Handicapping the 2011 Cards NRIs: Prospects

The second in a series looking at St. Louis Cardinals non-roster invitees to spring training continues with the 11 prospects in 2011 camp.

Each spring, clubs bring in players to major league camp that are without major league contracts. The intent is to provide the opportunity for these men to play their way onto both the 40-man and 25-man rosters through their March performance. And if not, they can either report to the minor leagues if under organizational control or be gone.

These players are called non-roster invitees, or NRIs. This spring, 19 of them, almost enough to fill an entire major league roster, are in the St. Louis Cardinals major league camp, vying for jobs. A few have a fighting chance of sticking, others would have to depend on injuries to 40-man players, while others have no realistic shot.

Making Room for NRIs

It is extremely important to remember that for any NRI to join the major league club's 25-man active roster, they would need to be added to the 40-man roster as well. In the case of the Cardinals, their 40-man is currently full. As a result, another player already on the roster would have to be removed to make room.

Once the regular season begins, players can be shifted to the 60-day disabled list and then their spots no longer count against the 40-man limit as they do in the off-season. It is a good thing overall that unlike many springs, here in 2011 there are no players on the 40-man coming off major injuries that would clearly have them targeted to be unready for the start of the season.

There is another factor to consider. Once a player is added to the 25-man, his service time clock begins (or restarts). That has an impact in two areas. First is that once a player approaches three years of service time, he becomes eligible for salary arbitration. That costs the club more money. The second area of impact is in free agency, which can be achieved at six years of service.

This service time issue is another reason a prospect NRI is facing an uphill battle in spring training. A club can essentially "save" a year of the player's service before free agency by refraining from adding the player to the 25-man until at least mid-season.

Also, being added to the 40-man means that if the player is returned to the minor leagues for at least 20 days, he will use one of his three allowable minor league option years that season.

Still, not all players already on the 40-man roster should feel secure. In part four of this report, we will look at the players on the 40-man whose spots might be considered most in jeopardy.

Classifying NRIs

Here, in the second of this four-part report, we will look at the 11 players of the 19 without major league experience and therefore as a group the least likely to remain with the big club come April.

In assessing the chances of each player, I will borrow a page from the NFL's book. As many know, each week clubs define the playing status of the members of their rosters as being in one of four categories:

"Out" = no reasonable chance of making the Cardinals 25-man roster this spring
"Doubtful" = 25% or less chance
"Questionable" = 50% chance
"Probable" = 75% or better chance

I am adopting this system here both due to manager Tony La Russa's well-documented friendship with NFL icons Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick and because frankly, it fits the exercise well.

By definition, this group of players will cluster around the bottom of these four classifications, with no one considered "probable" or even "questionable" at this point.

Prospect NRIs (11)

The first NRI group are the youngsters without enough years in the minors that they have yet been required to be added to the 40-man for protection, but have enough promise to be considered to have future major league possibilities.

The primary purpose of these prospects being in camp is an investment in the future – for them to gain some exposure to the major league side and for the coaches to become familiar with the players at the same time.

This is the time of the year when optimism flows most easily and praise of any player should be heard and appreciated but not entirely taken at face value, either. The simple, hard reality is that most all of these players should and will be in the minors when the season begins.

As one might expect, there haven't been many of these types of NRIs that actually make a major league impact in March, let alone when the regular season begins. Yet one only needs a few Albert Pujolses to stick to encourage one to keep an open mind about this source of major leaguers.

In 2011, right-handed pitcher Lance Lynn is the highest-profile prospect NRI in camp with the best chance of sticking. Five of the 11 are pitchers, all starters. That includes the organization's top prospect, 20-year-old Shelby Miller.

The other six are obviously position players.

Let's drill down into each segment.

Pitching Prospect NRIs (5)

Unless an injury bug hits the Cardinals, their 2011 pitching staff is relatively set. One roster spot, vacated by the trade of Blake Hawksworth, is about all that is for grabs.

Lynn, the organization's Pitcher of the Year in 2009, had a fine 2010, as well. Reports of Lynn having increased his velocity late last season have created a bit of buzz around our number three prospect in the system. Still, barring injury, I can't envision a scenario where Lynn is with the Cardinals to start the 2011 season. I do, however, see a spring opportunity for him to work his way into the role of the unofficial sixth starter, to be kept on the ready in Memphis when injury strikes in St. Louis.

With the need for a swingman (alternating between starting and long relief) most likely the job to be filled, a more-seasoned pitcher already on the 40-man roster such as P.J. Walters would seem to have a decided edge over any of these prospects. Other alternatives are NRI veterans Ian Snell, Raul Valdes and Miguel Batista. Hence, the pessimistic ratings follow.

Starters Brandon Dickson, Kevin Thomas and Joe Kelly will get their first taste of major league camp and should be happy with that. The longer Miller remains with the big club, the better I see his chance of achieving his objective to leap over Palm Beach and start the season in Springfield.

Pitchers   25-Man   Possible destination
Lance Lynn Doubtful  Memphis (AAA)
Brandon Dickson Out  Memphis (AAA)
Kevin Thomas Out  Springfield (AA)
Joe Kelly Out  Palm Beach (A+)
Shelby Miller Out  Springfield (AA)

Position Player Prospect NRIs (3)

Despite fewer "name" prospects as compared to the pitchers above, this is a group of interesting names.

With all the recent discussion about the NRI deal offered to since-retired 40-year-old Jim Edmonds, astute observers noted the Cardinals would be better balanced off the bench with a right-handed outfield bat. This would be especially accentuated if Allen Craig has to cover for oft-injured David Freese at third base.

While a long shot, Cuban native Amaury Cazana has a long history of hitting the baseball hard wherever he has played. That includes just about every country in Latin America over the last five years. Despite a career .924 OPS, the at-least 36-year-old seems destined to never reach the bigs.

Colombian infielder Donovan Solano has been in the system since 2005, but is still just 23 years of age. Having been young at every level at which he has played meant his bat hasn't kept up with his glove. Solano hit very well in camp last spring, but par for the course, can't buy extra-base hits. With a crowded infield picture, expect a return to Memphis.

The third member of this list may bear the most watching of any prospect in camp. Third baseman Matt Carpenter, the system's Player of the Year in 2010, should be in Memphis' opening day lineup at the hot corner. With a combination of continued misfortunes in St. Louis and a strong start with the Redbirds, you never know…

Position Players   25-Man   Possible destination
Donovan Solano Out  Memphis (AAA)
Matt Carpenter Out  Memphis (AAA)
Amaury Cazana  Out  Memphis (AAA)

Extra Catcher NRIs (3) = "Out"

Far less interesting in this exercise is another NRI group, the extra catchers. They are in camp primarily to catch and fire back to the mound the balls thrown by all the additional pitchers named above.

None of these three have any viable chance of making the 2011 Cardinals out of spring training, hence without further discussion, they are hereby classified as "out". They are Nick Derba, Robert Stock and Audry Perez.

In Summary

Other than perhaps Lynn and Miller, who may get an extended spring look, the only real question is how long each of the other prospect NRIs remains in major league camp before being re-assigned to the minors.

When it invariably happens, it will not negatively reflect on their future. It is just simply not yet their time. Hopefully, they will enjoy the ride while it lasts.

In part three of this series, we will look at each of the eight veteran NRIs and assess their chances of coming north with the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals.

Earlier article: "Cardinals Veteran NRI Spring History: 2005-10"

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. 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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