Picking the most interesting spring training NRIs, from prospects to suspects
- From players who will be the future of baseball to those hoping for one last chance in the majors, here are the most notable names to keep an eye on in camps this spring.
From a competitive standpoint, the first weeks of Grapefruit and Cactus League games don't make for particularly interesting baseball, but one of the benefits of tuning in early is getting a glimpse at those in camp on non-roster invitations, especially in a year when numerous regulars will soon depart to join their World Baseball Classic teams. Generally, these NRIs fall into two categories: prospects who haven't reached the point where they need to be added to the 40-man roster, and veterans in camp on minor league deals. Within that second category are those with legitimate shots to make their respective teams and those who appear to have stumbled out of a time machine set to five years ago, perhaps to give their flagging career hopes one final go.
What follows here is a look at 11 NRIs who caught my eye, roughly split into prospects and suspects. There are no guarantees that any of them will make a major impact in 2017, but some of them are players who just missed the cut for my No. 1 Prospects list, others are guys with legitimate chances to win jobs, and a few are simply reminders of the not-too-distant past. This is far from comprehensive, and to avoid repetition, I am omitting several of the aforementioned top prospects in camp.
Ozzie Albies, 2B, Braves
The presence of Dansby Swanson has pushed this 20-year-old Curaçao native from shortstop to second, but he ranked among the top 11 prospects on three of the four major lists. Splitting his 2016 between Double and Triple A, he hit .292/.358/.420 with six homers, 10 triples and 30 steals, numbers that don't jump off the page until you realize that he played the entire season as a 19-year-old in the upper minors. Listed at 5'9" but perhaps as short as 5'6", he's got a compact swing and a hit tool that's been graded as high as 70 (plus-plus); combined with 70-grade speed, that makes him a top-of-the-lineup type. Throw in plus defense, and it's clear Albies is an important piece in the Braves' rebuilding effort. The acquisition of Brandon Phillips buys him time, but he could be up later this season.
Clint Frazier, OF, Yankees
The fifth pick of the 2013 draft out of a Georgia high school, Frazier was the key piece from the Indians in the four-player return for Andrew Miller. The five-tool prospect has already earned gushing praise from Yankees GM Brian Cashman: "The bat speed is already legendary. He’s got all the tools—he can run, he can hit, he can hit with power, he can play all three outfield positions—he’s a very exciting, high-energy guy that shows up in a dirty uniform.” The 22-year-old righty-swinging redhead hit a combined .263/.335/.447 with 15 homers and 13 steals split between Double A and two Triple A stops and came into the year ranked as high as 16th (Baseball Prospectus) on the prospect lists. His power is his top tool, but all five of his tools grade out as at least average. With Aaron Judge the heir apparent in rightfield, Frazier is probably slated for Yankee Stadium's oversized leftfield, where his speed and arm will be useful; with Brett Gardner a potential trade chip, he could be up later this year.
Michael Kopech, RHP, White Sox
A secondary piece in the Chris Sale blockbuster, the 20-year-old Kopech lights up radar guns to the point that he could challenge Aroldis Chapman for the title of the game's hardest-throwing pitcher. The 6'3", 205-pound righty reached 105 mph in a game for Class A Salem last year and reached 110 in a January workout, albeit with a lighter baseball and a crow-hopped start. His progress has been slowed by a 50-game suspension for a banned stimulant in 2015 and a broken hand suffered in an fight with a teammate last year, so he's thrown just 134 1/3 professional innings; at Salem, he whiffed 13.7 per nine but walked 5.2 per nine in 52 innings, posting a 2.25 ERA and allowing just one homer. Ranked as high as seventh (ESPN) on the spring prospect lists, he still needs work on his secondary pitches, but his slider projects as plus and his changeup as average. While there are enough concerns about his control that he could wind up in the bullpen, he's likely ticketed for Double A, with a 2018 ETA in the majors.
A.J. Puk, LHP, Athletics
The sixth pick of the 2016 draft out of Florida, Puk is a towering 21-year-old southpaw whose size (6'7", 220 lbs) and stuff are ahead of his performance, though he did whiff 11.0 per nine in 32 2/3 innings at low A ball after signing. His fastball sits 93–97 mph and can touch 98, with a plus slider and a changeup that projects as average, but his lack of athleticism draws concern, his delivery is inconsistent and his command and control both are both below average. He may wind up in the bullpen if he can't shore up those issues, but if he can, he's got front-of-the-rotation potential.
Dominic Smith, 1B, Mets
Chances are you've already heard about the 21-year-old Smith this spring, if only for the best-shape-of-his-life-type story about him dropping 24 pounds this winter by laying off wet burritos; the 6-foot lefty swinger tipped the scales as high as 260 pounds last year. The 11th pick of the 2013 draft, Smith hit .302/.367/.457 with 14 homers at Double A in '16. Smith is noted for his smooth lefty swing, his impressive fielding prowess (Keith Law, who placed him 29th on ESPN's list, graded his arm at 70) and concerns about his power projection—a package that led Baseball Prospectus (whose Top 101 list he just missed) to compare him to James Loney, which is to say a player who may top out as a league-average first baseman. For the Mets, who got just a .252/.304/.414 combined performance from their first basemen and were forced to play the real Loney there roughly twice as often as they did Lucas Duda due to the latter's back injury, that looks pretty darn appealing. If Duda struggles or gets hurt again, Smith may well get a look later this season.
Manny Banuelos, LHP, Angels
Once upon a time, Baneulos was part of the Yankees "Killer B's"—a trio of pitching prospects comprised of him, Dellin Betances and the unsuccessful Andrew Brackman. Banuelos reached Triple A as a 20-year-old in 2011 and climbed as high as No. 13 on MLB's prospect list in '12, but by the end of that season, he needed Tommy John surgery. Dealt to the Braves in January 2015, he made six major league starts and one relief appearance totaling 26 1/3 innings, but a bone spur in his elbow ended his season, and he was clobbered for a 5.33 ERA in 50 2/3 innings at three minor league stops before drawing his release in August. Less than two weeks away from his 26th birthday, he’s healthy and competing for the fifth starter job, and you can't help but root for him.
Rusney Castillo and Allen Craig, OF, Red Sox
Two of the more egregious mistakes of the bygone Ben Cherington regime are still around and drawing considerable paychecks. Castillo, a Cuban defector who signed a $72.5 million deal in August 2014, will make $10.5 million this year and is owed another $35.5 million through '20, and Craig is making $11 million this year and is owed a $1 million buyout for '18. Castillo, now 29, got just eight plate appearances for the Red Sox last year and hit an uninspiring .263/.309/.354 at Triple A Pawtucket, and he's already drawn criticism from manager John Farrell for losing track of the number of outs while loafing into a double play. The 32-year-old Craig, who last played in the majors in 2015, hit just .274/.368/.350 in the minors and was limited to 111 PA due to knee and oblique injuries. Both players probably need changes of scenery.
Micah Owings, RHP, Mariners
A former third-round pick by the Diamondbacks, the 6'5" Owings spent parts of six seasons in the majors (2007–12) drawing more attention for his hitting (.283/.310/.502 with nine homers in 219 PA) than his pitching (4.86 ERA in 483 innings). In fact, after battling shoulder and elbow troubles, he spent most of 2013 as an outfielder with the Brewers and Nationals, but things didn't pan out. He pitched for the York Revolution in the independent Atlantic League last year, posting a 4.30 ERA with 6.8 strikeouts per nine in 106 2/3 innings, but was apparently more impressive late in the season. With his fastball back up into the low 90s, he has a chance to resurrect his career in organized ball.
Jonathan Sanchez, LHP, Royals
Once upon a time, Sanchez was a promising but control-challenged starter for the Giants. In 2009, he no-hit the Padres, and in '10, had his best season, posting a 3.07 ERA with 9.5 strikeouts per nine in 193 1/3 innings for the World Series champs. He faded from the major league scene after battling arm problems and posting a combined 8.73 ERA in 78 1/3 innings for the Royals, Rockies and Pirates in 2012–13 and hasn't pitched in a stateside league since '14; last spring, he went to camp with the Reds. Now the 34-year-old southpaw is one of several Royals NRI pitchers—including once-elite relievers Brandon League, Bobby Parnell and Chris Withrow—hoping for another shot.
Jordan Schafer, LHP/OF, Cardinals
As an outfielder, Schafer was a top prospect who homered in his first major league plate appearance for the Braves on Opening Day 2009, but it was all downhill from there. He hit a meager .228/.308/.307 in 1,472 PA for the Braves, Astros and Twins from '09 to '15, but last year, he converted to the mound and posted a 3.83 ERA with 10.8 strikeouts per nine in 49 1/3 innings at three stops in the Dodgers' organization, with the bulk of that work at Double A. The 30-year-old lefty throws a fastball that touches 94 mph as well as a changeup and a curve. Given his previous experience, if he makes the team, he could be handy for one of those Travis Wood-type situations shuttling between the mound and the outfield for a lefty-righty-lefty situation—enough that he intrigued the Cardinals to give him a look.