Eric Fryer (Steve Mitchell / USA TODAY Sports Images)

Several among the St. Louis Cardinals’ 27 non-roster invitees to big league camp seem to have a reasonable chance to make the team.

Several among the St. Louis Cardinals’ 27 non-roster invitees to big league camp seem to have a reasonable chance to make St. Louis out of spring camp.

The St. Louis Cardinals came into their 2017 spring training camp with a full roster of 40 players. In addition, the club invited a group of non-roster invitees to augment the group competing for a spot among the 25 to open the season with St. Louis.

After several puts and takes, the non-roster invitee group (or NRIs) currently consists of 27 players – 15 pitchers and 12 position players. My intent in this article is to assess each’s chance of being among that Opening Day 25. I am not, however, predicting injury or ineffectiveness. I will instead identify not only the players’ chances, but also what might need to happen for them to have a shot. Realistically, only one of the 27 totally controls his spring destiny.

Remember that for any of these players to make St. Louis out of spring training, they have to contend with not only the 25 most-likely players to make the team, but also the 15 others already with a 40-man spot.

One last opening point. Even though you will see the odds are low for most of the 27 NRIs, situations can and do change. Last spring, two injuries opened the door for a pair of non-roster players to make the team out of camp – outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker and catcher Eric Fryer - when heading into the final days of camp, there seemed room for neither. After spending all of 2016 with St. Louis, Hazelbaker was lost on waivers over the winter, but Fryer is the odds-on favorite to repeat this feat for a second consecutive season.

Of the 27, I see 22 with no realistic scenario in which they make the St. Louis roster out of camp. I will list them at the end with a very brief comment about each, but my focus here will be on the five NRIs who I believe have medium odds or better breaking spring camp with the Cardinals.

Here they are.

Better odds NRIs (5) Pos Odds
Eric Fryer C High
Alberto Rosario C Medium
Jordan Schafer LHP/OF Medium
Todd Cunningham OF  Medium
Mitch Harris RHP Medium

Let’s look at each of the five.

http://www.scout.com/player/118242-eric-fryer?s=321

Most know Fryer’s back story already, so I will keep it brief. The veteran was expected to serve as depth at Memphis last season, but Brayan Pena’s knee problem both opened the St. Louis door for Fryer and later slammed it on him as well.

The 31-year-old is back and it seems the only way he will not serve as Yadier Molina’s back up to open the season would be an injury to himself. To that end, the club is not likely to add Fryer to the 40-man until the very end of spring training.

That injury scenario leads right into our second name…

http://www.scout.com/player/103856-alberto-rosario?s=321

Few noticed Alberto Rosario spent three months with St. Louis last summer. In all fairness, the 30-year-old did little at the plate, batting just .184 in 20 games. Yet, despite being removed from the 40-man roster last fall, Rosario elected to return to St. Louis for 2017 on a minor league contract. He is expected to join Carson Kelly as Memphis’ catchers in the regular season.

However, because the Cardinals want Kelly to continue to develop at Triple-A, a Fryer injury this spring could re-open the door for Rosario to again serve under Molina – at least on a relatively short-term basis.

If Molina went down instead, it would seem that Kelly would get the call to play every day - though there are valid service time reasons to try to avoid that a while. I don’t know if the Cardinals would be comfortable going with Fryer and Rosario behind the plate for a couple of months if Molina is injured, but it is far from impossible – especially if Fryer has a good camp.

http://www.scout.com/player/86073-jordan-schafer?s=321

As I predicted before camp, Jordan Schafer is receiving a lot of attention from the media this spring because he is unique – a big-league outfielder who moved to pitching. However, the Cardinals have asked the 30-year-old to prepare in both roles. One can argue whether that dual focus might help or hurt his chances.

My take is that Schafer’s best opportunity to make the team would be to unseat incumbent fourth outfielder Tommy Pham. Given Pham’s inconsistency and injury history, it would not be out of the question. On the other hand, Schafer has a career .228 average in almost 1,500 plate appearances over six big-league seasons, so as a hitter, he is what he is.

Another option could be if one of the infielders is injured during camp, which could open the door for the team to carry a fifth outfielder instead. A hybrid like Schafer would offer potential extra value.

However, my take is that if the Cardinals are more intrigued by Schafer the pitcher, St. Louis is not yet the right spot for him. The left-hander has just one season of experience on the mound, and while he was ok at Double-A (3.15 ERA), he was pounded in a six-game trial at Triple-A (9.95 ERA). The best place for Schafer and the Cardinals for him right now would appear to be Memphis.

Let’s not forget about 40-man roster outfielder Jose Martinez, who performed well in limited action with St. Louis last September. At least initially, he would seem to have a leg up on Schafer and any other reserve outfield candidates other than Pham.

http://www.scout.com/player/154794-todd-cunningham?s=321

If Pham phalters (sorry, I could not resist!) and neither Martinez nor Schafer is the answer, another option would be Todd Cunningham. The 27-year-old mostly suited up last season with Salt Lake, the Angels’ top farm team. The outfielder also played for Los Angeles in 20 games, batting .148. It was his third year of partial MLB play, having also reached the bigs with Atlanta in 2013 and 2015 for a total of 47 contests.

The Braves’ second-round draft pick in 2010 went to the Angels via a waiver claim in October 2015 and was outrighted twice in 2016 – in April and again in July. He elected free agency following the season.   

In 99 games with Salt Lake in 2016, the switch-hitter posted a line of .278/.378/.387/.765. Cunningham plated 43, was 23 of 28 in stolen base attempts, and had a 56 to 51 strikeout to walk count. Defensively, Cunningham has primarily been a center fielder, but has also played in right and left.

While Schafer has not been considered a prospect for years, just 12 months ago, Cunningham was ranked the #37 prospect in the Angels system by our peers at Inside The Halos.

For an ideal outfield reserve, Cunningham checks off a lot of boxes - switch-hitting, MLB experience, speed, plate discipline, outfield versatility and potential upside. That kind of pedigree and profile could enable him to sneak into the St. Louis picture with a hot spring - and a little help from others - as did Hazelbaker in 2016.

http://www.scout.com/player/117663-mitch-harris?s=321

I may be giving Mitch Harris the benefit of the doubt by assessing his chances as medium this spring, but he has been counted out before, only to show resilience. The 31-year-old missed last season with an elbow injury that required the new ligament repair surgery piloted by Seth Maness, and in October, the Cards dropped the formal US Navy officer from the 40-man roster.

Unlike the other pitching non-roster candidates, Harris does have prior MLB experience, however. He must be progressing well in his recovery, as the Cardinals added him to the NRI list this past weekend. They would not have done that if Harris is not ready to roll, as players are not promoted to big league camp to rehab. If the right-hander comes out firing bullets from the start and the bullpen has an injury or two, it would not be crazy for him to make the team.

Making room

Just a reminder that every NRI to make the team will be required to have a spot on the 40-man roster. The Cardinals would either have to remove a player currently on the 40-man or place a long-term injured player on the 60-day disabled list. The latter approach essentially gives the team an extra roster spot. Two candidates for the 60-day DL are pitchers Alex Reyes and Zach Duke.

The other 22

We will see much more of many of these 22 low-odds non-roster players in the future, but just not in St. Louis in April.  Pitchers are listed first, with position players following.

Low-odds NRIs (22) Pos Odds Notes
Jack Flaherty RHP Low Springfield rotation candidate
Sandy Alcantara RHP Low Springfield rotation candidate
Austin Gomber LHP Low Memphis rotation candidate
Ryan Sherriff LHP Low Time away for WBC hurts
Zach Phillips LHP Low Little-known newcomer
Josh Lucas RHP Low Has height - needs experience
Trey Nielsen RHP Low Memphis rotation candidate
Daniel Poncedeleon RHP Low Memphis rotation candidate
Arturo Reyes RHP Low Memphis rotation candidate
Robby Rowland RHP Low Memphis bullpen candidate
Corey Baker RHP Low Time away for WBC hurts
Junior Fernandez RHP Low Springfield rotation candidate
Jake Woodford RHP Low Palm Beach rotation candidate
Harrison Bader OF  Low Could be second-half option
Paul DeJong SS Low Needs SS time at Memphis
Gabriel Lino C Low Likely slated for Springfield
Chad Huffman OF  Low 31 y/o made 9 MLB G in 2010
Wilfredo Tovar SS Low Steady middle infielder for AAA
Patrick Wisdom 3B Low Bat hasn't progressed enough
Andrew Knizner C Very low Not played above short-season
Dennis Ortega C Very low Not played above short-season
Jeremy Martinez C Very low Not played above short-season

What is next

Look for my annual roster prediction series for St. Louis and each of its four minor league affiliates coming soon, exclusively for members of The Cardinal Nation.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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