Every team has its core players. The Carlos Santanas, Jason Kipnises, and Justin Mastersons.
But no team is ever able to fill every position on the roster with an All Star or above average major leaguer. They need several players to fill in the gaps ranging from a high-end complementary player who maybe starts at a certain position to a bench player or extra reliever who has a defined role to be used in only certain situations.
The Indians have often had to find inexpensive alternatives to positions and roles of need on their roster. Most of the time those players have come in the form of a one-year major league deal, but sometimes they have been minor league signings that were non-roster invites (NRIs) to major league spring training that eventually made the team and made some kind of impact on the team. They have had some success with these kinds of players in the past with the likes of Casey Blake, Bob Howry, and others.
NRIs are NRIs for a reason. Some are at the tail end of a long career and looking to hang on, while some have struggled with injuries and performance recently and are looking for a way back into the major leagues. If you sign enough of them, the hope is maybe a few stick and have some sort of impact over the course of a season, even if minimal.
That is what happened last season as the Indians had four NRIs not only make the Opening Day roster but stick with the team all season who had varying levels of impact. Scott Kazmir and Ryan Raburn had the largest impact on the field, while Jason Giambi had a few key moments on the field but most of his influence was felt in the clubhouse. Even Rich Hill helped some.
This season, the Indians will once again need a few NRIs to come forward and fill some gaps on their roster. They have 17 players in camp that were free agents this offseason and signed minor league deals with them and received an invite to major league camp.
Of those 17, only seven probably have a shot to make the Indians’ opening day roster: right-handed relievers David Aardsma and Scott Atchison, right-handed starter Shaun Marcum, infielders Bryan LaHair and Jason Giambi, and outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Nyjer Morgan.
Here is what we know: barring injury, the Indians have 20 of their 25 spots on the Opening Day roster set. The locks for the pitching staff are Justin Masterson, Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, John Axford, Marc Rzepczynski, Josh Outman, Cody Allen, Carlos Carrasco and Bryan Shaw, and for the position players they are Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Asdrubal Cabrera, Ryan Raburn, David Murphy and Mike Aviles.
That leaves five spots on the roster to be sorted out, although Vinnie Pestano, Lonnie Chisenhall and C.C. Lee are favorites for three of them. But the remaining two or three spots on the roster should come down to an interesting battle between several other options on the 40-man roster and those seven NRIs.
The key for the NRIs comes down to three things: if Santana or Chisenhall wins the starting third base job, if Carlos Carrasco is the fifth starter or in the bullpen and if the 25th player on the roster is a pitcher or a position player.
Aardsma and Atchison appear to be the best candidates to fill the final spot in the bullpen. If the Indians go with eight relievers, as they did for most of last season, they like to have a non-prospect fill that final spot in the bullpen because they are often used only to fill in for innings and might go days without pitching. They would rather a young reliever with upside pitch regularly at Triple-A Columbus, which is why in years past they have often filled the final pen spot with the likes of Chad Durbin and countless other fill in types.
Aardsma and Atchison both pitched for the Mets last season and were very ordinary at best. Aardsma brings more swing-and-miss but less command, while Atchison is more of a command-and-control pitcher, but either one could fill the final bullpen spot even for a brief period this season while the Indians sort out their younger more impactful options in the minors. But either one making the team probably depends on Carrasco winning a rotation spot and not being sent to the bullpen where he would probably occupy that final spot in the bullpen.
That Carrasco decision affects things both ways as he also impacts Marcum, who is one of the favorites to win the fifth starter competition. Carrasco is the clear frontrunner going into spring training, but while Marcum has battled injury the past few seasons, he has had some success where if he proves healthy he might still have another year or two of effectiveness left in his arm.
Marcum is seven to 10 days behind in his throwing program this spring, which does not bode well for his chances to win the final spot in the rotation. However, if the problem lingers or he struggles in his outings this spring, it is possible he sticks in the organization for a few months and pitches at Columbus to allow more time for him to iron things out. This is what they did with Daisuke Matsuzaka last season.
The Indians appear set in the outfield with Brantley, Bourn, Murphy and Raburn, but there may still be some concerns with Raburn’s Achilles injury that he struggled with last season and the Indians may want to use him more as a designated hitter and limit his outfield play. This could open the door for either Francoeur or Morgan to make the team as an extra outfielder.
Francoeur brings some pop in his bat and a rifle for an arm in the outfield. While he has struggled at the plate the last two seasons, he just turned 30 and might find more success if used in a specified role — sort of like what the Indians did with Raburn last year — to maximize his strength, which is facing left-handed pitching (career .285 average, .800 OPS). Morgan would be more of a speed and defense option and is much more of a wildcard since he played in Japan last season and his personality may not be a fit in the Indians clubhouse.
Giambi and LaHair appear to be in direct competition with each other for the role as a left-handed bat off the bench. If the 43-year old Giambi proves healthy and ready to handle another six-month season, he will make the team given his amazing impact on last year’s team and how highly the Indians and their players think of him. But LaHair is a lot younger and might provide more punch off the bench, especially if hitting strictly against right-handed pitching where he owns a career .289 batting average and .835 OPS.
With the outcome of the Santana and Chisenhall battle having a direct impact on the makeup of the bench, and the Indians needing to decide whether to carry an extra pitcher or position player for the 25th spot on the roster, all seven of these NRIs have a shot to make the opening day roster.
NRIs often do not last on a roster as they sometimes are just placeholders until a team can fill the spot with a more promising young player or make a trade to fill it. But sometimes they can surprise, as Indians fans saw last year with Kazmir, Raburn and others. Perhaps this year there is another surprise or two in the bunch ready to contribute to another playoff run this season.