Handicapping the 2008 Cards NRIs: Veterans

Looking at the recent history of St. Louis Cardinals spring training veteran non-roster invitees and offering a forecast on the dozen combatants in 2008, headlined by two-time former MVP Juan Gonzalez.

In part one of this series, we looked at the definition of a non-roster invitee (NRI) to a major league spring training as well as the different types of NRIs. The first article focused on prospects and extra catchers primarily invited to camp to gain experience and help out.

This time, we'll consider the potential March plight of each of the 12 veteran NRIs invited to the St. Louis Cardinals major league camp, currently underway in Jupiter, Florida. This group generally has a slightly better chance than the kids to grab a coveted spot on the season-opening 25-man active roster.

These players are the veterans of past battles with other organizations. This time around, they had to settle for a minor league contract with an invitation to major league camp, but received no guarantee they will remain. The intent is for these warriors to demonstrate to their new employer they still have what it takes and earn a spot on both the 40-man and 25-man rosters and the major league contract that goes with it.

Before handicapping the 2008 entrants, let's look at the past few springs through this lens.

Recent Cardinals NRI History – 2005-2007

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. The well-traveled (ten MLB organizations prior to StL) Pulsipher actually injured his hamstring late in camp, headed to the DL by mid-April and would appear in just five regular-season games in total before returning to Memphis and eventually baseball oblivion, also known as the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League.

Veteran NRI pitchers Bob File and Kevin Jarvis, each nearing the end of their careers, were among the last cuts that spring and lefty Mike Myers was traded to Boston in late March.

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. Career-wise, Nunez had been especially awful from the left side, where the Cards needed help, and overall his career .238 batting mark with the Bucs was uninspiring at best.

Yet when Scott Rolen went down as a result of the Hee-Seop Choi collision and ensuing surgeries, 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 and promptly reverted to the pre-Cardinals Nunez. He's now back to being an NRI, this time with the Brewers.

2006: Among the veteran NRIs I saw as having 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 and become important contributors to the eventual 2006 World Champions.

2007: Breaking the recent 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 they had both signed major league deals initially.

Veteran NRIs (12)

Now, let's drill down on the dozen veteran non-roster invitees in Cardinals major league camp. Six are pitchers, two from the left side, with just one, Dewon Brazelton, considered a full-time starter. The other six are position players, of which two are catchers.

As a refresher, here is the scale used to apply against my view of the chances of these players making the Cardinals 25-man roster this spring:

"Out" = no reasonable chance
"Doubtful" = 25% or less chance
"Questionable" = 50% chance
"Probable" = 75% or better chance

As in the first part of this article, I am not assuming any players will suffer new injuries that would artificially create roster openings. With a roster like the Cardinals where most spots seem set coming in, job opportunities for NRIs may be just as tight as they were in 2007. With the exception of perhaps one player of the 12, if these players don't make the Cardinals, they would be slotted onto the Triple-A Memphis roster or be released.

Pitching NRIs (6)

Brazelton, a former third overall pick of Tampa Bay in 2001 was signed as a long-shot bet as a starter. As noted in part one, the 27-year-old right-hander was invited to an early mini-camp with a group of top prospects. However, he was unable to participate. There are range of motion and strength issues in his shoulder that will preclude him from pitching for several weeks. Better find an apartment in Memphis, Dewon.

The other pitchers are all relievers, competing for at most one right-handed spot in the pen and one from the left side, too.

Left-handed Pitching NRIs (2)

Starting with the port side, both incumbents, Tyler Johnson and Randy Flores, had inconsistent 2007's. That opens the door a bit for Ron Flores, Randy's younger brother, and veteran Ron Villone. The latter has a decent record of success while Ron Flores was up and down between Oakland and Triple-A in recent seasons. I give them both a chance, with the pre-camp edge to Villone.

Though Johnson has the longest and brightest career window, he not only has minor league options remaining, but the Cardinals could avoid losing him as a free agent one year earlier by finding a way to option him out for at least five days during 2008. If everyone excels during March, a trade of Randy Flores might be another option.

Right-handed Pitching NRIs (4)

From the right side, the pen looked set as recently as one week ago. The recent setbacks of starter Matt Clement changed things. Now, it is most likely that either Todd Wellemeyer or Brad Thompson will slip into the rotation.

One of the relievers already on the 40-man, such as Kelvin Jimenez, would seem to have the inside track to fill the gap. Due to his versatility, veteran swingman John Wasdin might slip in with a good showing in spring training, but his past MLB results have not been good (career ERA of 5.28). More likely, he will provide "veteran presence" in Memphis. It seems too big of a step for Hugo Castellanos yet.

Former Cardinal Cliff Politte (above) would have received a more optimistic forecast, but it doesn't seem warranted yet. Politte had rotator cuff surgery in 2006 and has not proven his rebuilt shoulder can return him to his 2005 and earlier level of success. There is at least some chance, but it is far more likely that Politte will be asked to start in Triple-A.

Pitchers Position 25-Man Assessment
Dewon Brazelton RHS "Out"
Hugo Castellanos RHR "Out"
Ron Flores LHR "Doubtful"
Cliff Politte RHR "Doubtful"
Ron Villone LHR "Questionable"
John Wasdin RHR/S "Doubtful"

Position Player NRIs (6)

Here's where things get really interesting, primarily because of two Juans, Encarnacion and Gonzalez. When Encarnacion suffered a likely career-ending injury last August, it opened up the right field position for the Cardinals in 2008.

Former two-time American League Most Valuable Player Juan Gonzalez, 38, has the best chance of any NRI in camp if he can just play anywhere near his past level. His power bat is intriguing, though the prospect of an outfield with Chris Duncan and Gonzalez in the corners is downright scary to consider defensively.

I have read the reports about Gonzalez' workouts and the fact he is supposedly in superb shape. I am going to be from Missouri on this one, though. Since Gonzalez was last a productive major leaguer in 2003, giving him any better shot than "questionable" would require a bigger gulp of Cardinals Kool-Aid than I can stomach.

D'Angelo Jimenez is an experienced second baseman and might even have offered some hope for the open leadoff position. Yet, there are simply too many bodies in the way for him to receive a decent chance. It is noteworthy that Jimenez has reportedly been asked to take some fly balls in the outfield. Too bad that area is even more crowded than the middle infield or Jimenez might become Marlon Anderson circa 2008. On the other hand…

I just don't see Jimenez as having a chance because of the numbers game. Two of the three of Adam Kennedy, Aaron Miles and Brendan Ryan would have to be out of the way to reopen this discussion.

Catchers Mark Johnson and Gabe Johnson are both seasoned, though Mark has the huge edge with over 900 MLB at-bats. Gabe has just 17 in Triple-A. With Jason LaRue set as Yadier Molina's backup, Mark looks earmarked to be insurance as well as top prospect Bryan Anderson's tutor at Memphis. Gabe may end up back in Double-A or gone, but either way, has zero chance of making the Cardinals this spring.

Third baseman Rico Washington re-signed with the organization over the winter. Likely the veteran minor league foot soldier was given the spring training invite in recognition of his loyalty, because it surely isn't because he has a shot at the majors.

That leaves perhaps the most overlooked and underappreciated NRI in camp, first baseman Josh Phelps (right). Generally, competing with Albert Pujols is career suicide for anyone, but especially with Pujols' balky elbow, the Cardinals are wise to have an experienced, productive player like Phelps around.

While he can also step behind the plate in an emergency, Phelps is not an option in the outfield. That pretty much kills any chance he might have had of making the team initially. The Cardinals simply cannot afford the roster space for two first basemen. The fact that one of them could also serve as the third-string catcher won't cut it.

Unless Pujols' elbow gives out, Phelps will have to bide his time in Memphis. Though I would like to label Phelps "doubtful", reality says he is "out" in terms of the season-opening roster.

Position Players Position 25-Man Assessment
Gabe Johnson Catcher "Out"
Mark Johnson Catcher "Out"
Juan Gonzalez Outfield "Questionable"
D'Angelo Jimenez 2B/OF? "Out"
Josh Phelps 1B "Out"
Rico Washington 3B "Out"

In Summary

NRI Juan Gonzalez (as well as Colby Rasmus) will be the source of extreme focus in Cardinals March spring training game action. Ron Villone and Cliff Politte, if he can prove his health, could have the best shot from the group of veteran NRI pitchers of making the opening day roster.

In part three of this series, we will look at the current construction of the St. Louis Cardinals' 40-man roster and assess which players might be most at-risk of losing that designation.

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

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