Each year as spring training approaches, most big league clubs will have a crop of non-roster invitees that join the guys on the 40-man roster at big league camp. Typically, that group is made up of some combination of top organizational prospects who have had a year or two of minor league experience, and major league and/or upper-minors veterans who are trying to crack an Opening Day roster one last time. Ben kicked off this series with a deep dive on former Cubs outfielder John Andreoli last week; this week, we’ll get you up to speed on everyone else. Yesterday we covered the catchers; today, we’ll take a look around the infield.
The career minor leaguer - Rey Navarro
In ten years in professional baseball, Rey Navarro has had 30 plate appearances--in 2015, with the Orioles. He was most recently an Angel, toiling at Triple-A Salt Lake for two years before signing an MiLB deal with the Mariners this off-season. Navarro is more well-known for his glove than his bat and can slide all over the diamond. He’s also a switch-hitter who is fine against righties but really punishes left-hand pitching, and possesses solid plate discipline. As much as I would delight in a “Rey Navarro revenge tour against the Angels” narrative, he is probably safely stowed in Tacoma this year.
The former first-rounder - Gordon Beckham
A top-ten draft pick by the White Sox in 2008 and widely regarded as the best infield prospect in the draft, Beckham was in the majors by 2009, where he posted a respectable 109 wRC+. It was all downhill from there, unfortunately, and Beckham now finds himself a 31-year-old competing for a utility role in camp, and a cautionary tale for those who love prospects not wisely but too well. Beckham is a quality defender who can play all over the diamond but lacks one standout skill: he doesn’t take a ton of walks, he doesn’t hit for power, and his defense is solid but not spectacular. He’s on the outside looking in for the utility infielder spot, but should anchor Tacoma’s infield well.
The one whose name isn't a typo - Zach Vincej
Jeff Sullivan likes him, Carson Cistulli likes him, minor league pitchers’ FIPs like him - what more do you need? Jeff likes that he hit a lot of balls in the air; Carson likes that he’s a defensively capable shortstop (while at Pepperdine he won the Brooks Wallace Award, as the best college shortstop in the country); minor league pitchers’ FIPs like that very few of those balls in the air left the yard. In six years in the Reds organization he hit 16 home runs, and in only one season has his ISO topped .100. But it’s important to keep in mind that, in addition to lack of access to fair wages, healthy food, and comfortable housing/travel, minor leaguers aren’t playing with the same baseballs that allowed guys like Francisco Lindor to crush 33 home runs (Did you know Francisco Lindor hit 33 home runs in 2017? Do you think Rob Manfred knows that?). There’s a very real argument to be made that Vincej’s ability to hit the ball in the air at the minor league level could translate into an increase in power at the major league level. If the balls lack the same 2017 juice this season, though, it’ll be a real bummer for both Vincej and Lindor.
The local kid - Jordan Cowan
Most recently at High-A Modesto, the Kentlake HS product earned an invite to big league camp this year by winning the organizational “Productive Team Plate Appearance” award. Unsurprisingly, Cowan possesses excellent plate discipline, with a career walk rate that’s almost in the double digits while striking out infrequently. While he doesn’t (yet) hit for a ton of power, Cowan’s most memorable at-bat came this year in the California League playoffs, when he belted a three-run dinger in extras to give Modesto a 2-0 lead in the championship series. Cowan’s numbers overall actually took a bit of a step back this year, although that may have been a factor of the torn shoulder labrum he had surgery on this off-season. Because of this, we sadly won’t get to see Cowan in action at big-league camp, but he’s just 22 years old and ticketed for Double-A Arkansas next year.
Also, how can you not love a local kid? And his equally cool WSU-grad girlfriend?
The elder statesman (sorry, Matt) - Matt Hague
Coincidentally also local, by way of Kentwood HS (get outta here with your lakes, Jordan Cowan) and the University of Washington, but alas far from a kid. At UW he was a backup third baseman and outfielder, as well as a reliever, for three seasons until he decided that he’d had enough of trees, mountains, and natural beauty and transferred to Oklahoma State. Seven years after he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates he was the International League’s 2015 MVP, while playing within the Blue Jays’ system, and immediately followed that success with a somewhat decent stint with the Hanshin Tigers. He’s a 32-year-old first baseman with less than 100 major league plate appearances, and is, realistically, organizational filler. But presumedly really nice filler, whose family love him very much and are rooting for him to succeed. Some people aren’t meant to be MLB stars, just as other people aren’t meant to be prospect writers.
Matt Hague was once featured on a UW media guide with Tim Lincecum, though, so that’s fun.