At long last, spring training has arrived., and next week both Cactus League and Grapefruit League games will begin play. Real live baseball is only a few days away.
Spring training games are fun in their own way, mostly because they allow you to see players you usually don't get to see throughout the 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 bush leagues in April.
Over the last several weeks all 30 MLB clubs have announced their non-roster invitees to spring training. These are players who will be in big-league camp despite not being on the 40-man roster. Some non-roster players 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 non-roster invitees are more interesting than others. Every so often one of these players will have a huge spring training, win an Opening Day roster spot, and go on to establish himself as a big leaguer. And sometimes one of these players will have a big spring, win a roster spot, and show it was all a fluke. That's baseball.
So, with spring training now underway and exhibition games coming up, this is as good a time as any to look at each team's most interesting non-roster player.
Arizona Diamondbacks: RHP Taylor Clarke
The Diamondbacks do not have a robust farm system these days -- Baseball America recently ranked their system 25th among the 30 teams -- and Taylor Clarke might be their closest to MLB pitching prospect. He threw 145 innings with a 3.35 ERA and a 138/52 K/BB between Double-A and Triple-A this season, and he should make his big-league debut this summer. Clarke works in the low-90s with his fastball and also throws a slider, a curveball, and a changeup, and he carries himself like a seasoned veteran on the mound. Patrick Corbin's name has popped up in trade rumors recently. If he's moved, Clarke could get a chance to fill his rotation spot.
Atlanta Braves: OF Ronald Acuna
Baseball's best prospect will be in big-league camp as a 20-year-old this spring. Ronald Acuna hit .325/.374/.522 with 31 doubles, 21 homers, and 44 stolen bases at three levels as a 19-year-old last season. He made it all the way to Triple-A. Then Acuna went out and won the MVP award in the Arizona Fall League.
The Matt Kemp trade opened an outfield spot for Acuna, though the Braves almost certainly will not carry him on the Opening Day roster. They're not expected to contend in 2018 and the Braves would be foolish not to send Acuna down for a few weeks to delay his free agency a year. That's how it goes with top prospects these days. And with Acuna unlikely to be on the Opening Day roster, that is all the more reason to enjoy his baseball genius in spring training.
Baltimore Orioles: IF Ryan Mountcastle
The Orioles won't have the most exciting group of non-roster players in camp this year, so Ryan Mountcastle gets the nod here almost by default. He is a quality prospect though -- Baseball America ranked him as the game's 71st best prospect a few weeks ago -- and he hit .287/.312/.489 with 48 doubles and 18 home runs at High-A and Double-A in 2017. The only question is where will Mountcastle play? He's been a shortstop and third baseman in his career, though some believe he's better suited for the outfield. The transition to the outfield is something that could begin in spring training.
Boston Red Sox: 3B Michael Chavis
A case can be made third baseman Michael Chavis is the Red Sox's best prospect. He broke out at High-A and Double-A last year, hitting .282/.347/.563 with 31 home runs. Chances are Chavis won't play in the big leagues this season, but at some point the team is going to have to figure out how he and Rafael Devers can coexist on the same roster. Boston might have two young 30-homer third basemen in the near future.
Chicago Cubs: RHP Thomas Hatch
The Cubs surrendered their first- and second-round picks in the 2016 draft to sign Jason Heyward and John Lackey, and they used their third-round pick on Thomas Hatch. He had a good but not great season at High-A last year, throwing 124 2/3 innings with a 4.04 ERA and a 126/50 K/BB, but the Cubs love his stuff and his makeup. Hatch works in the low-90s and has a really good slider. Chances are he won't pitch in the MLB this season, though the Cubs want to get him to camp so he can work with the big-league coaches and continue his development.
Chicago White Sox: OF Luis Robert
Yoan Moncada is the centerpiece of the White Sox's rebuild, and Luis Robert is essentially the outfield version of Moncada. He's a big money Cuban player loaded with tools. His bat speed is electric and it produces big time raw power. Robert also has good speed and defensive skills. He hit .310/.491/.536 with three homers, 12 steals, and nearly as many walks (22) and strikeouts (23) in 28 rookie ball games during his pro debut in 2017. Like Moncada, Robert probably needs at least a full season in the minors before sticking in MLB full-time, but make no mistake, this kid is the next big thing.
Cincinnati Reds: 3B Nick Senzel
The Reds selected Nick Senzel with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft and he might be the best pure hitter in the minor leagues. The former University of Tennessee standout hit .321/.391/.514 with 40 doubles and 14 home runs in 119 games split between High-A and Double-A in 2017, and he very clearly is Cincinnati's third baseman of the future. (Eugenio Suarez is a pretty good player too, so the Reds have a good problem on their hands.) Senzel will be in big-league camp for the first time this spring and he could be part of the MLB roster later this summer.
Cleveland Indians: 1B Bobby Bradley
Not the sexiest collection of non-roster players for the Indians this season. Bobby Bradley gets the nod almost by default. The 21-year-old authored a .251/.331/.465 batting line with 23 home runs at Double-A last season, and he'll be in position to replace either Edwin Encarnacion or Yonder Alonso when their contracts expire in two years. Bradley has the best shot at being Cleveland's long-term first baseman.
Colorado Rockies: SS Brendan Rodgers
Last year the Rockies had lots of quality young pitchers in camp as non-roster players and they went on to form the best rookie pitching class in franchise history last season. This year Brendan Rodgers headlines their crop of non-roster invitees. The third overall pick in the 2015 draft -- he was picked after Dansby Swanson and Alex Bregman -- hit a stout .336/.373/.567 with 26 doubles and 18 home runs last season, and he did it as a 20-year-old at High-A and Double-A. With all due respect to Trevor Story, Rodgers is a budding superstar and Colorado's shortstop of the future.
Detroit Tigers: RHP Alex Faedo
Alex Faedo is one of a handful of the 2017 draftees to receive an invite to 2018 big-league spring training. The Tigers selected Faedo with the 18th overall pick and he is the kind of quick moving power arm they love. He was a potential top 10 pick going into the draft and Detroit shut him down following the draft after a big spring workload at Florida, so Faedo's next pitch will be his first as a professional. He's a right-hander with a mid-90s fastball and a swing-and-miss slider. Faedo has a very good chance to be the first 2017 draftee to reach MLB, and it could happen this year.
Houston Astros: OF Kyle Tucker
The Astros reportedly refused to part with Kyle Tucker during Gerrit Cole trade talks and this spring fans will get to see why. Tucker is a sweet-swingin' left-handed hitting outfielder who put up a .274/.346/.528 batting line with 33 doubles, 25 home runs, and 21 stolen bases in 120 games split between High-A and Double-A last year. He did all that as a 20-year-old too. Baseball America ranks Tucker as the 15th best prospect in the baseball, and while he is likely at least another year away from the show, Tucker is in line to be the next great homegrown Astros hitter.
Kansas City Royals: LHP Foster Griffin
The Royals are very early in their rebuild and their farm system is pretty thin at the moment, so Foster Griffin stands out from the collection of journeymen and second tier prospects Kansas City is bringing to camp this year. Griffin was the 28th overall pick in the 2014 draft and he bounced back from down 2015 and 2016 seasons (5.43 ERA in 235 1/3 innings) to have a strong 2017 season, during which he threw 161 1/3 innings with a 3.35 ERA and a 141/54 K/BB at High-A and Double-A. The southpaw doesn't have high-end stuff -- he's mostly 88-91 mph with his heater -- but he might be the team's best hope for cheap homegrown starter in the near future.
Los Angeles Angels: RHP/DH Shohei Ohtani
Kind of obvious, isn't it? The Angels signed Shohei Ohtani to a minor-league contract earlier this offseason because the rules say international free agents under the age of 25 can only sign minor-league deals, so Ohtani will technically be in camp as a non-roster player. He of course he as a spot locked up in the Angels' rotation and lineup. Spring training will be our first up close look at the two-way superstar.
Among non-Ohtani players, the Halos' most interesting non-roster player is outfield prospect Jahmai Jones, who hit .282/.348/.446 with 14 homers and 27 steals as a 19-year-old at two Single-A levels in 2017. Jones is probably still two years away from MLB, but he's really tooled up, and he'll be a fan favorite thanks to high-energy play and all-around fun-loving personality.
Los Angeles Dodgers: OF Yusniel Diaz
The Dodgers have spent an awful lot of money on Cuban talent in recent years and, aside from Yasiel Puig, they haven't received much in return. Yusniel Diaz may soon change that. The 21-year-old signed for $15.5 million in 2015 and last season he put up a .292/.354/.433 batting line with 23 doubles and 11 home runs in 114 games split between High-A and Double-A. Puig will be a free agent following the 2019 season and it is entirely possible Diaz will step into the lineup to replace his countryman.
Miami Marlins: OF Monte Harrison
Monte Harrison was the second piece in the Christian Yelich trade -- Lewis Brinson, the headliner, is on the 40-man roster and will be in the big-league camp automatically -- but don't be mistaken, he is an excellent prospect in his own right. Baseball America ranks him as the 75th best prospect in the game, in fact. Harrison, 22, cleaned up some swing issues last summer and hit .272/.350/.481 with 21 homers and 27 steals at two Single-A levels. He's still refining his game and is probably two full years away from the big leagues, but considering the Marlins were devoid of high-end talent in the farm system a few months ago, watching Harrison play this spring will be a breath of fresh air for the Miami faithful.
Milwaukee Brewers: RHP Corbin Burnes
Corbin Burnes, a fourth-round pick in 2016, was one of the top breakout pitchers in the minors in 2017. He threw 145 2/3 innings and finished with a 1.67 ERA with a 140/36 K/BB. The 23-year-old reached Double-A and could debut in the big leagues at some point this summer. Burnes is a true-four pitch pitcher with a hard mid-90s cutting fastball and a high spin curveball. His stuff and command are short of ace-level, but Burnes can really bring it. The Brewers found a good one.
Minnesota Twins: 2B Nick Gordon
The Twins selected Nick Gordon, Dee Gordon's younger brother, with the fifth overall pick in the 2014 draft, and he is inching closer and closer to the big leagues. Last season the 22-year-old hit .270/.341/.408 with 29 doubles, nine homers, and 13 steals at Double-A, and he figures to move up to Triple-A this season. Nick doesn't have Dee's game-changing speed, but he has plenty of tools and a solid all-around game. Brian Dozier will be a free agent next winter, and while the Twins would love to bring him back, having Gordon ready to step in as a replacement wouldn't be a bad backup plan.
New York Mets: OF Tim Tebow
I know, I know. Believe me, I know. The Tim Tebow stuff is getting to be quite annoying. Say what you want about his baseball ability, ? The Mets are bringing Tebow to spring training as a non-roster player this year -- he played in a few spring games last year but wasn't in big-league camp full-time -- and he'll surely generate some headlines. Get ready for 'em. They're coming.
Among non-Tebow players, first base prospect Peter Alonso is the Mets' most interesting non-roster invitee this spring. The 23-year-old first baseman hit .289/.359/.524 with 18 home runs last season and reached Double-A. Dominic Smith remains the first baseman of the future in Flushing, but if he's not careful, Alonso could sneak in and steal the job.
New York Yankees: RHP Dillon Tate
The Yankees are loaded with prospects and many of their best, like Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar, are already on the 40-man roster. Dillon Tate was the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft and the Yankees got him from the Rangers in the Carlos Beltran, and soon thereafter, they told him to go back to his old college delivery. (Texas tried to tweak some things.) Following a down 2016 season, Tate is back to where he was at UC Santa Barbara, which means mid-to-upper-90s gas with knockout sliders and changeups on his best days. There's a chance Tate will make his MLB debut this season, even if only as a reliever. This spring will be the first chance for many Yankees fans to see him.
Oakland Athletics: LHP A.J. Puk
A.J. Puk might be my favorite prospect in the minors. Squint your eyes and you can see a poor man's Randy Johnson. Puk is 6-foot-7, he throws in the mid-90s and has a wipeout slider, and he racks up strikeouts with ease. Last season Puk, the sixth overall pick in the 2016 draft, struck out 184 batters in 125 innings between High-A and Double-A.
Now, that all isn't to say Puk is on his way to a Hall of Fame career like the Big Unit. I'm just saying there are some similarities. Puk's command is suspect and he's still figuring out how to use a changeup to consistently neutralize right-handed batters. But gosh, there's something fun about watching 6-foot-7 southpaw slinging 97 mph heaters with a slider that is allergic to bats.
Philadelphia Phillies: 2B Scott Kingery
Most of the Phillies' best young prospects are already on the 40-man roster, so second base prospect Scott Kingery gets the nod from a surprisingly shallow crop of non-roster players. The 23-year-old hit .304/.359/.530 with 26 homers and 29 steals between Double-A and Triple-A last season, and he figures to be big-league ready at some point in the first half this season, which explains why Cesar Hernandez's name has popped up in trade rumors all winter.
Pittsburgh Pirates: OF Bryan Reynolds
The Pirates acquired Bryan Reynolds in the Andrew McCutchen trade -- the main pieces in the Gerrit Cole trade (Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz) are all on the 40-man roster and will be in the big-league camp automatically -- and he's probably at least a full year away from the big leagues, but this spring will be the first chance for many Pirates fans to see him in action. Reynolds, 23, hit .312/.364/.462 with 26 doubles and 10 homers in High-A last season and he offers hard contact from both sides of the plate and good defensive chops.
San Diego Padres: SS Fernando Tatis Jr.
I'm not sure Fernando Tatis Jr. will ever do something as cool as hitting two grand slams in one inning like his father, but the 19-year-old has all the tools to be a star. He hit .278/.379/.498 with 27 doubles, 22 homers, and 32 steals as an 18-year-old last year and reached Double-A, which is insane. The Padres stole Tatis Jr. from the White Sox in the James Shields trade, and even if he outgrows shortstop, his bat will be good enough to make him a perennial All-Star at any position.
San Francisco Giants: OF Steven Duggar
In addition to upgrading the majors' worst outfield from a year ago, the McCutchen trade and Austin Jackson signing also allow the Giants to be patient with Steven Duggar, their center fielder of the future. He hit .262/.365/.445 with six homers and 10 steals last season and reached Triple-A, but forearm and hamstring problems limited him to only 45 games. Duggar can do a little of everything. He hits, he runs, he plays defense. San Francisco figures to keep him in the minors all season after the injuries last year, but 12 months from now? We might be talking about Duggar as the team's everyday center fielder.
Seattle Mariners: RHP Art Warren
First things first: Art Warren is a fantastic baseball name. Sounds like a catcher name to me, but Warren is a reliever, and that'll work too. Anyway, Warren struck out 67 in 64 2/3 innings last season, all at High-A, before throwing 11 1/3 scoreless innings in the hitter friendly Arizona Fall League. He's up to 99 mph in relief and has a nasty slider, and it is entirely possible the Mariners will have Warren go from Double-A to Triple-A to MLB this season. By this time next year Warren could be setting up closer Edwin Diaz.
St. Louis Cardinals: RHP Dakota Hudson
The Cardinals had most of their best prospects (Jack Flaherty and Harrison Bader, most notably) get their feet wet in the big leagues last season, so they're already on the 40-man roster, meaning the team's non-roster invitees are lacking intrigue this year. Dakota Hudson was the 34th overall pick in the 2016 draft and he threw 152 2/3 innings with a 3.01 ERA at Double-A and Triple-A. The 96/49 K/BB isn't great, but he has four pitches and the tools get both grounders and strikeouts, so Hudson's ceiling is higher than the numbers may lead you to believe. Chances are he'll pitch in the big leagues this year.
Tampa Bay Rays: LHP Jonny Venters
Yes, that Jonny Venters, the former Braves setup man. He's 32 now and he hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2012 because of three -- three! -- Tommy John surgeries, plus a fourth torn elbow ligament that was treated without Tommy John. Venters returned to the mound last season and threw 23 2/3 minor league innings with a 2.28 ERA and a 29/11 K/BB. Remember, this guy had a 1.89 ERA in 171 relief innings with the Braves from 2010-11. When healthy, he was dominant. It sounds crass, but expect the Rays to get Venters on their big-league roster as soon as possible so they can get some innings out of him before the elbow gives out again.
Texas Rangers: IF Andy Ibanez
A depleted farm system leaves the Rangers short on interesting non-roster players, so Andy Ibanez is the pick here. The 24-year-old Cuban defector has drawn comparisons to Howie Kendrick for being a bat first second baseman without a ton of power. Ibanez hit .265/.323/.400 with eight homers at Double-A last season, and with Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor locked in on the big-league middle infield, Ibanez may be auditioning for other teams this spring. The Rangers could cash him in as a trade chip at some point.
Toronto Blue Jays: C Max Pentecost
The Blue Jays selected Max Pentecost with the 11th overall pick in the 2014 draft, but injuries have limited him to only 171 games since. He's said to be healthy now, and he hit .274/.330/.431 with nine home runs in 72 Single-A games last season, so the Blue Jays are hoping this is the year he stays on the field. Pentecost may not be long for the catching position given the injuries, but if he can stay healthy and accrue some at-bats, he might finally begin to realize his offensive potential.
Washington Nationals: LHP Bryan Harper
Yes, Bryan Harper is Bryce Harper's brother. His older brother, specifically. The Nationals drafted Bryan in the 30th round of the 2011 draft, one year after making Bryce the first overall selection, but make no mistake, this is not a nepotism move. Bryan is a legitimate prospect as a left-handed reliever. He threw 45 1/3 innings with a 2.18 ERA and a 41/18 K/BB in 2016, the last time he took the mound. The elder Harper brother missed 2017 with Tommy John surgery and will get back up on the mound this spring.