Now Batting, Number 73. . .
While the big names and hot prospects are subjected to the intense media scrutiny and fan adulation of spring training, dozens of players from former All-Stars to obscure minor league lifers are scratching and clawing for one more shot at the majors or the consolation prize of another year in AAA.
In most cases, these non-roster players are guaranteed nothing but living expenses and a brief opportunity to show their stuff. In many cases, the fate of journeymen are determined before exhibition games begin. They were signed to spend five months in Omaha, Ottawa or Fresno, or as a cheap insurance policy in case a low-cost roster spot needs to be filled.
Their lowly status as the untouchable caste of spring training is reinforced by jerseys numbered anywhere from the low 60s to the upper 80s. Some of us who habitually pull for the underdog are drawn to this side of baseball. In 2007, two AAA graybeards actually made the Opening Day roster and enjoyed their first full seasons in the Show.
Jason Wood spent the season as a pinch-hitter and reserve infielder with the Marlins, while Jamie Burke backed up catcher Kenji Johjima for the Mariners. Wood was 37 when the season ended (he turned 38 in December), and Burke is a fuzzy-cheeked kid of 36.
Wood delivered 26 RBI with just 28 hits (117 ABs, .239), while Burke hit .301 (34 for 113) behind the durable Johjima. Both players are back with the same teams this year, something that doesn't happen much to older baseball vagabonds.
So who are some of this year's non-roster hopefuls? Perhaps a few of these veteran position players will get one more taste of life at the major league level in 2008.
Tim Raines Jr. is in camp with the Diamondbacks. The switch-hitter's strong 2007 performance at Round Rock (.333, 11 HR, 49 RBI in 285 at-bats, 21 for 23 in SB) wasn't rewarded with a call-up to Houston. Raines last appeared in the majors in 2004. He is a .213 hitter (34 for 160 in 75 games) over parts of three seasons with the Orioles.
Javy Lopez is attempting a comeback at age 37 with the Braves. Former hot prospect Joe Borchard is also in camp.
With 1242 career minor league games and 1216 hits (.276), Luis Figueroa has more than a decade of professional experience. His major league time - 18 games and 16 ABs (2 hits, .125) - with the Pirates, Blue Jays and Giants - is minimal. Figueroa would be ecstatic to get the major league minimum from the Cubs.
Journeymen Jolbert Cabrera, Paul Bako and Andy Green could end up in Louisville if they don't make it with the Reds. Slugger Craig Wilson is one home run away from the 100 mark.
Former everyday players Marcus Giles and Scott Podsednik aim to leave camp with the Rockies. Jorge Cantu should have a job with the Marlins, while John Gall and Jorge Piedra compete for a bench spot. Jose Cruz Jr. hopes the Astros become his eighth major league stop, while Lance Niekro and David Newhan are also non-roster invitees.
AAA frequent flyers George Lombard and Danny Ardoin are with the Dodgers, as is former Blue Jay John-Ford Griffin. Former All-Star third baseman Fernando Tatis is attempting a comeback with the Mets, where Raul Casanova is also in camp.
Jorge Velandia raised his lifetime average from .151 to .188 during a September call-up with the Rays. The Pirates also invited 36-year old Jose Macias to compete with Velandia for a job in Pittsburgh or Indianapolis.
Oft-injured Juan Gonzalez hasn't appeared in the majors since a single 2005 at-bat, and the 38-year old former two-time MVP is trying to make it back to the bigs with the Cardinals. D'Angelo Jimenez is another non-roster prospect. The Padres are trying out Jeff Davanon and Jody Gerut as reserve outfielders, while the Nationals hope infielder Antonio Perez will bounce back from a horrendous 2006 season (10 for 98, .102, 44 Ks) with the A's.
Catcher Ben Davis hasn't appeared in the majors since 2004. Former Twins backstop Chris Heintz will compete with Davis for a job with the Orioles. Keith Ginter, Joe Thurston and Bobby Kielty may be ticketed for Rhode Island (Pawtucket), but they are aiming for Fenway Park.
All or nothing slugger Brad Eldred and Jeff Liefer are wearing White Sox pinstripes this spring. After eight minor league seasons, Aaron Herr hopes to make his major league debut with the Indians. Hitting .389 (35 for 90) didn't put Timo Perez on the Tigers 40-man roster. Quebec City native Maxim St. Pierre has toiled behind the plate in the minors since 1997.
Ken Huckaby has spent at least part of every season in AAA since 1995. The 37-year old catcher hopes to make the Royals his sixth major league team. Former Blue Jays infielder Howie Clark has a non-roster invitation with the Twins. Cody Ransom, Jason Lane and Chris Woodward want to become Yankees. Non-roster signee Mike Sweeney appears to have good shot to stick with Oakland as a part-time DH/1B and mentor for younger players.
Veteran Mike Difelice is in camp with the Rays along with .298 lifetime hitter John Rodriguez. Adam Melhuse and Chris Shelton could split time between Oklahoma and the Rangers, while former All-Star Edgardo Alfonzo is attempting a comeback with Texas. Former Cardinals and Indians infielder Hector Luna may get to spend the season in Toronto.
The odds are usually long, but don't say that to the 2008 crop of non-roster hopefuls. A strong showing in March or an injury or two could put one or more of these longshots on a major league roster by Opening Day.