When big league clubs break camp at the end of Spring Training, they’ll be bringing an extra man with them. And that’s an exciting development as we unveil our annual All-Non-Roster Invitee Team.
With rosters expanded to 26 players for the 2020 season, there is added opportunity for the non-roster types to lock down a job if they put together a compelling camp. Perhaps we’ll even see somebody follow the 2019 Hunter Pence model and go from NRI to All-Star.
To be clear, Minor League prospects are NOT eligible for the All-NRI Team (I guess that technically includes you, too, Tim Tebow). Because then this would just devolve into a top prospects list. The goal here is to identify established players who are trying to extend or recover their careers.
Catcher: Chris Iannetta, Yankees
Certainly there are other, equally deserving candidates to fill this spot. But 36-year-old Chris Iannetta, in addition to having a good chance at landing the Yanks’ backup catching spot after spending the last two seasons with the Rockies, won the job on the All-NRI Team simply because he flew to Yankees camp on a Red Sox-branded airplane.
That’s real courage.
First baseman: Greg Bird, Rangers
At 27, Greg Bird is the youngest and least-established guy on this list. But he does have four years of big league service (even if most of that has been spent injured), and there’s no doubt he’s an intriguing add to the Rangers’ potential roster picture.
Bird has an unflattering .211 average, .301 on-base percentage and .424 slugging percentage in 700 big league plate appearances, but his prospect pedigree and instant success in 2015 (.871 OPS, 11 homers) have a way of sticking in the memory, and perhaps he can untap that potential again while trying to beat out Ronald Guzmán for the first-base job in Texas.
Second baseman: Josh Harrison, Phillies
With 28 NRIs in Clearwater, the Phillies could field an entire roster of non-roster guys. There are a lot of recognizable names on the list, from Francisco Liriano to Bud Norris to Drew Storen to Anthony Swarzak to Logan Forsythe to Neil Walker.
But Josh Harrison might have the best shot at a job if he proves healthy after dealing with shoulder and hamstring issues in Detroit last season. Harrison was an All-Star as recently as 2017, and he was a dynamic talent in Pittsburgh from 2014-17, turning in a .290/.331/.428 slash with 37 homers, 118 doubles, 17 triples and 59 steals while playing all over the place.
Shortstop: Jordy Mercer, Tigers
Truthfully, there’s really not a lot of pure shortstops among the veteran invitees this year, but Jordy Mercer qualifies -- even if his path to a roster spot with the Tigers is as a utilityman.
The 33-year-old Mercer is back in Tigers camp after ceding his shortstop job to young Willi Castro as part of the club’s youth movement late last season. But he was probably the Tigers’ best hitter in the second half (.305 average, .832 OPS in 185 plate appearances).
Third base: Pablo Sandoval, Giants
The Panda of old is long gone, but switch-hitting Pablo Sandoval settled into a valuable part-time role last season, with an .820 OPS, 14 homers and 23 doubles, primarily as a left-handed batter against right-handed pitching.
His season came to an unfortunate end with Tommy John surgery, but not before Bruce Bochy sent him out for one last plate appearance before he went under the knife. That felt like the end of Sandoval’s tenure in San Francisco ... but then again, so did the Hunter Pence goodbye at the end of 2018, and he has since re-signed with the club as a free agent. So both could be back on the roster together this year.
Outfielders: Matt Kemp, Marlins; Yasmany Tomás, D-backs; Keon Broxton, Brewers
Reunited with his old L.A. skipper Don Mattingly, 35-year-old Matt Kemp will try once again to demonstrate he has something left in the tank. He did it in 2018, when he unexpectedly earned a starting spot (and, eventually, an All-Star nod) with the pennant-winning Dodgers. Things didn’t go as well with the Reds last year, and Kemp found himself in Minor League limbo. But the Fish will give him one (final?) chance to prove himself.
This is a sympathy selection for Yasmany Tomás, who hasn’t lived up to the hype that accompanied his six-year, $68.5 million contract when he came over from Cuba and has spent the vast majority of the last two years in Triple-A. He’s making $17 million in the final year of the deal, his defense is not good, and the D-backs seem to be pretty much done with him. But Tomás did put up good numbers in the (admittedly hitter-friendly) Pacific Coast League last year (.931 OPS, 56 extra-base hits), so maybe, with a strong spring, he can inspire somebody to take on a portion of his salary in a trade.
Keon Broxton is back with the Brewers just one year after they traded him to the Mets. His bat is a drag, and it was especially futile last season (.167 average, .517 OPS). But if he can justify his existence on a roster, he’s one of the game’s most exciting defenders, prone to ridiculous robberies and stirring celebrations. You’ve got to root to see more of those.
Starting pitcher: Félix Hernández, RHP, Braves
Devastatingly difficult call here between Félix Hernández and Ubaldo Jiménez, who is attempting a comeback with his old club in Colorado after not pitching in 2018 and 2019. But everybody in the game is rooting for King Félix, who famously has never been to the postseason, to bounce back with the Braves, who have a recent history of pulling good veteran pitchers off the scrap heap.
Cole Hamels’ shoulder situation creates additional opportunity for the 33-year-old Hernández, who struggled to the tune of a 5.82 ERA over his last two years in Seattle, to crack this club.
Reliever: Brandon Morrow, RHP, Cubs
The bullpen is routinely the deepest of the NRI fields and the most likely place where a team might strike gold. Greg Holland in Royals camp is an especially cool reunion, and switch-pitcher Pat Venditte, who is in camp with the Marlins, is always an eye-catcher.
But we know Brandon Morrow has as much potential as anybody. If I remember correctly, he somehow pitched 11 times in the seven-game 2017 World Series. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but it felt that way, and Morrow’s subsequent injury trouble over the course of a two-year contract with the Cubs wasn’t especially surprising after his heavy workload. But after missing half of ’18 and all of 2019, the 35-year-old Morrow has a shot at redemption.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.