2005: As Rick Ankiel had made his decision to stop pitching and headed back to the minors to learn how to become an outfielder, another lefty came from nowhere to make the Cardinals out of spring training.
Bill Pulsipher (right), who along with Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson made up the over-hyped Mets "Generation K" in the 1990s, had what would be his last fling as a Major Leaguer. (This is the same situation in which Izzy likely finds himself today as an NRI in camp with the 2011 Mets.) The well-traveled (ten MLB organizations prior to StL) Pulsipher was quickly injured, appearing in just five regular-season games before returning to Memphis and eventually baseball oblivion.
The other 2005 NRI to make the club was a generally anonymous utility infielder who had been discarded by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Abraham Nunez. His primary assets were his defensive versatility and the ability to switch hit. When Scott Rolen went down due to injury, Nunez ended up with 421 at-bats and delivered solid defense and career-bests in every offensive category. He translated that into a nice, two-year deal with Philadelphia but promptly reverted to the pre-Cardinals Nunez and is now a baseball vagabond.
2006: Among the veteran NRIs I considered to have the best chance coming into camp were relief pitchers Jeff Nelson (right) and Josh Hancock and infielders Scott Spiezio and Brian Daubach. All were veterans with past successes elsewhere.
In a bit of a surprise, Nelson was cut at the end of camp despite having pitched well. Daubach didn't have much left in the tank though he reported to Memphis for 67 games before being injured and eventually calling it a career.
As most Cardinals fans know, both Hancock and the switch-hitting, multi-positional Spiezio made the major league club out of spring training. Each became an important contributor to the eventual 2006 World Champions before enduring personal tragedies.
2007: Breaking the pattern, no veteran NRIs made the team. Coming into camp, Eli Marrero and Jolbert Cabrera were the most recognizable names as most of the NRI pitchers were youngsters trying to impress for the future. The main pitching newcomers on the roster were Ryan Franklin and Kip Wells, but both had signed major league deals initially.
2008: Former two-time MVP Juan Gonzalez (right) attempted a comeback bid that was the story of the spring. However it essentially ended when Juan Gone could only answer the bell to play in the field for one day all spring. I had the pleasure of working that game, Juan's last in a major league uniform.
Like many left-handed relievers, Ron Villone seemed to have nine lives. Coming into camp as an NRI, the then-38-year-old made the club when Tyler Johnson couldn't pitch due to injury. Villone stuck around all season despite a 4.68 ERA, but was gone after that one year.
The big story to close the spring came out of left field, or should I say third base. 12-year minor league veteran Rico Washington made the team despite tremendous odds. With Spiezio released due to off-field problems and Brendan Ryan out with a ribcage injury, Rico enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame. Washington made his MLB debut, but was returned to Memphis on April 21, where he remained for the remainder of the season. He has since bounced around all over the globe, including some time in China.
2009: Rookies David Freese and Colby Rasmus made the team as NRIs, but they don't fit in this story as neither had previous major league experience. However, the veteran NRI streak was kept alive by second baseman Joe Thurston.
Then entering his 11th professional season, Thurston had managed 59 major league games and a .227 average prior to signing with St. Louis. John Mozeliak and Tony La Russa would grant him a full year of MLB service time. That included 307 plate appearances to which Thurston responded with a very consistent .225 average. He was outrighted after the season and spent 2010 in Triple-A with the Braves.
2010: For only the second time in this six-year period, not a single veteran NRI made the Cardinals out of spring training.
Left-handed pitcher Rich Hill lasted the longest in camp, but did not pitch well enough to make the team. That was especially the case since he was competing with Jaime Garcia and Kyle McClellan. An ineffective Hill would move to relief with Memphis before his June release.
The chances of former major league infielder Ruben Gotay making St. Louis' roster effectively ended when veteran infielder Felipe Lopez was signed on February 26. The 27-year-old Gotay wasn't cheated out of a job as he batted just .200 on the spring, but at least that included a walk-off home run against the Mets. He would spend the entire season in Memphis in the Junior Spivey memorial role despite posting an on-base percentage of .410.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Selected TCN content appears at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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