidt. Outfielder Jasson Dominguez, , won't be in big league camp this spring because, well, he's 17. It's not an appropriate place for him. That gives Schmidt the most interesting NRI nod. The Yankees selected him in the first round in 2017 even though he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and he's since made a full recovery and emerged as a top-100 prospect. , it's not completely impossible that Schmidt pitches his way onto the Opening Day roster this spring. (Yankees NRI list)|
|SS Logan Davidson. The Athletics have been among the most aggressive NRI teams over the years, meaning they'll often bring their top prospects to big league camp no matter how (in)experienced. Davidson was their first round pick last year, the 29th overall selection, and he received an NRI despite only 54 games of pro experience in the low minors. Could he win an Opening Day roster spot? Oh goodness no, but it's not often you can see last year's first-round pick in big league camp. (A's NRI list)|
|RHP Spencer Howard. The Phillies have one of the largest NRI classes this spring (28 players) and it includes reclamation projects (Drew Storen), top prospects (Alec Bohm), and even a former No. 1 pick (Mickey Moniak). because he commands a fastball that runs as high as 99 mph. He tore through the minors last season and reached Double-A, and could slot into the big league rotation before 2020 lets out. (Phillies NRI list)|
|LHP Nik Turley. For a rebuilding team, the Pirates have a pretty weak group of NRIs. To be fair, top prospects Mitch Keller and Ke'Bryan Hayes are on the 40-man roster, so they'll be in the big league camp. Turley gets the nod here because he hasn't pitched since 2017 -- he served an 80-game performance-enhancing drug suspension and had Tommy John surgery in the interim -- and is attempting a comeback. Turley is healthy now and he has a high-spin curveball that is allergic to bats. (Pirates NRI list)|
|LHP Matthew Liberatore. Acquired in the Jose Martinez/Randy Arozarena trade with Tampa Bay, Liberatore ranks among the game's top pitching prospects and he is the quintessential Cardinals pitcher. Deep arsenal, command, knows how to pitch, durable frame, so on and so forth. Some guys just fit the organizational stereotype, you know? That's Liberatore with the Cardinals. , but I'm more interested to see Liberatore. Shiny new toy, you know? (Cardinals NRI list)|
|LHP MacKenzie Gore. and thus a high-quality group of NRIs. Despite that, Gore is an easy choice here. He commands four above-average pitches and is simply the best pitching prospect in baseball. It's a Clayton Kershaw starter kit. It really is. The Padres shocked the world and put Fernando Tatis Jr. on the Opening Day roster after he tore up the Cactus League as an NRI last year. Could they do the same with Gore this year? Don't rule it out. (Padres NRI list)|
|C Joey Bart. The No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft is Buster Posey's heir apparent. Bart underwhelmed a bit at the plate last year, though catchers are notoriously slow to develop because there's so much defensive responsibility. Not everyone can be, well, Posey. The Giants will be in good hands behind the plate soon. Also, keep an eye on 6-foot-11 southpaw Sean Hjelle. Jon Rauch is the only 6-foot-11 (or taller) player in MLB history. It's not often you get to see a near seven-footer on the diamond. (Giants NRI list)|
|OF Julio Rodriguez. The Mariners have arguably the most exciting NRI group in baseball this year. Righty Logan Gilbert is a top 50-ish prospect and both Rodriguez and fellow outfielder Jarred Kelenic are among the top 10-15 prospects in the game. They're studs. Kelenic could reach the big leagues in 2020 but Rodriguez just turned 19 and figures to spend much of this season in Single-A. We could see Kelenic soon. Rodriguez? We'll probably have to wait until next spring to see him again. Get eyes on him while you can this spring, Mariners fans. (Mariners NRI list)|
|LHP Shane McClanahan. Alas and alack, Wander Franco will not be in big league camp. , so he's not quite ready for big league spring training. McClanahan is a nice consolation prize though. The 2018 first-rounder struck out 154 batters in 120 2/3 minor league innings last year and he touches 100 mph from the left side. He's also a spin rate darling who can make hitters look silly with his slider and curveball. McClanahan has an outside chance to pitch in the big leagues in 2020. (Rays NRI list)|
|C Sam Huff. The Rangers will have a small army of journeymen and reclamation projects in camp as NRIs this year, plus at least one actual prospect in Huff. The 2019 Futures Game MVP finished second among all minor league catchers with 28 home runs last season and is so clearly the future behind the plate in Texas. The Rangers have had six different Opening Day catchers in the last eight seasons. Huff figures to put an end to that revolving door. (Rangers NRI list)|
|RHP Nate Pearson. Yeah, the hardest throwing starter in the minors is an easy choice for the Blue Jays most interesting NRI. Pearson has run his fastball as high as 104 mph -- that was confirmed by Trackman in the Arizona Fall League two years ago, so it's not some old scout's tale -- but he's so much more than a big fastball. He also has a very good slider and changeup, and he locate well too. Pearson reached Triple-A last year and should reach Toronto at some point in 2020. He will be the next great homegrown Blue Jays starter. (Blue Jays NRI list)|
|OF Yadiel Hernandez. The Nationals are notorious for late NRI announcements. In fact, they did not publicly released their NRI list prior to pitchers and catchers reporting on Feb. 12. True story. The NRI list came later that day. Hernandez, the club's 2019 Minor League Player of the Year, had a huge season in 2019, hitting .323/.406/.604 with 33 homers in 126 Triple-A games. Washington has four legitimate MLB outfielders (Adam Eaton, Victor Robles, Juan Soto, Michael Taylor), but injuries happen, and the 32-year-old Cuban defector has put himself in position for a potential call-up this year. (Nationals NRI list)|
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