In just a few days pitchers and catchers will begin to report to camps across Florida and Arizona for Spring Training. Grapefruit League and Cactus League games are only two weeks away at this point. Soon live baseball will be on your television or mobile device. It'll be glorious.
Over the last several weeks, all 30 clubs have announced their non-roster invitees to Spring Training. Those are players not on the 40-man roster who will be in big league camp. Most non-roster players are journeymen on minor league deals or prospects close to the big leagues the coaching staff wants to see up close.
As always, some non-roster players are more intriguing then others. The player could be a potential bargain offseason pickup, or a top prospect, or someone trying to make a comeback after some time away from the game. Let's look at the most intriguing non-roster invitee for all 30 teams since Spring Training is right around the corner. Come with me, won't you?
Arizona Diamondbacks: Yuhei Nakaushiro
The D-Backs don't have a great farm system at the moment, so most of their non-roster invitees are journeymen trying to hang on. Nakaushiro, 27, signed a minor-league deal with Arizona last March and he had a 1.23 ERA with 40 strikeouts in 29 1/3 minor-league relief innings in 2016. He's a lefty with a funky arm slot and a sweepy slider, making him a prime left-on-left matchup candidate. Nakaushiro is a relative unknown -- he threw only 25 1/3 innings in Japan from 2012-14 -- but a southpaw who can miss bats is always someone to keep an eye on in spring training.
Thanks to their robust farm system and plethora of reclamation project signings (Kris Medlen! John Danks!), the Braves have a fun group of non-roster players coming to camp this year. Albies, the club's best non-40-man roster prospect, is the most notable of the bunch. The 20-year-old hit .292/.358/.420 with 33 doubles and 30 steals in 138 games at Double-A and Triple-A in 2016, where he was very young for both levels. MLB.com ranks Albies, who is expected to be part of Atlanta's double play combination of the future with shortstop Dansby Swanson, as the 11th-best prospect in baseball.
I came in to this exercise fully expecting 40-year-old Tomo Ohka to be my intriguing non-roster invitee for the O's, but it turns out he didn't receive an invite to big league camp. The team apparently signed him to a straight minor-league deal, meaning he'll be in minor-league camp. Lame! Ohka hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2009, and he's spent the last few seasons reinventing himself as a knuckleballer in a semi-pro league in Japan. Pretty crazy.
Anyway, with Ohka not an option, Sisco is my pick for Baltimore's most interesting non-roster player. He is the team's catcher of the future and was recently named the 99th-best prospect in baseball by MLB.com. Sisco, 21, hit .320/.406/.422 with 28 doubles and four homers in 112 Double-A games in 2016. He'll begin this coming season at Triple-A and will soon take over as Matt Wieters' long-term replacement behind the dish.
Last year Travis was poised to hit his way to the big leagues, but he torn his ACL applying a tag during a rundown play in late May, ending his season. The 23-year-old is healthy now and ready to resume his march toward becoming Boston's first baseman of the future. Travis hit .272/.332/.434 with six home runs in 47 Triple-A games before the knee injury in 2016. In 2015, he authored a .307/.381/.452 line with nine homers in 131 games split between High Class-A and Double-A.
The Cubs will have several former top prospects in camp trying to revive their careers, namely Casey Kelly and Jemile Weeks, though their most intriguing non-roster player is Jimenez, their current top prospect. MLB.com recently ranked Eloy as the 14th best prospect in baseball and golly did he put on a show at the 2016 Futures Game:
Jimenez, who turned 20 in November, hit .329/.369/.532 with 14 home runs 112 games in Low Class-A in 2016. He was nearly three years younger than the average Midwest League player.
Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito, the two big name prospects the White Sox acquired in the Chris Sale and Adam Eaton trades, are already on the 40-man roster, so they'll be in big league camp automatically. Kopech, who was also part of the Sale trade, is a top prospect himself -- MLB.com recently ranked him the game's 16th best prospect -- thanks largely to his elite velocity. He touches 100 mph on the regular, and during an offseason workout he hit 110 mph on the gun, albeit with a crow hop. Kopech has yet to pitch above Single-A, so he's still a few years away from the show, but White Sox fans will get to see him in camp next month.
I'm very surprised the Reds aren't bringing third base prospect Nick Senzel, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft, to big league camp as a non-roster player. He's cut from the Kyle Schwarber/Michael Conforto/Alex Bregman mold as an advanced college hitter who could reach MLB just a year after being drafted. Weird. Gutierrez, who signed a $4.75 million deal with Cincinnati last year after defecting from Cuba, is a quality prospect himself though. He sits low-to-mid-90s with his heater and has an excellent curveball. Gutierrez hasn't pitched in competitive games since 2014, so he'll need some time in the minors, but the Reds have had success with the Cuban pitching market in recent years (Aroldis Chapman, Raisel Iglesias), so he's someone to watch going forward.
Once upon a time Pena was baseball's top power hitting prospect, the Giancarlo Stanton of the early-2000s. He hasn't played in the big leagues since 2011 -- Pena hit .264/.355/.460 with 71 homers in Japan from 2012-15 -- or at all since 2015, but he'll be in camp with the reigning AL champs this spring. Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer says it's a favor to Edwin Encarnacion, who was workout buddies with Pena this offseason. Here is a very necessary video of Wily Mo mashin' taters:
Let's all now pray to the baseball gods we get to see Pena do that in Cleveland this year. I am pro-fun and Wily Mo is a fun player.
Things haven't gone smoothly for Freeland since the Rockies made him the eighth overall pick in the 2014 draft, as he has been a bit more hittable than expected and also dealt with on-and-off arm issues. When healthy though, Freeland is a four-pitch lefty with good command of his low-to-mid-90s fastball and a hellacious power slider. His chances of cracking the Opening Day rotation are quite small. Instead, Freeland will return to Triple-A and wait for a midseason call-up. The Rockies have a plethora of interesting young arms for the first time in franchise history. Soon Freeland will get a chance to join big leaguers Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, and Jeff Hoffman in the rotation.
Adam Ravenelle is considered the better prospect and he indisputably has a bigger fastball, but Jimenez is much closer to big league ready among Detroit's top two bullpen prospects. His fastball is pretty good as well, sitting in the mid-90s and touching 97 mph, and he misses bats with a slider too. Despite not being able to match Ravenelle's 101 mph heat, Jimenez struck out 21 more batters in 4 1/3 fewer minor league innings in 2016. It's not out of the question that Jimenez could force his way on to the Opening Day roster this spring.
There aren't many better pitching prospects in the minors than Martes, who MLB.com recent ranked as the game's 20th best prospect overall. The 21-year-old had a 3.30 ERA with 131 strikeouts in 125 1/3 Double-A innings a year ago, where he was more than four years younger than the average Texas League player. Martes lights up the radar gun and he has three quality secondary pitches (slider, curveball, changeup), giving him frontline starter upside. The White Sox wanted him in Jose Quintana trade talks and it's easy to understand why. Martes needs some Triple-A time before reaching Houston, but this spring 'Stros fans will get a glimpse of the future.
Yes, that Brandon League. And somehow he is still only 33 years old too. Crazy, right? League hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2014 or anywhere since 2015. He's trying to make a comeback with a team that knows a little something about building bullpens. League is presumably over his shoulder woes from a few years back, and given his age, it stands to reason he could still have something to offer. Remember, two years ago the Royals were able to revive Joe Blanton's career. They've done this sort of thing before.
When Billy Eppler took over as general manager last year, the Angels had by far the game's worst farm system, so he's been aggressive acquiring former top prospects on waivers and minor league free agency whenever possible. Banuelos, a former top pitching prospect with the Yankees when Eppler was in New York, missed lots of time with ongoing arm problems in 2016. He's a four-pitch (fastball, cutter, changeup, curveball) lefty with command, at least when healthy, and given the state of Anaheim's rotation, the still only 25-year-old Banuelos could get a chance to pitch in MLB in 2017.
There are still two seasons remaining on Adrian Gonzalez's contract, but his long-term replacement at first base isn't far away from the big leagues at all. Bellinger is a dynamite pure hitter who slashed .271/.365/.507 with 26 home runs at mostly Double-A a year ago, where he was nearly four years younger than the average Texas League player. MLB.com ranked Bellinger as the 13th best prospect in the game recently and the Dodgers have had him spend time in the outfield because his bat is going to be ready before Gonzalez's contract is up.
Miami Marlins: Dillon Peters
The Marlins are short on prospects at the moment, so they've loaded up on journeyman pitchers to fill out their Triple-A team and non-roster list. Peters is an actual prospect though, a little 5-foot-9 lefty with mid-90s gas and quality secondary pitches in his curveball and changeup. Peters has rebounded well following his 2014 Tommy John surgery, and he'll open 2017 at Double-A. The Marlins are not shy about skipping pitchers over Triple-A. If they need a starter and deem Peters ready, he'll reach the show in 2017.
Wilkerson, 27, has an interesting backstory. He starred at Cumberland University and set an NAIA record with a 54-inning scoreless streak, though he went undrafted and wound up pitching in independent ball. At one point Wilkerson pitched in four different independent leagues in one season. The Red Sox scooped him up as a free agent in 2014, he threw 279 innings with a 3.19 ERA in their farm system and reached Triple-A, then they traded him to the Brewers for Aaron Hill last summer. Wilkerson isn't a top prospect, but he keeps getting outs, and it's very possible he will reach MLB this season despite not being drafted and starting his pro career in independent ball. Neat story.
You'll be hard-pressed to find a minor league starter with better numbers than Gonsalves the last few seasons. The 22-year-old former fourth round pick has a 2.03 ERA with 287 strikeouts in 274 1/3 innings the last two seasons, during which he's climbed from Low Class-A to Double-A. Gonsalves is now a top 100 prospect -- MLB.com named him the game's 92nd best prospect recently -- and the left-handed changeup master could very well make his big league debut at some point in 2017.
The Mets definitely have the best collection of baseball names among their non-roster invitees. Chasen Bradford! Xorge Carrillo! Champ Stuart! Those are all real people who will be in camp with the Mets this year. Smith is the club's most intriguing non-roster player since he is arguably the top first base prospect in baseball. He managed a .302/.367/.457 batting line with 29 doubles and 14 home runs in 130 Double-A games a year ago, and he did it as a 21-year-old in the Eastern League, where the average player is 24. MLB.com recently ranked Smith as the 63rd best prospect in baseball and his timetable works perfectly for the Mets -- Smith figures to be ready to take over at first base in 2018 after Lucas Duda becomes a free agent.
New York Yankees: Gleyber Torres
Torres came over from the Cubs in the Aroldis Chapman trade last summer and he is now the crown jewel of one of baseball's best farm systems. He spent the entire 2016 season at age 19, and hit .270/.354/.421 with 29 doubles, 11 homers, and 21 steals in 125 games split between two levels of Single-A ball. Torres then became the youngest batting champion and MVP in Arizona Fall League history. He's slated to open 2017 at Double-A and could very well make his MLB debut before his 21st birthday. Yankees fans will get their first look at Torres this spring. MLB.com recently ranked him the third best prospect in baseball, and the best prospect not currently on a 40-man roster.
The A's have one of the more exciting group of non-roster invitees this season -- exciting by non-roster standards, that is -- and Puk stands out from the crowd. Literally too. The kid is 6-7 and only two of the team's other non-roster players is taller than 6-3. Anyway, Puk was the sixth overall pick in last year's draft and it's not hard to look at him and see an Andrew Miller starter kit. He's tall, he throws in the upper-90s, and his slider is hellacious when it's on.
Of course, Puk has an extremely long way to go before he even comes close to doing what Miller is doing right now. It's unfair to put those kinds of expectations on Puk or anyone else for that matter. Point is, 6-7 lefties with big fastballs and wipeout sliders sure are exciting. The A's are going to keep Puk in the rotation for the time being, which is easy to understand.
The Phillies rebuild hit a bit of a bump in the road last year. Maikel Franco didn't take the step forward many expected. Aaron Nola went down with an elbow injury in July. Top outfield prospect Nick Williams continued to swing at everything. And Crawford, the club's top overall prospect, had his worst professional season, hitting .250/.349/.339 in 123 games at mostly Triple-A. Not great. Crawford just turned 22 and he remains insanely talented -- MLB.com recently ranked him the game's seventh best prospect -- so it would be foolish to give up on the kid. The non-roster invitation to Spring Training is Crawford's first step towards putting together a big bounceback season.
Meadows is one of the biggest reasons the Pirates made franchise player Andrew McCutchen available in trades this offseason. Meadows, who MLB.com recently ranked as the 10th best prospect in baseball, has perhaps the best combination of pure hitting ability and raw power in the minors. The 21-year-old was hampered by injuries a year ago, most notably a broken orbital bone suffered during a bunting drill, yet he still managed a .266/.333/.536 batting line with 48 extra-base hits in only 87 games, mostly at Double-A and Triple-A. That slash line doesn't do Meadows' talent justice. The kid is a hitting savant and is going to force the Pirates to make a difficult decision with McCutchen pretty soon.
San Diego Padres: Luis Urias
Urias is not related to Dodgers lefty Julio Urias and he's not a top 100 prospect right now, but he could be next year. The 19-year-old bat control artist hit .330/.397/.440 with 26 doubles and more walks (40) than strikeouts (36) in 120 High Class-A games in 2016, where he was nearly four years younger than the average California League player. San Diego believes in Urias so much they sent him to Triple-A for a three-game cameo at midseason (the Triple-A team was short a player due to injury), where he went 4 for 9 with five walks and one strikeout. Urias doesn't have much power and he's better suited for second base defensively than short, but goodness can this kid hit and control the strike zone.
San Francisco Giants: Jae Gyun Hwang
With all due respect to Jimmy Rollins, who will be in camp with the Giants as a non-roster player, Hwang is the far more interesting player at this point. San Francisco signed the Korean slugger a few weeks back and he'll look to make the roster as a third base option alongside Eduardo Nunez. Hwang, 29, hit .330/.391/.558 with 26 home runs and 24 steals in 118 games for the Lotte Giants of the Korea Baseball Organization in 2016. Also, he's not afraid to flip his bat from time to time.
Baseball could use more bat flips. We'll get to see Hwang do his thing as a non-roster player in the Cactus League this year.
Once upon a time, several teams -- specifically the Diamondbacks, Reds, Diamondbacks again, and Padres -- hoped Owings would be able to contribute as a pitcher and a hitter. He tossed 152 2/3 innings with 4.30 ERA (111 ERA+) for Arizona in 2007 while also hitting .333/.349/.683 (152 OPS+) with four home runs. It never did come together though. Owings, now 34, played sparingly from 2012-14 and not at all in 2015 before resurfacing in the independent Atlantic League in 2016. He's given up hitting and is now trying to make it work as a full-time pitcher. Owings had a 4.30 ERA with 81 strikeouts in 106 2/3 innings for the York Revolution in 2016.
You might remember Schafer from his years as a part-time outfielder with the Braves, Astros and Twins, but did you know he's a pitcher now? True story. A southpaw too. He made the transition last year, throwing 49 1/3 innings with a 3.83 ERA at three minor league levels with the Dodgers. Schafer, now 30, struck out 59 in those 49 1/3 innings. He pitched in high school and was regarded by some as a better prospect as a pitcher than position player, so getting up on a mound wasn't completely foreign him. Lefties who have shown the ability to miss bats will always be in demand, which is why the Cardinals are bringing Schafer to camp as a non-roster player.
Bauers, who came over from the Padres in the Wil Myers trade, was recently ranked as the 76th best prospect in the game by MLB.com. He had a fine 2016 season, swatting 28 doubles and 14 home runs with a .274/.370/.420 batting line in 135 games. It's unclear how much power Bauers will have at the next level, but he is far and away Tampa Bay's best hope to take over as their first baseman of the future. They haven't received consistently above-average production at the position since Carlos Pena left as a free agent following the 2010 season.
Is there anything left in the tank? Hamilton is 35 now and he missed the entire 2016 season due to ongoing knee problems. He played only 139 games total from 2014-15 due to injuries as well. You have to go back to 2013 for the last time Hamilton batted at least 400 times and was a league average hitter. Even after reunited with Mike Napoli, the Rangers have an opening at DH, and a healthy Hamilton could make the squad in a platoon role. This might be the 2010 AL MVP's last chance to play in the big leagues.
Tellez, a 30th round pick in the 2013 draft, has done nothing but hit in pro ball. The soon-to-be 22-year-old authored a .297/.387/.530 batting line with 29 doubles and 23 home runs in the pitcher friendly Double-A Eastern League last year, where he was more than three years younger than the average player. Tellez is a left-handed hitter first baseman/designated hitter with no defensive or baserunning value, so he's going to have to hit and hit big to carve out a long-term big league role. The kid knows the strike zone and can punish mistakes though, and when you put up numbers like Tellez, it's hard for teams to ignore you.
The Nationals signed Nathan, who currently sits eighth all-time with 377 saves, to a minor league deal last week. The club does not have a clearly defined closer right now. Shawn Kelley is really good and figures to get the first crack at the job, but that will still leave Washington in need of a setup man. Nathan had his second career Tommy John surgery in 2015 and threw only 6 1/3 innings in 2016. He's 42 now, yet given how things stand at the back of the team's bullpen, Nathan will get a serious look in camp to see if he can help in some capacity.