KEEPERS: The Changing 2017 landscape—NRIs

Barring injuries or from-out-of-nowhere performances, non-roster invitees (NRIs) to spring training camps have odds stacked against them in making their teams' Opening Day rosters. This is especially true of organizational prospects that lack both an obvious position opening and MLB experience. But their March inclusion can also suggest that their clubs think they're close to being ready for an MLB debut—and that there may be circumstances in which this could happen sooner than later. Their immediate outlooks may depend at least partly on the off-season changes their clubs did or didn't make to shore up the Opening Day roster. The landscape has obviously changed since both the end of the 2016 season and our off-season Dynasty Reload series.

​All of the following names are expected to see their first full MLB seasons sometime after 2017, and none are currently given much of a current playing time projection. Most or all could use some Triple-A experience. But all have talent, and there's a possibility that at least a few of them will provide more value than expected with 2017 in-season call-ups earlier than anticipated. Their spring performances could impact their teams' organization's 2017 moves—and the improved shot at an MLB opportunity increases their immediate attractiveness in KL formats.

 

Rowdy Tellez (1B, TOR): Finished 2016 with a .297/. 387/.530 line (23 HR, 63/92 BB/K over 438 AB. Left-handedness, age (21), makeup, good eye and power work in his favor, along with decent contact for a HR hitter. Critics point to poor bat speed and defense, friendly Double-A park. But .310 BA, 18 HR, 48/55 BB/K in 313 AB vR point to at least strong-side platoon upside. Tellez is getting plenty of spring looks and is 3-for-13 through Friday.

Why we think his PT outlook might improve: ​Despite his power, projected TOR 1B Justin Smoak is a .220-something hitter from both sides of the plate. His first-base platoon-mate Steve Pearce is underrated, but also 34, struggles relatively vR and is always good for a DL stint. DH Kendrys Morales has made just 16 starts at 1B over the past two seasons. With an organization that expects to be competitive while projecting an Opening Day lineup that leans heavily right-handed, Tellez may be in charge of his own destiny. A strong Triple-A performance could result in an MLB opportunity as early as mid-season.

Casey Gillaspie (1B, TAM) and Jake Bauers (OF/1B, TAM): The now-24-year-old Gillaspie has more experience, coming off a season split between AA/AAA in which he posted .284/.388/.479 line (18 HR, 80/117 BB/K) over 472 AB—and a big performance hike vL at the higher level. His pitch recognition and ability to work counts neutralize average athleticism. The left-handed-hitting Bauers has yet to show much power to date, but finished with a career-high 14 HR as a 20-year-old in Double-A, posting a .274/.370/.420 line over 493 AB. An all-fields hit tool and 78/89 BB/K speak to his plate skills. In the early spring games, Gillaspie and Bauers were 2-for-11 and 3-for-12 (with a HR) respectively, through Friday.

Why we think their PT outlooks might improve: ​The Rays brought back perennially disappointing Logan Morrison on a cheap one-year ($2.5M) deal to take the early 1B AB vR. They've added equally disappointing Colby Rasmus and unproven Mallex Smith to fight for corner OF AB with Steven Souza (.713 OPS over 430 AB in 2016). BA-challenged Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham will also compete for 1B/OF AB. Plenty of MLB-experienced competition, but none of these names are rock-solid. Particularly on a club that just finished second from the bottom in both AL OBP and scoring—both of which will need improvement if TAM is to compete in the AL East. An injury or a step-up by either Gillaspie or Bauers will likely give one or both a shot by at least the trade deadline. Gillaspie has more experience, but Bauers has the edge on versatility. 

Kevin Newman (SS/2B, PIT): One of the toughest strikeouts in professional baseball last season, Newman posted a 91% ct% (43/36 BB/K over 397 AB) between AA/AAA last year. His .320 BA may have been higher were it not for a May hand injury and some late season fatigue in his first professional season. Newman's all-fields hit tool isn't in doubt; his power upside is. At best he profiles as a .300+ BA, 12-15 HR, 15 SB middle infielder—but he appears to have the solid floor of a .280-hitting utility. Newman has just 233 Double-A AB, but a 23-year-old college bat shouldn't need much more time in the high minors. His average defense at shortstop is reportedly improving. Newman was 3-for-11 through Friday

Why we think his PT outlook might improve: ​PIT has had current 2B Josh Harrison on the trade block all winter, while SS Jody Mercer is in his next-to-last year under club control, is under a cheap $4.3M deal, is an average defender and has yet to bat higher than .256. The Pirates will begin the year trying to compete in the tough NL Central, but could be reloading and clearing the decks by July. Whether on a contending team or a reloader, Newman's bat should play quickly at the MLB level and will be a plus in the Pirates lineup. If he continues to produce at Triple-A, the Pirates won't wait until 2018 for his MLB debut.

Cody Bellinger (1B/OF, LAD): Only an Opening Day hip injury and some May scuffles following his return kept Cody Bellinger from putting up huge numbers while making the jump to Double-A at age 20. But a skills surge was evident. Bellinger's BB/K grew from 52/150 (68% ct%, 10% bb%, 0.35 Eye) at High-A in 2015, to 60/94 (77% ct%, 13% bb%, 0.64 Eye) in 68 less AB, while hitting 26 HR in his high-minors debut. And Bellinger saved his best for last, posting a 36/45 BB/K and 18 HR in 218 AB following the All-Star break. He finished the year going 6-for-11 with three HR at AAA-Oklahoma City, before posting a .314/.424/.557 line in 85 plate appearances in the Arizona Fall League. Bellinger is an excellent defender and elite glove at 1B, but capable of holding down a corner outfield spot. He's 2-for-10 with a HR in his early spring performance.

Why we think his PT outlook might improve:  ​This call is mostly about Bellinger, his upside and the terrific ability to make adjustments that he showed in 2016. The Dodgers are a prohibitive favorite in the NL West, a division that they've now won for four straight seasons. They have aging but still-effective veteran Adrian Gonzalez at 1B, and a logjam of outfielders fighting for playing time. There's spring chatter about the Dodgers potentially cutting or trading LF Andre Ethier (still owed $20M for this season and a 2018 buyout), and starting Andrew Toles in the minors so they can keep Bellinger. Minus urgency, it's more likely that LA will let Bellinger advance to Triple-A to see how he fares for at least a month or two. But he's a big talent, and if Bellinger is tearing it up by June, don't be surprised to see the contending Dodgers figure out a way to get him AB in Los Angeles before or by the July 31 trade deadline.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.