Understanding Spring Training’s Greatest Enigma: The Non-Roster Invitee
In one of the opening scenes in the movie Animal House, freshmen Kent Dorfman and Larry Kroger attend a party at the Omega House where Doug Neidermeyer, the Omega Membership Chair, immediately introduces “Ken and Lonny” to a group of four out-of-place students huddled together in the corner of the party: “Ken, Lonny, I’d like you to meet Mohammet, Judgish, Sidney, and Clayton. Grab a seat and make yourselves at home.” If spring training were a party at the Omega House, then the “non-roster invitees” would be Kent, Larry, Mohammet, Jugdish, Sidney, and Clayton.
The non-roster invitee is simultaneously the most fascinating, mystifying, and unique aspect of Major League Baseball spring training. While most people have heard the term bandied about during spring training broadcasts and can usually spot a non-roster invitee in camp (they are the players wearing numbers typically reserved for NFL offensive and defensive linemen), few people fully understand what being a non-roster invitee entails. In fact, casual fans scarcely pay attention to the non-roster invitees because only a small percentage of these players make a team out of spring training and an even smaller percentage actually contribute significantly to a team during the season.
In order to understand the non-roster invitee, a brief lesson on the structure of a major league roster is required. In baseball, each team has a 25-man (or active) roster, which is composed of the players who are actively playing for the Major League team. These are the players who are available to a manager during any given game. Each team also has a 40-man (or expanded) roster of all the players in the organization who are signed to major league contracts. The 40-man roster consists of the 25 players on a team’s active major league roster as well as 15 additional minor leaguers who can be called up to the majors and appear in major league games as needed. For example, when a player on the active roster lands on the 15-day disabled list, a minor leaguer who is on the 40-man roster can be brought up to the major league team to replace the injured player without any additional transaction.
Any player who is not on the 40-man roster is signed to a minor league contract, and in order to appear with the major league club, he would need to be added to the 40-man roster. Thus, players on the 40-man roster are usually those who the organization believes will be contributors at the Major League level during the season.1
1 This is an oversimplification of a team’s thought process when constructing its roster. There are obviously other reasons for a player being on the expanded roster, such as to protect the player from the Rule 5 Draft or when a player selected in the First-Year Player Draft signs a major league contract. These players may not factor prominently into the team’s plans for the season but are nonetheless placed on the 40-man roster. There are obviously additional considerations that play a part in a team’s decision to include a player on the expanded roster. However, those issues are a discussion for another day.
When spring training starts, all players with a major league contract report to the team’s Major League camp, and all players with minor league contracts report to the team’s Minor League camp. However, all teams invite a certain number of players with minor league contracts to the Major League camp. The players who are not on the club’s 40-man roster but are still invited to Major League camp are dubbed “non-roster invitees.” In order for a non-roster invitee to make the Major League club out of spring training, a player currently on the 40-man roster would need to be cut.
While the term “non-roster invitee” applies to any player at major league camp who is playing on a minor league contract, the players who fall under this designation are not all born equal. The non-roster invitees can actually be divided into distinct sub-categories, and the category in which a player falls is usually very telling about the player’s standing with the major league club and his chances of making the opening day roster.
1. The Prospects (a/k/a the Elizabeth Olsen Category).
Due to her performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene as a young girl attempting to escape a cult, Elizabeth Olsen is considered to be one of the brightest up-and-coming stars. Over the next two years she is slated to star in some high-profile projects (Very Good Girls, Oldboy, and Godzilla). The success of those films will likely determine whether Olsen becomes a “star.” During spring training, all teams invite a certain number of their best prospects (the team’s Elizabeth Olsens) to spring training as non-roster invitees. Normally, these top prospects are a few years away from contributing at the major league level, but they are nonetheless invited to spend spring training with the major leaguers in order to gain experience and receive tutelage from the experienced coaching staff and veteran players.
Inviting prospects to the major league camp is of critical importance for teams in rebuilding mode or coming off poor seasons. The prospects offer the team’s fan base a glimpse of the potential future. It is the team’s way of saying, “We know we stink right now, but just wait until [insert name of highly touted prospect] makes it to the major leagues in two years because he is the next coming of [insert the name of a Hall of Fame player].”2 Tellingly, out of Keith Law’s fifty top prospects in baseball for 2013, all but two of the prospects over the age of 21 are either on a 40-man roster or have been invited to spring training as non-roster invitees.
2 Of course, as Yogi Berra recognized, “The future ain’t what it used to be” as many highly touted prospects fail to reach the lofty goals an organization sets for them.
2. The Veterans (a/k/a the Nick Nolte Category).
Another major category of non-roster invitees are the veteran players who were not offered a major league contract and have had to settle for the “minor league contract with an invite to spring training.” Typically, these players sustained some magnitude of success at the major league level, but are now attempting to hold on for just one more day. The veterans this year include Jason Giambi (Indians), Brendan Harris (Angels) Erik Bedard (Astros), Rick Ankiel (Astros), Ramon Ortiz (Blue Jays), Ryan Langerhans (Blue Jays), Aaron Cook (Phillies), Matt Diaz (Yankees), Freddy Garcia (Padres), and Miguel Tejada (Royals). Sometimes a veteran actually stands an excellent chance of making a team out of spring training (see Giambi, Bedard, and Ankiel). These players were signed to minor league contracts in order to mitigate the risk in case their performances during spring training are not up to par.
3. The In-Betweeners (a/k/a the Scott Speedman Category).
Scott Speedman received a good deal of acclaim (and popularity) for his role as Ben Covington on the television show Felicity, and many people thought his early success would carry over into film. However, it has not really happened. Although Speedman may still have a breakout movie performance, given his age, he is no longer necessarily considered an “up-and-comer” in Hollywood.
Much the same way, the In-Betweeners refer to players who are just a bit too old to still be considered “prospects” but are not quite old enough for a team to finally give up on the player. These players are languishing in prospect purgatory. When scanning the lists of this year’s non-roster invitees, the In-Betweeners are easily recognized as they will have birth dates in the years 1986 to 1988. A prime example is Ryan Pope of the New York Yankees. Pope, born in 1986, was a third-round pick in 2007 and was once considered a top relief prospect in the organization. He was on the 40-man roster as recently as 2011. However, due to ineffectiveness since reaching AAA and his age, he is no longer considered a “prospect” and is an extreme long shot to make the opening day roster.
4. The Nowhere-Else-to-Goers (a/k/a the David Caruso Category).
These players are the guys who continuously get bumped off the 40-man roster to accommodate the arrival of a new player but pass through waivers unclaimed. When the player realizes that no other team is interested in obtaining his services, he opts to re-sign with the team that designated him for assignment, accepts a minor league role, and hopes that the team recalls him at some point during the season. These players are akin to the high school senior who is placed on the waiting list at a college he applied to. Upon receiving such news, the normal reaction is anger and outrage (“If you don’t want me, then I don’t want you”). But, once the rejection letters from the other schools start rolling in, the wait list no longer seems like a bad option after all. Typically, these players are the utility infielder, the fifth outfielder, the pinch hitter, or the long man in the bullpen. Don Kelly (Tigers), Jayson Nix (Yankees), and Ryan Sweeney (Red Sox) are representative examples of this category of non-roster invitee. Their Hollywood doppelganger is David Caruso who left NYPD Blue in order to pursue a movie career. However, when his movie career fell flat, he returned to television.
5. The Quad-A-ers (a/k/a the Billy Crudup Category).
Billy Crudup generated plenty of buzz thanks to his performance as Russell Hammond in Almost Famous. Despite the initial buzz, Crudup has failed to achieve mainstream success or popularity. The “Quad-A-ers” are no different. They are the players who have put up tremendous offensive statistics in Triple-A but, for whatever reason, have been unable to find the same success at the major league level. There is an unending debate regarding whether the lack of success is attributable to these players never receiving a sufficient opportunity to succeed or whether their flaws as hitters are readily exposed when facing the more talented major league pitchers. Either way, certain players eventually are classified as the dreaded “Quad-A Player.”
Generally, these players were not necessarily high on the team’s prospect list or it took the player a longer time to have a breakout minor league season. (Sometimes you will the pundits explain that although “John Q. Ballplayer” put up great stats in Double-A, he was old for the level.) This year’s crop of Quad-A players include Brandon Allen (Rangers), Dan Johnson (Yankees), and Kila Ka’aihue (Diamondbacks). Allen, Johnson, Ka’aihue were never listed among Baseball America’s top 50 prospects despite having great minor league statistics.
6. The Post-Hypers (a/k/a the Hayden Christensen Category).
The Post-Hype Players are the players who were highly touted prospects and/or were high draft picks. They are the ones who made scouts drool because of their “five tools” and were dubbed “can’t miss” prospects. They were once an organization’s crown jewel. By this point, however, the bloom is off the rose, but teams will continue to invite these once promising players to spring training until the players get too old.3 Brandon Wood (Royals) was Baseball America’s third ranked prospect in 2006. Andy LaRoche (Blue Jays), Conor Jackson (Orioles), Felix Pie (Pirates), and Jeff Clement (Twins) were also among the top thirty-five prospects that same year. Travis Buck (Padres) and Josh Fields (Phillies) were also highly rated prospects in 2007. Just like with Hayden Christensen, the fans were told these players were talented, but, despite being provided every opportunity to succeed, they failed to perform up to expectations and have left the scouts shaking their heads in disbelief.
3 Once a Post-Hyper reaches a certain age, however, they may be transitioned to the Quad-A category. For example, Dallas McPherson (Dodgers) and Brad Nelson (Cubs) are both on the wrong side of 30. Thus, despite both being former top-25 prospects, these players are probably best classified as a Quad-A player due to their ages. Thus, although the Post-Hypers may share some similar characteristics with the Quad-A Players, the Post-Hype players are still young enough where a team still hopes the light finally turns on for the players.
7. The Flash-in-the-Pans (a/k/a the Alicia Silverstone Category).
These players mirror Alicia Silverstone’s career. Based on her initial success with The Crush and Clueless, movie producers assumed she could act. However, Batman & Robin, Excess Baggage, and Blast From the Past dispelled such notions. Similarly, the Flash-in-the-Pan players had brief success at the major league level but could not sustain that success over a prolonged period of time.
Often, such players get an unanticipated opportunity to play as a young player and surprisingly put up solid offensive statistics for a short period of time. This provides the team (and the player) with a false sense of hope and may result in the team overrating the player. Two perfect examples are Blake DeWitt (Braves) and J.R. Towles (Cardinals). DeWitt was forced into action as a twenty-two-year-old with the Dodgers in 2008 due to injuries to Nomar Garciaparra, Tony Abreu, and the aforementioned Andy LaRoche. In DeWitt’s short stint the club he posted a more-than-respectable line of .264/.344/.383 with 9 home runs and 52 RBI. However, DeWitt has failed to build upon that start. Similarly, J.R. Towles was a September call-up for the Astros in 2007. In 44 plate appearances, Towles batted .375/.432/.575 with one home run and 12 RBI. Based on this success (and his success in the minors in 2007), the Astros to anointed Towles their starting catcher for 2008. Unfortunately, his offensive numbers nosedived as he hit .145 over the first 42 games of the season, and he was optioned back to Triple-A. Despite getting additional opportunities over the next several seasons, Towles’s batting average never rose above .191.
8. The Never-Weres (a/k/a the Actors Without Pictures on IMDB.com Category).
If you enter any television show or movie into the search bar at IMBD.com and then scroll to the bottom of the cast list, you will find many actors without profile pictures. The “Never Weres” are the actors without pictures. These players are old enough to be veterans but have little to no major league experience to rely upon. Every year a handful of these players pops up on the non-roster invitee lists throughout baseball. Matt Carson (Indians), who is 31 years old, has a total of 166 major league at-bats. Justin Christian (Cardinals), who will turn 33 years old by opening day, has a total of 143 major league at-bats. Cody Ransom (Padres) is thirty-six years old but has only 583 major league at bats. Brian Gordon, who is 34 years old, has pitched a total of 14.1 innings in the majors.
9. The Backup-Backup Catchers (a/k/a the Ed Lauter Category).
Ed Lauter is an actor who has appeared in small roles in over 200 movies and television shows. He will never be famous but he makes his living filling a required role. The Backup-Backup Catchers in spring training are no different. Since spring training involves so many pitchers, teams are forced to sign numerous catchers – the backups to the backups. These players have absolutely no shot at making the major league team and will be hard-pressed to even remain in the organization after spring training ends. Tuffy Gosewisch (Diamondbacks) and Ramon Castro (Dodgers) are two prime examples.
10. The LOOGY (a/k/a the Steven Seagal in Executive Decision Category).
In 1996, Steven Seagal was an extremely popular action film star, and he was featured prominently in television commercials and advertisements for the movie Executive Decision. Seagal’s character, Lieutenant Colonel Austin Travis, was killed off early in the film. Thus, it was apparent that Seagal was included in the movie for one very specific and limited purpose: to entice his fans to see an action movie that actually starred Kurt Russell. Much like Seagal, the “lefty one out guy” in baseball has one very specific and defined role: get one left handed batter out. In spring training, every team invites at least a handful of lefties to compete for the role of the LOOGY in a team’s bullpen. Basically, if you are left-handed and still breathing, some team will invite you to its spring training camp and let you compete to be a lefty specialist out of the bullpen.
Bonus Category: The Recapture-the-Glory-Days Players (a/k/a the Mickey Rourke Category).
Not every team has this category of non-roster invitee (and it shares some characteristics with the Veterans category), but these players are trying to return from a debilitating injury or a prolonged absence from the sport. At one time, these players had legitimate success but for whatever reason found themselves out of the game. Sean Burroughs made the Diamondbacks out of spring training in 2011 after spending almost four years away from the game. Players trying to replicate that feat this year include two-time All Star Scott Kazmir (Indians),2000 American League Rookie of the Year Bobby Crosby (Brewers), and former first-round pick Jeremy Bonderman (Mariners).
Non-roster invitees are actually emblematic of America. The group of non-roster invitees is a melting pot where a major league club welcomes players from many different backgrounds, ages, and locations. This year, the non-roster invitees range from 20-year-olds to 40-year-olds, and the players hail from locales throughout the world. The non-roster invitee arrives at camp hoping to find freedom, a new opportunity, and a better life in the game of baseball.
The label “non-roster invitee” denotes hope. Hope to finally make a big league roster. Hope to hang on for just one more season. Hope to impress the major league coaching staff. Ultimately, the majority of non-roster invitees will not make an impact at the major league level during the season. But, despite the long odds, each non-roster invitee approaches spring training with Lloyd Christmas-like optimism: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”