by Joe Giglio
With Spring Training just weeks away, front offices around baseball are scrambling to fill their rosters with bodies for the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues. Most of the projected starters and role players are entrenched, but depth is necessary. Injuries feed openings on the Opening Day roster -- no organization wants to waste a year of control for a top prospect in April if they can avoid it.
Thus, there is the non-roster invitee. Some come in the form of a past star. Others are the washed up prospect who never made it into a full-time role. However a player gets to spring-training doesn’t matter once the workouts begin.
Here are ten names to keep an eye on this spring. Through a combination of talent, positional opening, and a big performance in March, you may see some of these names in Opening Day lineups.
Rick Ankiel, OF, Houston Astros: Jeff Luhnow and the Astros front office are in the midst of one of the most arduous and thorough rebuilding process in recent memory. That helps explain why the current projected starting outfield for Bo Porter is doused with names like Fernando Martinez and Justin Maxwell. Ankiel can supply some pop and defense in the outfield. Plus, Porter is familiar with him from their days together in Washington.
Erik Bedard, SP, Houston Astros: It’s strange to think of Bedard as a veteran leader, but that’s what he represents for the Houston staff. Led by Bud Norris, Jordan Lyles, and Lucas Harrell, the Astros lack left-handers. It would also help having arms that can miss bats now that the move to the AL West is complete. Despite the unsightly 5.01 ERA in Pittsburgh last year, Bedard struck out nearly a batter per inning. He can still be very effective.
Hisanori Takahashi, RP, Chicago Cubs: The rebuilding of Wrigley’s team will take time, but kudos to the improvements made this off-season to augment the pitching staff. Acquisitions of Scott Baker, Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Villaneuva got the headlines, but keep an eye on the only left-handed reliever in the Cubs' pen aside from James Russell. Takahashi owns a 3.97 ERA in three years of work since coming over from Japan.
Scott Kazmir, SP, Cleveland Indians: It’s a long shot, but one worth taking for Cleveland. New manager Terry Francona knows him very well from their AL East days. Kazmir -- still only 29 -- can beat out Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Corey Kluber for an early season rotation spot if he’s healthy. More likely, he’ll need an injury or two to crack the team. Yes, he owns a 5.54 ERA in 299 IP since 2009. Cleveland is hoping the guy who posted a 3.51 ERA and struck out nearly ten batters per nine innings pitched from 2005-2008 can find himself this spring to push the young arms in the system.
Scott Atchison, RP, New York Mets: It’s not often that a veteran pitcher coming off of a season in which he posted a 1.52 ERA would be willing to accept a spring-training invite. Luckily for Sandy Alderson and the Mets front office, Atchison fit that mold exactly. The market never generated for the 36-year-old righty due to concerns over a torn elbow ligament suffered last season. Atchison opted against Tommy John surgery and returned in September after rehab. "Some teams were pretty cautious with the elbow," Atchison told MLB.com. If he feels good, Terry Collins just had a steal added to his bullpen.
Bill Bray, RP, Washington Nationals: Led by Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the 2013 Nationals look like the best team in baseball on paper. They are young, deep, and talented in every area. If there was one spot Davey Johnson might admit to lacking, it would be a southpaw he could count on in the bullpen. Enter Bill Bray. The former Cincinnati Reds lefty has held left-handed batters to a .643 OPS in his career. That can come in handy against Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jason Heyward, and Ike Davis in key NL East games.
Jeff Baker, IF/OF, Texas Rangers: While most intelligent Rangers fans should see the Michael Young trade as addition by subtraction, Ron Washington will still have to fill a versatile role with a right-handed hitter than can mash lefties. Baker -- despite a mostly nondescript career -- has a .498 slugging percentage off lefties to his name. To put that into perspective, Young slugged .370 last season. By swapping Young for Baker, Texas potentially got younger, cheaper, more versatile, and most importantly, better.
Shelley Duncan, IF/OF, Tampa Bay Rays: No manager understands the value of platoons and positional flexibility like Joe Maddon. He’s also forward-thinking and can understand the big picture of an organizational decision. In other words, Duncan can easily take the spot that Wil Myers earns in spring. There’s little reason to waste a year of control of Myers to put him on the Opening Day roster. With a roster that includes James Loney and Kelly Johnson, Duncan can play at 1B, RF, or pinch hit against southpaws until Myers’ clock is ready to roll.
Rich Harden, SP, Minnesota Twins: When Vance Worley and Scott Diamond are a projected #1 and #2 in a rotation, it’s time to take a shot in the dark. Harden may not be a picture of health -- he hasn’t started 30+ games in a season since 2004 -- but he’s only 31 and might be revitalized by taking 2012 off after surgery. If he can keep himself healthy, he can be more than just effective. Harden is often dominant when “on.” Since his debut in 2003, he has the third best strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio in baseball, trailing only Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw.
Freddy Garcia, SP, San Diego Padres: If there’s a sleeper candidate on this list to succeed after securing a roster spot, it’s Garcia. Despite what some of the numbers say on the surface, San Diego may have found themselves a pitcher still very capable of providing innings while their young arms get healthy and work back at a comfortable pace. Despite a hits-per-nine-inning mark and WHIP almost identical to his marks in 2011, Garcia saw his ERA inflate from 3.62 to 5.20 in the Bronx last year. Why? Yankee Stadium. Almost inexplicably, Garcia’s HR/FB rate jumped from 8.2% in ‘11 to 15.8% last season. Considering that he posted his highest K/9 rate (7.5) since 2007, you can make the case that the move to Petco Park could turn him back into a very serviceable starter for San Diego.
Joe Giglio is a sports talk host at WFAN in New York, former intramural coordinator at DeSales University, husband, and baseball fanatic willing to argue Jeff Bagwell's Hall of Fame candidacy at a moment's notice. Follow him on Twitter @JoeGiglioSports and check out his blog at joegiglio.blogspot.com.