NL Central Non-Roster Invitees - Spring 2007

A check on some of the top non-roster invitees vying for jobs on the six National League Central clubs this spring.

Every club has three basic types of non-roster invitees, or NRI's at spring training - the top prospects who would really have to impress to have any chance of making the team, the extra catchers who are there only as long as the extra pitchers and the former major leaguers, looking to knock someone else out of a roster spot.

From that latter group, a player or two can often rise from obscurity to grab a coveted 25-man roster spot due to a combination of good play, misfortune to another and just plain good luck.

The second set of players obviously warrant no discussion here. While the first group yields an Albert Pujols every once in a blue moon, the odds are still long. In this population, Homer Bailey of the Reds and Ryan Braun of the Brewers are the ones to watch in the National League Central.

St. Louis Cardinals

Originally drafted by the Cardinals last century, utilityman Eli Marrero has finally wised up. After resisting catching in recent years, Marrero has embraced it this spring in his return to the Cards, well aware that unseating incumbent backup backstop Gary Bennett offers his best hope of coming north with the big club. Marrero offers intriguing power off the bench, but last played well for any prolonged period of time in 2002.

Utility infielder Jolbert Cabrera returns to the US after two years in Japan. Versatility is important to manager Tony La Russa, and Cabrera has played seven different positions in the majors. Cabrera was quoted as saying this past week that he is the same player he was before. Too bad, as that probably isn't good enough to take Aaron Miles' job away unless injuries continue to nag starters Adam Kennedy and David Eckstein.

On the pitching side of the house, most of the NRI's are just youngsters trying to impress for the future, as there are already 10 veterans vying for seven bullpen spots at best.

Chicago Cubs

Familiar names in camp with no real chance of making the team include veteran catcher Koyie Hill along with utility infielders Tomas Perez and Mike Kinkade. Lefty Les Walrond would seem to have a big job ahead of him with fellow portsiders Neal Cotts, Scott Eyre, Sean Marshall and Will Ohman already on the 40-man.

With Michael Barrett and Henry Blanco back behind the plate, Hill would seem to be only injury insurance. Ronny Cedeno and Ryan Theriot also seem to have Perez and Kinkade effectively blocked on the infield.

Basically, no NRI seems to have much of any shot at making new manager Lou Piniella's club. Given the $300 million the Tribune Company committed to players this winter, that isn't very surprising.

Houston Astros

Ancient righties Brian Moehler and Rick White will be looking to impress in their attempts to secure pen spots. Same with lefty Scott Sauerbeck. With Trever Miller the only sure lefty, look for Sauerbeck to have a shot if he is effective.

Catcher Eric Munson, who made the team in a surprise last spring, is back to try it again, with Humberto Quintero again in the way. Hector Gimenez, who is on the 40-man roster, tore his labrum, opening up the backup job for one of the two, pending a trade.

But, the highest visibility NRI on the Astros is former Houston standout Richard Hidalgo. If he has any fuel left in the tank, the 31-year old would seem to have a good shot to buck the tide and make the club, even with the likes of Jason Lane, Luke Scott and former Cardinal Orlando Palmeiro in the way.

Milwaukee Brewers

Young third baseman and top prospect Ryan Braun is the biggest name by far among a bunch of ho-hummers invited to camp. Corey Koskie's concussion-induced headaches may not be going away and while experienced hands Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino are on the roster, wasn't Pujols also a third baseman when he first made the Cardinals as an NRI in 2001?

Veterans Luther Hackman, Mike Myers and Chris Spurling are among the familiar names joining the scrum for the last seats in the Brew Crew bullpen. None will have any fantasy impact in 2007, anyway. Trust me on this.

Pittsburgh Pirates

High-mileage relievers trying to catch on from the right side include Jim Brower, Kevin Gryboski, Dan Kolb and John Wasdin. Perennial MLB back up catcher Einar Diaz is present but likely not in the hunt as is the case with former Oakland Athletic Nick Green and ageless Jose Hernandez on the infield.

The most intriguing names are in the outfield where (former) perennial Marlins prospect Chris Aguila and Orioles and Nationals retread Luis Matos are vying for a berth on the 2007 Buccos. Plenty of quantity around, but the quality is questionable.

Cincinnati Reds

Top prospect Homer Bailey is being watched very closely. The club says they have no plans to keep the talented right-hander in the bigs, but you can bet he'll want to prove he is ready to start. Former starter Paul Wilson is in camp and former closer Eddie Guardado is also not on the 40-man. Both have been battling injuries, with the latter not expected to be ready until mid-season. Former Cardinals and White Sox closer Dustin Hermanson just signed and if his back is healthy, he could figure in the Reds' closer mix immediately.

Veteran infielder Mark Bellhorn and outfielder DeWayne Wise received invitations to camp, but I hope neither signed a lease on an apartment in the Queen City. Odds are long for both. Relievers Kerry Ligtenberg and Brian Meadows are around to add "veteran presence". That will wear off fast.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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