The changing face of Cardinals NRIs – Part one

Non-roster invitees are an interesting sort. On Friday afternoon, I posted at the list of the 20 such players invited to participate in the St. Louis Cardinals 2009 spring training camp. They join the 35 players that are already on the club’s 40-man roster. All will be vying to be among the 25 players that will be the season-opening members of the 2009 major league team.

What is unusual about the 2009 crop of NRIs is not the size of the population. 20 is just three players below the average in camp over the last seven years, but also remember the Cardinals still have time to make some additional player invitations if they so choose.

Opened camp 2009x 03-08 Avg 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003
Roster 35 39 40 40 38 38 38 40
NRI 20 23 29 19 23 20 24 23
Total in camp 55 62 69 59 61 58 62 63
x as of 1/25/09

Speaking of player additions, the 40-man roster is at quite a historically low rate to open camp, at just 35, or four below the 2003-2008 average. It is the lowest total since at least 2002. While the Cardinals could sign another major leaguer or two, they may be holding some of the spaces for a few of those NRIs that may come through in the spring.

Recent history tells us that several non-roster invitees typically do make the 25-man roster at the end of training camp each March. As the data below indicates, on the average two players earn their way both onto the 40-man roster and the 25-man active roster to start the season. In one year, 2007, no NRIs made the team.

2009 Avg ’08 ’07 ’06 ’05 ’04 ’03 ’02 ’01
NRI made 25-man TBD 2 2 0 2 2 3 4 1 3

All NRIs are not created equal, however. Traditionally, I group them into three broad categories:

1) Veterans trying to catch on. These could be major leaguers or minor leaguers that had to sign minor league contracts to get a camp invite, but do it to try to secure that all-important upgrade to a big-league deal if they make the team.

2) Extra catchers. Usually Double-A and even a few Single-A level catchers score an invite to camp solely for the purpose of catching all the pitchers in camp early on. Traditionally, the Cards have at least eight catchers in uniform when camp begins. Some of these could become top prospects later on, but none are ready yet and therefore have no chance whatsoever to make the club.

3) Prospects. Some of the best prospects at the highest levels of the system have been around long enough that they had to be added to the 40-man previously. The others here typically represent the best prospects at the top two levels of the system that are not yet on the 40-man. Obviously, none of them have appeared in the majors to date.

To illustrate the latter point, take a look at this table.

2001-08 Made 25-man 1st timers %
NRIs 17 3 18%

Of the 17 NRIs to have made the Cardinals since 2001, a span of eight years, only three were making their MLB debuts in the process. The other 13, or 82% of the NRIs to open the season on the 25-man roster had already been to the bigs previously.

The two most recent of the three first-timers were not even products of the Cardinals farm system. Reliever Kiko Calero was on the 2003 opening day roster after having been signed by the Cards as a minor league free agent. Last spring, a career minor leaguer like Calero, Rico Washington, made the Cardinals only because Brendan Ryan was out due to injury.

Think about that for a minute. Last year when a third baseman went down, Washington was the answer. This year, it is David Freese and Brett Wallace instead. Quite the difference, isn’t it?

So, what is the identity of the third NRI to make the Cardinals out of spring training with no prior MLB experience, you ask?

That would be none other than Jose Alberto Pujols, the only Cardinals player to have made the leap from home-grown NRI to major leaguer in one huge bound during this period, back in 2001. (We’ll likely never, ever see Pujols wearing uniform number 68 again!)

While regular readers of my articles know all too well, I often use the past to help project the future. In doing so, my ground is made firmer by the long-run of the Tony La Russa regime in St. Louis and in this case, some fairly consistent roster behavior during that period.

Yet for NRIs in 2009, the landscape is clearly changing. As a first illustration, here is my take as to the split of this spring’s 20 NRIs into the three categories noted above. My rank of the players in our Cardinals top 40 is also included.

2009 Cardinals NRIs (20)
Minor league deals (3) Extra catchers (4) Rank Prospects (13) Rank
Ian Ostlund Steven Hill 34 Colby Rasmus 1
Justin Knoedler Tony Cruz 36 Brett Wallace 2
Joe Thurston Luis De La Cruz 36(’08) Bryan Anderson 3
Matt Pagnozzi NR David Freese 5
Jess Todd 7
Clayton Mortensen 11
Jon Jay 12
Adam Ottavino 15
P.J. Walters 17
Allen Craig 18
Francisco Samuel 21
Tyler Herron 25
NR = not ranked Fernando Salas 31

As you can see, 13 of the 20 2009 NRIs are legitimate top prospects and even two of the extra catchers made my personal top 40 ranking this year. One other, Luis De La Cruz, only fell off this time due to an injury-ruined 2008.

This is a very different dynamic from past seasons. For example, let’s look at the NRI list from just 12 months ago.

2008 Cardinals NRIs (29)
Minor league deals (11) Extra catchers (5) Rank Prospects (13) Rank
D’Angelo Jimenez Nick Derba NR Colby Rasmus 1
Josh Phelps Gabe Johnson NR Jaime Garcia 2
Rico Washington Matt Pagnozzi NR Bryan Anderson 3
Mark Johnson Brandon Yarbrough NR Chris Perez 4
Dewon Brazelton David Carpenter NR Adam Ottavino 5
Hugo Castellanos Clayton Mortensen 6
Ron Flores Tyler Herron 7
Cliff Politte David Freese 11a
John Wasdin Mitchell Boggs 16
Ron Villone P.J. Walters 17
Juan Gonzalez Stuart Pomeranz 23
Nick Stavinoha 25
NR = not ranked Amaury Marti NR

Starting on the right, the 2008 NRI prospect list is of the same length (13 players) as 2009 and they are pretty comparable in terms of prospect ranking. Yet, none of the extra catchers made my 2008 top 40 prospect list.

The primary difference between the 29 NRIs last year and the 20 this year is in the veteran minor league free agent column on the left. Gone this time are the journeyman roster fillers clearly destined for Triple-A Memphis.

Take a good look at the names of those 11 2008 NRIs. With the exception of Ron Villone, who made the big league club out of camp because Tyler Johnson couldn’t answer the bell, none of these players contributed to the 2008 Cardinals.

I submit that with the improving Cardinals prospect pipeline, the 2009 Memphis Redbirds will be a competitive team even without the John Wasdins and D’Angelo Jimenez’s on the roster.

Even better yet, the lucky 13 prospects slated to arrive in big league camp in just three weeks should receive more instruction, more innings and more at-bats as they strive to impress the staff and perhaps make their first major league roster.

The cream of that prospect crop, players like Rasmus, Wallace and Freese, just might have what it takes to join Pujols in that very elite club of NRI spring achievers.

Bottom line, I am all for the slimming down the non-roster invitee list for 2009 in terms of quantity and excited about the quality.

In part two of this article, I will look at NRI highlights from past Cardinals spring camps each year from 2001 through 2008.