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The NRIs: Minor moves could have major impact

The NRIs: Minor moves could have major impact
February 17, 2013
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Scott Kazmir, Jason Giambi, Matt Capps, Ryan Rayburn, Ben Francisco, Diasuke Matsuzaka, Rich Hill and Jeremy Hermida.

The above list represents some of the players coming to camp with the Indians on minor league contracts to seek a roster spot. All things considered, the team has had quite a haul of non-roster invitees this offseason. Kazmir, Giambi, and Capps are former All-Stars. Hill and Hermida were once highly regarded players who are trying to regain traction. Hill’s career numbers against left-handed hitters (.206/.323/.342) are particularly interesting.

Matsuzaka should be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and his peripheral numbers from last year show promise. Raburn was a consistent utility player for the Tigers for a couple years until the bottom fell out in 2012. Francisco, a former Indian, has fallen off a bit over the past two seasons but was a solid fourth outfielder in years prior. It’s true; these guys don’t inspire much confidence at this point in their careers. After all, there is a reason they are non-roster invites. However, that doesn’t mean they’re not important. I consider these signings upside-only.

It’s important to remember though that these players don’t cost the team anything. They are essentially free chances to bring players to camp and see if they can bring anything to the table. You’re bringing in players who are motivated for a chance, for some a last chance, to make a team. These are guys who will push youngsters and less established veterans and create competition during spring training, which is never a bad thing. If it doesn’t work out then they’re sent on their way without anything lost. For some that show enough, but don’t make the final roster, they’re able to provide depth at AAA.

These are things that have been essential for the Indians in the past.

In recent years, the Indians have broken camp with players originally signed to minor league contracts like Jack Hannahan, Jose Lopez, Travis Buck, Adam Everett, Dan Wheeler, Shelley Duncan, Jamey Wright, Justin Germano and Austin Kearns. Quite a few others have accepted assignment to AAA and made their way onto the active roster during the season. The most successful non-roster invite the Indians have had was Casey Blake in 2003, which they parlayed into Carlos Santana after five seasons. Another success, Austin Kearns, was traded for Zach McAllister in 2010.

This year isn’t unlike any other. Even with the free agent additions there are still roster spots open for competition. The difference this year will be that it’s not quite as essential for the team to find NRI’s that can contribute meaningful at-bats and innings. Even better than that, the talent pool of NRI’s for the spots that are open is as good as I can ever remember. With these players in the mix the Indians open spots in the rotation, bullpen, and bench are going to be interesting storylines during spring training.

Will any of them actually break camp with the Indians though?

The signing of Michael Bourn would seem to damage Giambi’s chances considerably. Two bench spots, Mike Aviles and Lou Marson, would seem to be set leaving only two more bench spots up for grabs. With the positional flexibility of Michael Brantley, Drew Stubbs, Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, and Aviles, the Indians can configure those spots however they see fit, but it’s doubtful they use it on a player as limited as Giambi. If he shows power in camp I may need to revisit that statement, but that’s the beauty of non-roster invites.

Considering the team doesn’t currently have a fourth outfielder (not counting Swisher’s flexibility), it’s likely that at least one of the Indians remaining bench spots goes to an outfielder. Francisco, Hermida, Raburn, Ezequiel Carrera, and Tim Fedroff would make up the contingent of outfield possibilities in camp. The losers of that battle would be joined by Yan Gomes, Chris McGuiness, Giambi, and even guys like Cord Phelps, Mike McDade, and Matt LaPorta for the last bench spot.

On the pitching front, the fifth starter spot is up for grabs and the competition will be between Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, David Huff, Kazmir and Matsuzaka. Considering Carrasco is coming off injury and the team may be inclined to have Bauer start the year in the minors, it appears Kazmir and Matsuzaka will have a crack at the job. I would even go as far as to consider Matsuzaka the front-runner. In a bullpen devoid of an established left-handed specialist, Rich Hill will receive a long look. Depending on how many lefties the team plans to take north, Matt Capps will have a shot at the last bullpen spot.

All of this bears the question as to what has changed that is allowing the team to secure high-level minor league free agents.

Having previously managed three of the players on the above list (Hill, Matsuzaka, and Hermida) and competed against two others for years in the AL East (Kazmir and Giambi), it’s clear that manager Terry Francona is one of the reasons. In the case of Matsuzaka, the Indians securing him was likely a combination of his comfort level with Francona and the money the Indians were willing to give him if he makes the roster (1.5 million with incentives that could reach up to 4 million).

To my knowledge, the Indians have never incentivized a minor league free agent’s contract to that extent. Another reason, as we’ve seen before, the Indians simply offer opportunity to these players.

With the amount of minor league free agents that the Indians have kept on their roster over the years, the Indians have become an attractive landing spot for players looking for a chance to reestablish themselves. For the guys on the list above, they’ll have that opportunity as others have before them. With this crop though, I’m expecting better results.

It’ll be fun to watch the competitions unfold.

User Comments

February 19, 2013 - 5:45 AM EST
Just a random thought.

I know were crowded right now but in the spirit of the "aggresive" style we got going on. Mike Carp. Wedge has no room for him and he might be better then anything we have to fill the Stubbs-Reynolds backup slash lefty pinch hitter role. Giving our lineup even more depth. Has had 30 game hit streak and hit 30 homers in the minors. Was a well respected prospect and is still young. I know it seems like Giambi or McGuiness could fill the role but don't you think there is a good chance we might be better off with Carp?

We could have him play 1B and move Swisher to RF vs tough Right Handers. He could also spell Reynolds vs tough Right Handers and Pinch Hit. What do you say?

and oh yeah. I always had this idea Sowers would sign a minor league deal with Atlanta and come back to be a decent bottom of the rotation pitcher. Guess I was wrong.
February 19, 2013 - 3:55 AM EST
To add, the Indians signed Sowers to a minor league deal two years ago, in advance of the 2011 season. He had shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in February of 2011 and was set to be out 9-12 months. It looks like he simply retired last year and did not sign with anyone.
February 19, 2013 - 3:50 AM EST
Craig, I am not sure. He kind of just faded off into the sunset. If I recall, he signed a minor league contract a few years ago and never pitched for the Indians and instead "rehabbed at home" and that was the last we heard of him.
February 18, 2013 - 10:21 PM EST
Hey just curious...what ever happened to Jeremy Sowers?? Assume he retired due to his injuries and surgery?
February 18, 2013 - 2:49 PM EST
One other thing thats good about about having Dice K get the last spot is then we have control over him this season. Giving us a nice Vet to move between AAA and Ctown if needed. Obviously you hope he pitches well enough to stay here all year but...... it could be interesting if all these guys are decent.

Who does Carrasco take over for then? Do they move Meyers or McCalister to the bullpen? What if Kazmir is mowing guys down in AAA?
February 18, 2013 - 2:42 PM EST
1. I am probably the biggest Matt Laporta supporter still alive but he does not break camp with the club. Its going to take almost a full year of big numbers in AAA and then they might give him a shot at a bench or platoon position. I mean if the does that well they would be crazy not to. The only thing worse then trading CC Sabathia for Matt Laporta is having Laporta spend the 3 years in the minors and go on to hit in the middle of the lineup for another team.

2. I think Dice K gets the last rotation spot for many reasons. Mostly, because I think it makes sense to have Carrasco, Bauer and Kazmir start off in AAA. That way we know we have at least one guy (Carrasco) who can take over for whoever in the staff is not performing. I could also see Kazmir moving to the bullpen.

3. I think the last lefty spot in the bullpen is Rich Hills to lose. He is exactly what you want in that position. A guy who can shut down lefties and at the same be the long man.

4. I think Matt Capps has a good chance to start the season with the club. I like starting the bullpen with vets and then moving on to the kids as needed. With that said hes going to need to pitch very well to keep that spot all year.

5. I think Raburn earns one of the last spots. He is basically your deffinition of an "average mlb" player apart from last season. He can play all over giving us a nice depth guy. The last spot is up for grabs. At this point I think Giambi has a good chance IF McGuiness can be traded for and moved to the minors. Giambi brings leadership and a smart veteran lefty power bat to the bench. If he shows no power then that might change. It really depends on who shows up this camp and who does not with the last roster spot. It should be fun and fierce competition.
February 17, 2013 - 10:46 PM EST
I think Matsuzaka ends up grabbing the 5th spot in the rotation out of Arizona. I know they say Carrasco has no limitiations, but I will have to see them let him go 5 innings in a ST game before I really believe that. I could see them opening him in Columbus, and piggyback him to let him slowly stretch out from 3 to 6 innings.

I also think Raburn and Giambi will grab roster spots. I don't think Capps or Hill end up making it.

Just my guesses. Can't wait for the games to begin in a few days.
February 17, 2013 - 11:48 AM EST
if i am guessing it comes down to about 2 or 3 NRI's. Hill is prolly the most likely due to the fact he is experienced left on left reliefer. another one is either kazmir or dice K as the 5th starter. I would love to have LaPorta force someones hand by raking in Goodyear but that might not be enough to prevent columbus at least for a short period of time.

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