I spied Guastavo in Kissimmee. The sighting was, given the clarity of a Florida morn, a glimpse out of the blue, like a Golden-crowned Warbler in the states. The proper name of this rare bird is Gustavo Adolpho Chacin, a left-handed pitcher last seen in parts around major league baseball in 2007, best known for winning 13 games at age 24 for the 2005 Blue Jays.
Welcome to spring training, where you never quite know whom you will run into and where. Seeing Chacin in an Astros uniform -- by way of the Blue Jays, Nationals and Phillies in just the past two years -- is a moment of surprise that happens in just about every camp: forgotten faces in strange places.
One of the great quirks of spring training camps is the non-roster invitee. The Pirates, Royals and Yankees have invited an entire team's worth of NRIs to join their 40-man roster players, each handing out at least 25 invitations. The Padres doled out just three invites.
The legion of NRIs include a Bard (Josh of Seattle) and a McBeth (Marcus of Oakland); a Diamond (Thomas of the Cubs) and a Ring (Royce of the Yankees); two Duncans (Shelley of Cleveland and Chris of Washington), three Tracys (Andy of Philadelphia, Chad of the Cubs and another Chad of the Rangers) and four Hills, all of whom, naturally, pitch off one (Rich and Steven of St. Louis, Nick of Seattle and Shawn of Toronto).
The majority of the hundreds of NRIs are top prospects not yet on the 40-man roster and catchers needed to catch the brigades of pitchers throwing bullpen sessions. But the most interesting of the NRIs are the journeymen, the has-beens and never-weres hanging around the fringes of the game for one more crack at the show.
Those guys are close to my heart. I was one of them for one week with the 2005 Blue Jays, an embedded journalist/NRI given a uniform, full participation and a rare inside look at the game before they handed me my release after one intrasquad game.
The veteran NRIs all have great stories to tell. This year finds a rare quartet of NRIs who did not play at all last season and despite making huge sums of money in the game are back for more: Jim Edmonds, 39 ($85 million career earnings), with Milwaukee, Mark Grudzielanek, 39 ($36 million), with Cleveland, and Paul Lo Duca, 37 ($30 million), and Jay Payton, 37 ($21 million), with Colorado. (Grudzielanek did appear in 11 minor league games last year.)
Truth be told, the overwhelming majority of veteran NRIs make for better stories than ballplayers. Most eventually will wash out of the game with little or no impact in the majors. But the reason clubs keep handing out these golden tickets is the chance that one of them turns out like the NRI who came to Pirates camp last year. The guy was 27 years old, a 14th round pick 10 years earlier, and already had been released by the Atlanta Braves and cut loose by the Minnesota Twins. He had just 77 at-bats in the majors, none since 2007, and a .208 batting average. He had logged almost 1,000 games in the minors. He had played first base and the outfield without distinction. He didn't make the Opening Day roster. But the Pirates called him up July 1. Former NRI Garrett Jones went on to hit more home runs (21) than any rookie in baseball while slugging .522.
I'm not sure if there is another Garrett Jones on the list below: the 13 most interesting veteran NRIs in camp this year. These are guys who you probably lost track of, some of whom haven't played in the majors in many years. It's a high-mileage group traveling on wounded wings and fervent prayers. But I do know, as a kindred NRI, all of them are worth rooting for as they look for one more chance in the big leagues.
1. Tony Pena Jr., 28, San Francisco. As a shortstop, Pena made a pretty good pitcher. How bad a hitter was the former Royals infielder? He posted a .248 OBP in 327 games, the 10th worst in history for anybody who played that many games. He always did have a strong arm, however. Pena has converted to pitching, and the Giants will give him a chance after he threw 18 innings in the Dominican Winter League.
2. Jimmy Gobble, 28, Colorado. Let's just say the ex-Royals left-hander hasn't been very good over the past two seasons, and not mention that you would be dialing the Catskills if you used his ERA in those seasons as an area code (8.45).
3. Chris George, 30, Baltimore. Another ex-Royals left-hander, he last pitched in the big leagues in 2004, largely due to injuries. He did come up in the Kansas City system, which should come with a warning from the surgeon general. Next job for former Sen. George Mitchell: get to the bottom of what happened to a generation of young Royals pitchers such as Gobble, George, Jose Rosado, Runelvys Hernandez, Kris Wilson, Mac Suzuki, etc.
4. Corey Patterson, 30, Seattle. This is the sixth stop in six years for a guy who ages ago was supposed to be the next great Cub, only to wind up with fewer hits than Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. It's not as if he hasn't been handed chances. Patterson has played in more than 1,000 major league games, and among all outfielders in history given that much playing time, he has the third worst OBP (.290), trailing John Shelby and Tony Armas.
5. Chris Capuano, 31, Milwaukee. Another left-hander, he hasn't thrown a pitch in the big leagues since 2007 due to two Tommy John operations. Almost nobody makes it back from that much surgical work except Heidi Montag.
6. Bruce Chen, 32, Kansas City. Hard to believe that still there are 19 big-league cities yet to host the Bruce Chen tour ("A Man, a Plan, a 4.71 ERA"), not including Branson, Mo. In 62 games over the past four years for Baltimore, Texas and Kansas City, Chen is 1-13 with a 6.53 ERA. Hitters would agree: his name is an anagram for "bench cure." And yes, he's left-handed.
7. Mike Maroth, 32, Minnesota. The last 20-game loser (21 in 2003) hasn't lost a game since 2007. Small disclaimer: he hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2007, having been released twice (Kansas City and Toronto) and undergone shoulder surgery. Did I mention he is left-handed?
8. Corky Miller, 33, Cincinnati. You've got to admire the willpower of a guy named Corky who has played 802 games in the minors, been employed by five organizations and been one of the worst hitters in history. Worst career averages of players with at least 162 games: 1. John Vukovich (.161). 2. Bill Bergen (.170). 3. Ray Oyler (.175). 4. Larry Murray (.177). 5. Corky Miller (.179). But hey, he does have 100 career minor league homers.
9. Scott Strickland, 33, Florida. With an elbow by Toyota, Strickland has spent most of his time in the repair shop since he last pitched in the bigs in 2005. The Marlins are his fifth organization since then, which makes the peripatetic right-hander the unlikely saves leader (32 last year) for the Triple-A Isotopes (Greek for "at the same place").
10. Rodrigo Lopez, 34, Arizona. Quick: who has the most wins (by far) for the Orioles since Mike Mussina left the franchise as a free agent after the 2000 season? Clue no. 1: He has appeared in only seven major league games over the past two years, none for Baltimore. Clue no. 2: He led the AL in losses in 2006. Clue no 3: Really? You need another one?
11. Vance Wilson, 36, Kansas City. The catcher is approaching Platinum status on his Frequent Surgery account. Wilson has had two Tommy John surgeries since he last played in the majors in 2006.
12. Ramon Ortiz, 36, Los Angeles Dodgers. Please do not confuse right-hander Ramon Ortiz with right-hander Russ Ortiz, 35, who also is in Dodgers camp. Ramon is the one who hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2007 and has worked for the Angels, Reds, Nationals, Twins, Rockies, Buffaloes (Orix) and Giants before getting a gig this spring with the Dodgers. Russ is the guy who is 5-17 with a 6.37 ERA over the past four years and has toiled for the Braves, Diamondbacks, Orioles, Giants and Astros. They were originally signed five days apart in 1995, one has 88 losses and one has 80, one has an ERA+ of 94 and one has 91, and they have pitched for 12 organizations combined, but never the same team, although they started Games 2, 3 and 6 of the 2002 World Series, but never at the same time. Hey, wait a minute. I'm confused.
13. John Halama, 38, Milwaukee. He hasn't pitched in the bigs since 2006, has pitched for seven major league teams and over the past three seasons has turned up with the Ducks and Blue Crabs, which is not the early bird special at Red Lobster but two independent teams. But -- guess what, diners? -- he is left-handed.