Handicapping the 2008 Cards NRIs: Prospects

The first in a series looking at 2008 St. Louis Cardinals non-roster invitees to spring training begins with the 13 prospects in camp.

In several recent articles, I offered my February forecast of the St. Louis Cardinals' 25-man roster coming out of spring training. Most recently, we looked at how minor league options for players on the 40-man roster could impact the eventual roster decisions.

There is another important area to consider, even before a single game has been played – the non-roster invitees, or NRIs.

Each spring, clubs bring in players to major league camp that don't have 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.

This spring, 29 of these players, more than enough to fill an entire major league roster, are in the Cardinals major league camp, vying for jobs. Some have a decent chance of sticking while others have virtually none.

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.

Fortunately, 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 virtually certain that outfielder Juan Encarnacion (right) and likely pitcher Chris Carpenter will be placed on the 60-day DL to start the 2008 regular season. That could open up two spots for NRIs if needed.

Yet, there is another factor to consider. Once a player is added to the 25-man, their 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 means it 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 minor league option years that season.

Still, not all players already on the 40-man roster should feel secure. In part three 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 first of this three-part report, we will look at the 17 players of the 29 that have no 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 (13)

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 get 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 will and should be in the minors when the season begins.

Speaking of flows, with a minor league pipeline that has not been running at peak capacity in recent years, 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 2008, outfielder Colby Rasmus and reliever Chris Perez (right) are the highest-profile prospect NRIs in camp and the two with the best chance of sticking. Eight of the 13 are pitchers, with all except Perez being starters. The other five are obviously position players.

Let's drill down into each segment.

Pitching Prospect NRIs (8)

The Cardinals instituted an early mini-camp program this spring, bringing in seven minor league hurlers for extra instruction with Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan and others prior to the regular reporting date.

This group included starters Mitchell Boggs (right), Jaime Garcia, Clayton Mortensen, Adam Ottavino and P.J. Walters along with Perez. The seventh was veteran NRI Dewon Brazelton, injured and unable to pitch. We will return to him in part two of this report.

This past week, two other starting pitching prospects were given late NRIs to join the major leaguers for a week or two before they will invariably re-assigned to minor league camp. They are Stuart Pomeranz and Tyler Herron.

Unless an injury bug hits the Cardinals, their pitching staff is relatively set. As a reliever, Perez has the best chance of sticking. Among the starters, one might make the most persuasive argument in support of Boggs. While he had a fine 2007, it was in Double-A. I just can't envision a scenario where Boggs is with the Cardinals to start the 2008 season.

If a starter or a swingman (alternating between starting and long relief) is needed, all things equal, a more-seasoned pitcher already on the 40-man roster such as Mike Parisi or Blake Hawksworth would seem to have a decided edge over any of these prospects. Hence, the pessimistic ratings follow.

I have also included the forecasted initial 2008 destination of each pitcher as projected by our Dustin Mattison in his recent series on the Cardinals minor league pitching staffs.

Pitchers 25-Man Destination
Mitchell Boggs "Out" Memphis (AAA)
Jaime Garcia "Out" Springfield (AA)
Tyler Herron "Out" Palm Beach (A+)
Clayton Mortensen "Out" Palm Beach (A+)
Adam Ottavino "Out" Springfield (AA)
Chris Perez "Doubtful" Memphis (AAA)
Stuart Pomeranz "Out" Springfield (AA)
P.J. Walters "Out" Springfield (AA)

Position Player Prospect NRIs (5)

Despite the fewer "name" prospects as compared to the pitchers above, collectively these position players are projected to start at a higher level in the system in 2008, all in Triple-A.

Like Rasmus, catcher Bryan Anderson (right) is a consensus top five prospect in the system and joined Perez and Rasmus in international play with Team USA last fall. Unlike the other two, Anderson is not viewed as being as close to ready for the bigs. At 21 years of age and no Triple-A experience, Anderson still has plenty of time to hone his skills in the minors.

Third baseman David Freese was the take from San Diego in the Jim Edmonds trade. He is penciled in as the starter at the hot corner for Memphis.

Nick Stavinoha and Amaury Marti are interesting players, but in a crowded outfield competition, neither can be given even a 25% chance of making the majors this spring. They will most certainly be part of the outfield mix in Triple-A.

Similar to Perez above, I don't think it is "doubtful" that Rasmus will play in the majors this season. In fact, quite the opposite. I think he will make his MLB debut long before the 2008 campaign is out.

However, I do not think Rasmus will make the team out of spring training despite how well he plays, and therefore I assign the "doubtful" rating now. There are too many incumbent outfielders, eight of whom are already on the 40-man, too high expectations, a lack of Triple-A experience as well as the service time considerations noted above. All figure into the mix of my making this projection.

Position Players 25-Man Destination
Bryan Anderson "Out" Memphis (AAA)
David Freese "Out" Memphis (AAA)
Amaury Marti "Out" Memphis (AAA)
Colby Rasmus "Doubtful" Memphis (AAA)
Nick Stavinoha "Out" Memphis (AAA)

Extra Catcher NRIs (4) = "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 four have any viable chance of making the 2008 Cardinals out of spring training, hence without further discussion, they are hereby classified as "out". They are David Carpenter, Nick Derba, Matt Pagnozzi and Brandon Yarbrough.

In Summary

Other than perhaps Rasmus and Perez, the only real question is how long each of the 11 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 two of this series, we will look at each of the 12 veteran NRIs and assess their chances of coming north with the 2008 St. Louis Cardinals.

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

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