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Need an NRI? These 5 make sense for Phils

@ToddZolecki
January 30, 2020

PHILADELPHIA -- Anybody else, guys? Phillies pitchers and catchers work out for the first time in Clearwater, Fla., on Feb. 12. Fans continue to ask if the front office will bring anybody else to camp. The short answer is yes, an addition or two seems likely. It is just that

PHILADELPHIA -- Anybody else, guys?

Phillies pitchers and catchers work out for the first time in Clearwater, Fla., on Feb. 12. Fans continue to ask if the front office will bring anybody else to camp. The short answer is yes, an addition or two seems likely. It is just that the addition is unlikely to be Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Francisco Lindor or Mookie Betts. The Phils are up against the Competitive Balance Tax threshold, and they are unlikely to blow past it until July -- if the team is competitive.

Phils announce non-roster invitees to Spring Training

That reality leaves the Phillies looking to sign free agents to Minor League contracts with invitations to big league camp. It means low-risk, high-reward signings, which sometimes pay off (and oftentimes don’t).

Here are five free agents that make sense for the Phils to sign as non-roster invitees (in alphabetical order):

RHP Tommy Hunter
Hunter, 33, pitched only 5 1/3 innings last season before he had elbow surgery in July. The fact he is coming off an elbow injury and/or surgery like Seranthony Domínguez, Victor Arano and Adam Morgan makes him riskier than other free-agent options. The Phillies need healthy arms to avoid a repeat of last season’s bullpen implosion.

But when Hunter is healthy, he is effective. He had a 3.23 ERA and 3.36 FIP in 126 appearances from 2017-18. Also important, Hunter takes the ball. He will pitch multiple innings, two days in a row, three days in a row, etc., without complaint. It earned Hunter respect from the front office, coaching staff and teammates the past two seasons.

C Jonathan Lucroy
The Phillies have infield and outfield depth entering camp, but they lack depth at catcher. J.T. Realmuto, Andrew Knapp and Deivy Grullon are on the 40-man roster. Christian Bethancourt is a non-roster invitee, but he has not played in the big leagues since 2017.

Lucroy has a .635 OPS and 73 OPS+ in 782 plate appearances the past two seasons with the A’s, Angels and Cubs, but it always makes sense to have more experience behind the plate.

C Russell Martin
Martin, 36, played with Joe Girardi in New York from 2011-12, so there is familiarity there. He has just a .665 OPS and 83 OPS+ in 601 plate appearances the past two seasons with the Blue Jays and Dodgers, but Martin is an excellent pitch framer, and defense is important as a backup. Martin tied for 11th last season in Statcast’s pitch-framing metric Runs Extra Strikes with six. He ranked fourth in strike rate (53.1 percent).

To put that in comparison, Realmuto, who won the National League Gold Glove Award at the position last year, had eight Runs Extra Strikes and a 50.2 percent strike rate. Knapp had two Runs Extra Strikes and a 51.4 percent strike rate and Lucroy had minus-four Runs Extra Strikes and a 47.1 percent strike rate.

RHP Ervin Santana
Fans keep asking about the rotation and why the Phillies have not signed anybody other than Zack Wheeler. Philadelphia could use another starter, if for no other reason than it protects the club from injuries. But anybody signed at this point likely is not good enough to crack the rotation’s top six (Aaron Nola, Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta). Santana might not even crack the top seven, assuming the Phils think Spencer Howard will be pushing for a rotation job by the summer. It means any starter the Phillies sign as a non-roster invitee knows they enter camp almost certainly starting the season in Triple-A.

Santana, 37, has made just eight starts with an 8.53 ERA the past two seasons because of injury and ineffectiveness, but on a low-cost deal, it might be worth bringing him in.

LHP Jason Vargas
Vargas, who turns 37 on Sunday, makes more sense than Santana because he actually pitched competently last season. He went a combined 7-9 with a 4.51 ERA in 30 appearances (29 starts) with the Mets and Phillies. Vargas knows Philadelphia's landscape well.

Vargas might see opportunity here, but he also knows he will not enter camp with a good chance to make the rotation -- unless there is an injury.

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook .