Josh Hamilton Highlights 4 Non-Roster Invites to Watch at Spring Training
Spring training is right around the corner. A new year brings new questions and a few high-profile position battles to keep an eye on throughout the spring. There will also be players fighting for a roster spot, invited to camp as a non-roster invitee.
You smell that? Spring is in the air. Pitchers and catchers are reporting. The pop of baseballs hitting the mitt fills the Florida and Arizona air. Baseball is back.
For some players, it may be their last spring training.
Mike Axisa of CBS Sports recently took a look at one NRI from each team worth watching. That’s an exhausting 30-player list, and quite frankly, not all of them need to have eyes kept on them.
Instead, we’ll look at four players that could legitimately break spring training on the big league roster. It’s not uncommon, and with many of the veterans on a minor league deal, it’s quite the investment.
Missing from this list will be younger prospects that do not have a serious shot at their respective big league rosters. Everyone wants to see how Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres will do. People should also realize that they have no serious shot at making the Opening Day roster. While they may provide some excitement watching them compete with the big boys, they are both at least a year away, if not more.
Here, the focus will be a few crafty veterans looking for one last chance. Three are former high-profile All-Stars, and one hasn’t been heard from in half a decade. They all have one thing in common.
If they don’t make the roster out of spring training, it’s likely they won’t make a roster ever again.
(All of the players were picked based on the most updated non-roster invites listed on MLB.com.)
Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers, OF
Hamilton was one of the feel-good stories of MLB, battling addiction to become one of the elite players in the league. He peaked during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, winning an American League Most Valuable Player award and taking the Texas Rangers to back-to-back World Series. His success translated into one of the biggest deals in MLB history with the Los Angeles Angels.
He played one full season with the Angels before the wheels came off. First came the injuries. Then came the infamous 2014 American League Division Series in which he went 0-for-13. Then came the relapse. The past three seasons have seen Hamilton play a total of 139 games, missing the entire 2016 season.
The Angels traded Hamilton back to the Rangers, who would eventually release him in August of last year.
Now 35, this is likely Hamilton’s last chance. Should he prove to be truly as healthy as he claims he is, there is certainly room on the roster for him. If Hamilton can get back to 75 percent of his former self, the Rangers have a fourth outfielder of which other teams would be envious.
Jimmy Rollins, San Francisco Giants, SS
Like Hamilton, Rollins is a former MVP who was a key cog in back-to-back World Series runs. Unlike Hamilton, Rollins picked up a ring.
Rollins was among the premier shortstops in baseball for more than a decade. He utilized all of the traditional five tools well. Rollins blended a rare combination of double-digit home run power and elite speed to become a run-scoring machine throughout the 2000s.
The Phillies captain was one of the hardest to strike out in the game, a talent not soon forgotten in today’s MLB. He struck out 11.5 percent of the time from 2001 to 2010, walking seven percent of the time over the same span. That’s a ratio of a top-notch contact hitter.
He formed one of the most dynamic double-play combos at the plate and in the field. He teamed his Gold Glove defense — an award he won four times — with Chase Utley. Together they were a nightmare atop the order, setting the table for one of the bigger offenses of its day.
The Phillies parted ways with their fan favorite in 2015, trading him to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was a shell of his former self, slashing .224/.285/.358 with 13 home runs and 12 steals in 20 chances. He and Utley were reunited later that year. Utley would stay, and Rollins would move on to the Chicago White Sox. He appeared in just 41 games before being released in June with no other suitors coming to call before season’s end.
Wily Mo Pena, Cleveland Indians, OF
That’s no typo. The three-time top-100 prospect is making one last stab at a career in the big leagues. Despite not playing in a single Major League Baseball game since 2011, the Indians felt he deserved one last shot. It’s quite possible Mike Chernoff watched Major League right before considering this a good idea.
Pena came to the bigs with lofty aspirations of being a great power hitter. He exploded onto the scene in his first full season with the Reds a year after Baseball America named him MLB’s 87th-best prospect. He slashed .259/.316/.527 with 26 home runs.
The problem with Pena was that he was much like Pedro Cerrano (second Major League reference in three paragraphs). He had no command of the strike zone and was an aggressive free-swinger, striking out 30 percent of the time during that 2004 debut and walking just six percent of the time. Pena was worse at the plate the following season, striking out 35 percent of the time while maintaining the same walk rate.
That would become Pena’s calling card. Highlight reel home run power, but an inability to lay off the breaking stuff would plague him as he played for four more teams with little success. He left MLB in 2011 and played in Japan until 2015. Now, he is back for one more shot.
It’s tough to see where Pena fits in with the Indians. Their outfield played reasonably well last year and has Greg Allen and Bradley Zimmer waiting in the wings. But if he can show his improved plate discipline in Japan was for real, perhaps he can earn the fourth outfielder spot as a place-holder while the youngsters develop.
Joe Nathan, Washington Nationals, RP
Nathan wasn’t simply a good reliever. He was one of the best in the business for a 10-year period. The 42-year-old right-hander looks to settle in with Washington for presumably one last go.
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The six-time All-Star was a menace out of the bullpen for the Minnesota Twins from 2004 to 2011. He post 36 or more saves for six straight seasons, with microscopic WHIPs, sub-2.00 ERAs and double-digit strikeout rates. He missed the 2010 season with Tommy John surgery and didn’t look himself in his 2011 comeback season.
The Twins let him walk, and Nathan signed on with the Rangers. He was a highly effective reliever for the next two seasons, before signing with Detroit, i.e. the place relievers go to become irrelevant. Nathan saved 35 games in his first year with the Tigers, but he blew seven saves and had a 4.81 ERA. He was never the same.
A journeyman for the last two years, Nathan has had an admirable career. His 377 saves are eighth-most in the history of the game. Yet his competitive drive won’t allow him to hang it up, and he is actually in a decent spot to get a contract.
The Nationals bullpen was a mess last season. Jonathan Papelbon is not currently on the roster and Shawn Kelley is slated as the closer. Kelley has always been more of a set-up man than a closer, and Nathan’s expertise can hold things over until a younger arm is ready to take over. That is presuming Nathan truly has anything left in the tank.
If he does, it’s not out of the question that Nathan sees a few save opportunities early on in 2017.