The Rise of the Non-Roster Players
Opening day has come and gone. Each season 30 major league clubs set a roster of 25 of the best players in the world that will hopefully lead to a World Series championship.
Due to injuries and poor spring performances, each club always has at least one surprise addition to their roster, be it a raw rookie - such as Boone Logan last year with the Chicago White Sox - or a non-roster player who entered camp on the low rung of the organizational ladder.
This column takes a look at some of the more interesting non-roster players who made their clubs out of spring training. Some will be with their clubs this September, but others may not. Who do you think will have the greatest impact on the post-season race in 2007? Let us know your thoughts.
Joe Smith, New York Mets
When it comes to surprise 25-man roster inclusions, it does not get any more surprising than Smith's. The Mets added the 2006 third round draft pick to their major league roster despite his inexperience (only 12.2 innings above A-ball). Not only that, but Smith posted a 5.69 ERA and walked 11 batters. But the Mets saw enough of him this spring to feel he will be more effective than any of the other pitchers they had in camp who were healthy. This spring, Smith had a 1.26 ERA in 14.1 innings and allowed nine hits, three walks and struck out 17. He beat out other more experienced pitchers such as Chan Ho Park, Jon Adkins and Jorge Sosa, who will collect more than $1 million while pitching in Triple-A New Orleans. Injuries to Duaner Sanchez and Dave Williams as well as a 50-game suspension to Guillermo Mota also helped to create the spot for Smith. It will be interesting to see which Smith appears early on this season for New York and whether or not this quick promotion will have the same negative effect similar promotions had on top college pitchers Craig Hansen (Boston), Joey Devine (Atlanta) and Ryan Wagner (Washington).
Josh Phelps, New York Yankees
Rule 5 draft pick Phelps is a former top prospect of the Toronto Blue Jays and is expected to platoon with defensive whiz Doug Mientkiewicz. Phelps, a former catcher, has spent the past two seasons banished to the minors due to numerous holes in his powerful swing. The big question is whether or not he has improved enough to play on a contending team. The quiet natured Phelps may also have trouble adjusting to the New York lifestyle. He is a career .268/.336/.473 hitter in parts of six major league seasons. The 29-year-old has also spent time with Cleveland, Tampa Bay and in Detroit's minor league system where he hit .308/.370/.532 in 2006 at Toledo. Last season, Phelps walked 7.3 percent of the time, while striking out at a rate of 23.8 percent. He batted .377 when he put the ball in play. The right-handed batter hit .322 versus left-handers and .297 against right-handers. Former Yankees first baseman Andy Phillips will likely be hovering in Triple-A Scranton in case Phelps struggles.Sammy Sosa, Texas Rangers
I had the pleasure of watching Sosa play live this spring and came away with two thoughts: 1) Sosa can still play at the major league level and 2) Everyone still loves Sammy. He was greeted with an eruption of cheers from all fans before each and every at-bat. And almost every at-bat resulted in a hard-hit ball. You can't read too much into spring training statistics but the line of .408/.444/.816 is impressive for a 38-year-old player who did not play at all in 2006. Don't expect miracles in 2007 - Sosa is still in his declining years, but he could be a valuable platoon player in the outfield. If Sosa struggles early, it could be hard to find at-bats with Texas carrying six players who can play the outfield: Sosa, Brad Wilkerson, Kenny Lofton, Nelson Cruz, Jerry Hairston and Frank Catalanotto. That said, Sosa possesses more power than of the other five players, followed by Wilkerson and Cruz.
Mark Redman, Atlanta Braves
Mike Hampton's continual bad luck is Redman's gain. Still searching for a job as of early March, Redman quickly signed with Atlanta after Hampton - who was returning from Tommy John surgery - pulled an oblique muscle. Redman it really nothing more than a stopgap and has a career ERA of 4.65. The 33-year-old left-hander should be good for about 180 innings and an ERA around 5.00 if he remains with the Braves for the entire season. Currently, Atlanta's roster consists of Redman, John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Chuck James and Lance Cormier. Atlanta's pitching dynasty is definitely over.
Victor Zambrano, Toronto Blue Jays
Nobody - not even the Blue Jays - expected to see Zambrano on their opening day roster. The now infamous Zambrano - thanks to the 2004 Scott Kazmir heist - had Tommy John surgery (his second such surgery in his career) in 2006 - about 10 months ago. The normal recovery timeline for the surgery is about 14 months. This spring, Zambrano posted a 2.29 ERA in 19.1 innings for a Toronto team desperate for pitching. The always wild and inconsistent Zambrano (382 career walks in 683.1 innings) did allow 10 walks and 16 hits but struck out 14. He was narrowly defeated by Josh Towers (who had a dismal 2006) in a battle for the fifth starter's spot. Zambrano will pitch in relief until A) he fully rebuilds his arm strength and fastball, B) Towers falters again, C) he pitches himself off the team or D) Toronto flips him to the Yankees for Philip Hughes.
Sidney Ponson, Minnesota Twins
It's not a good year to be a Twins' fan, at least based on the appearance of the starting rotation. After perennial Cy Young Award candidate Johan Santana, the rotation quickly drops off with the likes of Carlos Silva (5.94 ERA in 2006), Boof Bonser (4.22), Ramon Ortiz (5.57) and Ponson (6.25). Sir Sidney (Ponson, an Aruba native, was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 2003) has battled his conditioning and engaged in questionable off-field behavior since he first appeared in the major leagues with Baltimore in 1998. Ponson will have to produce quickly if he is going to hold off the Twins' promising young arms, including Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins. Despite a respectable 4.29 spring ERA, all the statistical signs are there for an early season collapse including 32 hits allowed in 21 innings and only nine strikeouts.
Russ Ortiz, San Francisco Giants
Ortiz' conditioning has taken after Sidney Ponson's in recent years. However, Ortiz has rededicated himself to the game and is back with his original team, the Giants, after two dismal seasons (ERAs of 6.89 in 2005 and 8.14 in 2006). The 32-year-old is a former 20-game winner and rotation workhorse, including four straight seasons of 204 or more innings. He has looked good in spring training (a 3.00 ERA with only 13 hits and five walks in 18 innings) but can he really turn things around? The Giants certainly hope so and will be counting on Ortiz to help stabilize a rotation that also includes Barry Zito, Matt Cain, Noah Lowry and Matt Morris. If Ortiz can manage 150 innings and an ERA around 4.50, the Giants could have a very successful starting rotation.
Busiest Bee: The Washington Nationals and General Manager Jim Bowden added five non-roster players to their 25-man roster this spring, including: Jesus Colome, Dmitri Young, Ray King, Ronnie Belliard, Robert Fick. All five players have a good deal of experience and should help add experience to this motley crew in the nation's capital. Of the five, Belliard is probably the most likely to perform above replacement level, although he is miscast as a utility player given that he has deteriorating range at second base and an inability to play any other position with any deftness. Fick adds versatility and can act as the third catcher, with the Nationals carrying Rule 5 draft pick Jesus Flores as their backup catcher to veteran Brian Schneider. Young has serious makeup questions and Colome has never developed consistency despite having hit 100 mph with his fastball. King has had solid career as a LOOGY but lefties hit .300 against him last season. The question isn't: Will the Nationals lose 100 games? It is: Will the Nationals lose 120 games?
Honorable Mention: Former Blue Jays and Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez came out of retirement this spring to try out for the Kansas City Royals. I had the opportunity of seeing Gonzalez play in person this spring during my six-game tour of Arizona. I can also remember watching Gonzalez play his first major league game back in 1994. He never reached his offensive potential - mainly due to his inability to make consistent contact and maintain a decent on-base percentage - but he was an above-average defender with a cannon for an arm. This spring, Gonzalez failed to make the Royals as a utility player despite hitting .444/.531/.593 (12-for-27). He also walked five times and struck out only six times. However, the Royals felt his range at shortstop was no longer adequate (it looked OK to me the one day I saw him play shortstop) which limited him defensively to third base and second base. Gonzalez appeared to be in excellent shape and the year away from baseball actually seemed to have helped his approach at the plate (albeit in a small sample size). I have no doubt that Gonzalez - now a free agent - could help a major league ball club as a bench player.