In Florida and Arizona, baseball players are knocking off the rust and preparing for the 2016 season. There are plenty of new and old players that fans are aware of, but there are quite a few unfamiliar faces. Lisa Carney lets us in on these peculiar players known as non-roster invitees.
It happens every spring training. It’s happened for years, will continue for years and, in fact, it is happening right now. Fans line up at fences. Everything looks bright and green. Bruins’ sweatshirts and knit hats have been switched out for ball caps and sunglasses. They fix their gaze on the preseason drills that play out before them. Having survived winter’s baseball drought, the fans hang on to every crack of the bat, snap of the glove, and sizzle of a line drive. How does Papi look? Is Pedroia covered in dirt already? Sweet! Price’s fastball is poppin’!
“Hey check it out, number 75.” A voice rises from the line, “When did we sign a defensive tackle?” Laughter breaks out in a chorus. But still, no one knows: Who is that guy and what’s he doing on our team? Chances are, unless he’s a huge Mean Joe Greene fan (or paying tribute to his dad), he’s a non-roster invitee and that giant number on his back is inversely proportional to his miniscule odds of breaking camp with the big league squad.
So what are non-roster invitees? And if they are so insignificant to the club’s big picture plans, why even have them around?
A Roster of Rosters
Major-league rosters are extremely fluid, and over the course of long, hot summers, they require many moving parts to cover injuries and keep guys fresh. The 25 man roster identifies the players available to play each day’s game; the 40 man roster includes the 25, plus fifteen others ready to move in and out of the clubhouse to keep the 25 man roster full. Those fifteen other players are usually in the minors, or occasionally on short-term (less than 60-day) disabled lists.
Teams enter spring training with a strong idea of who will fill their 40 man rosters but just who exactly will start the season on the 25 man roster remains fluid throughout camp. Some of the players who will fill those 40 spots are already on major-league contracts and others are on minor-league deals with the full expectation that they will start the season with one of the team’s minor-league affiliates. For example, while Sam Travis is having a gigantic spring at the plate, his place on the depth chart means a most likely start to the season with Pawtucket.
So if it takes roughly 40 players to finish a season, it’s safe to say it takes a gajillion to finish spring training. Split-squad games, extra catchers to catch extra pitchers, and lots of innings that the established guys don’t need all add up. Injuries can happen out of the gate and many teams come to camp with holes to fill. And that’s where the non-roster invitees come in. They have different types of contracts. Generally two-way deals that allow them either to be optioned to the minors at one salary or added to the 25 man roster at an MLB salary.
Some may have opt-out clauses that give them the opportunity to sign with another team on a certain date where better job opportunities exist. And some players fulfill their role in spring training and are politely thanked and sent on their way. Maybe they’ll hook on somewhere else. Maybe it’s time for them to finally accept the hard truth regarding their baseball future.
You Are Hereby Invited – RSVP Required
Given the diversity of a team’s needs for the non-roster invitee, it’s not surprising that there are many ways a player can end up there. It can even be a positive, exciting time for a prospect, as many a successful career begins with that first non-roster invitation to spring training. It seems eons ago, but in 2006 some smallish dude with too big a swing spent his first major-league camp as a non-roster invite. Awkward moments have happened as the non-roster invitee is photographed next to the veteran player he may soon replace.
There’s talk of mentorships, and while he knows that it’s part of his job to pass along his knowledge and experience, the vet’s gotta be seething just a bit. And while the young guy might honestly speak of his Opening Day fate, he secretly dreams of skipping the minor-league bus routes and flying directly north to the bigs. Most don’t, but there are some who are able to catch the manager’s eye and when an in-season need occurs, and needs will most certainly occur, they find themselves first in line for a call up.
Timing can have a lot to do with it too. If during a contract year, a player at the end of his contract gets seriously injured or injured enough to end his season on the DL, he could find himself not just rehabbing, but spending the offseason scrambling for a job. Sometimes a pedigreed player can land a pillow deal and his career goes on as planned. Lesser-known commodities may have to accept a non-roster invite to prove they’re healthy and still capable of handling a major-league position.
Another type of non-roster invitee is the veteran whose name everyone recognizes but whose best days are clearly behind him. He hopes to catch on and ride the bench, or play a role as a spot starter, mop-up guy outta the pen, or maybe even a platoon partner. And most fans won’t admit it, but deep down inside they hope the decline was a fluke and an offseason of rest and a change of scenery is all that was needed for the player to rebound and play at an awesome level again. And baseball being baseball, streaks happen. Guys get hot in spring and look really good against mediocre fastballs. Injuries pop up at the opportune time, or for some reason the AAA guy who was expected to break camp with the major-league team is just not ready. But these comeback stories rarely go far. Major-league pitchers find their offspeed grips, fastballs heat up and the vet suddenly looks overmatched. But hey, at least we got a photo of THAT guy in our uniform.
Next Up On The Miracle Tour
In 2016, some familiar names looking to make good on various MLB non-roster invites are old friends Bronson Arroyo (Nationals), Craig Breslow (Marlins), and Will Middlebrooks (Brewers). It’s hard not to root for them just a bit. Each one of them participated in a championship season for the Sox but now finds himself scrapin’ for work. But such is the plight of the typical non-roster invitee. There’s no telling where each of their stories will take them this season, we just know it will take them somewhere and quite possibly some hard decisions lie ahead. That’s just how it goes in a young man’s game.
Part 2 of our look at non-roster invitees will look at each of the Red Sox 2016 players and present what may or may not be their realistic chances to make the major-league team.
Lisa Carney has written about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, Pedro Martinez, and a Dustin Pedroia trade.
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