Giants Non-Roster Invitees And An Interesting Development

Yesterday, the Giants announced the full list of non-roster invitees (NRIs) to major league training camp. NRIs are players who aren’t on the 40-man roster who nevertheless will start spring training with the major league squad.

Spring Training at Scottsdale Stadium

This may not sound like big news, and it isn’t, for the most part. However, every year one of these guys sneaks on to the roster and ends up contributing in a big way.

In 2009, the team signed journeyman centerfielder Andres Torres. In 2010 A’s castoff Santiago Casilla received a minor league contract and an invitation to spring training. In 2011, it was former prospect Ryan Vogelsong’s turn. And, on the recommendation of bench coach Hensley Meulens, Gregor Blanco found his way to Scottsdale.* If there’s one thing Brian Sabean and Co. are extremely good at doing – better than any other front office in the majors, I’d wager – it’s finding the diamond in the rough from amongst the various minor league free agents.

*Late addition: Also Joaquin Arias!

These are all players who aren’t already on the 40-man roster. The players, per Andrew Baggarly:

Pitchers (17): Brett Bochy, Boof Bonser, Fabio Castillo, Edward Concepcion, Steve Edlefsen, Justin Fitzgerald, Chad Gaudin, Heath Hembree, Mitch Lively, Shane Loux, Josh Osich, Scott Proctor, Ramon Ramirez, Ryan Sadowski, Michael Kickham, Mason Tobin, Jose Valdez.

Catchers (5): Tyler LaTorre, Johnny Monell, Guillermo Quiroz, Andrew Susac, Jackson Williams.

Infielders (6): Brock Bond, Adam Duvall, Ricky Oropesa, Joe Panik, Kensuke Tanaka, Wilson Valdez.

Outfielders (2): Gary Brown, Cole Gillespie.

It’s an eclectic mix of retreads looking to recapture the spark, hangers-on who have been in the organization for a long time and are looking for their shot, and prospects looking to break out. A few thoughts:

From the group of pitchers, a few things stand out. First, fans should expect to see a decent number of these pitchers spend an extended amount of time with the big club, since the team has five pitchers (Vogelsong, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, and Jose Mijares) will be pitching in the World Baseball Classic.

Fans might also recognize former Giants prospects Boof Bonser and Ryan Sadowski. They’re both trying to “pull a Vogelsong” and recapture the magic – and the fastballs – they had when they were with the Giants. There’s still one spot available in the bullpen, and while Ramon Ramirez likely has the inside track on that last spot, expect a whole mess of guys to get looked at for that role.

The prospect-watcher in me is excited to see Mike Kickham in camp, although I’m surprised Kyle Crick didn’t get invited as well. Kickham is a big lefty with a low-90s fastball and an outstanding slider. He’s got control problems, however; think of him as somewhat similar to Jonathan Sanchez. He could factor in the rotation in 2014 so I’m excited to see how he does against advanced hitters. Also, Heath Hembree will be a major contributor to the bullpen in the near future and I want to see how he’s rebounded from what was somewhat of a lost year last year.

From the 13 position players, there are a couple of stand-outs as well. Despite an average year in 2012, Gary Brown still figures to play a major role in the outfield as early as 2014, so it will be fun to see him compete with the big boys. Joe Panik is another top prospect, and the organization loves his attitude and competitive fire. I like his contact rate. Less-heralded prospects Adam Duvall and Andrew Susac will be interesting to keep an eye on as well.

Non-roster invitees aren’t front-page news because usually they don’t make many waves. But one thing the Giants’ front office has proven it is very good at is identifying potential contributors among the crop of minor league free agents. So keep an eye on these guys. You never know who which one will be the next Andres Torres.

*****

In an unexpected bit of news, Angel Villalona was cleared to receive his United States visa today and will report to big league camp. As you probably know, Villalona’s work visa was revoked when he was accused of murder in the Domincan Republic after the 2009 season. He didn’t play in 2010 or 2011 and the charges were eventually dropped and Villalona settled the civil suit with the victim’s family.

He was reinstated before last season after suing the Giants for breach of contract, but the United States Department of State refused to grant him a work visa for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear. For that reason, Villalona played the entire season in the Domincan Summer League, which all things considered was probably best for him anyway. Now, Villalona has secured a visa and he will report to camp.

In 2008, Villalona was ranked the 33rd-best prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America. In 2009, he was 44th. In 2009, he was the youngest player in the California League and hit .267/.306/.397 with 9 home runs in 310 plate appearances. He wasn’t a perfect prospect – he did have a BB/K ratio of 9:73, after all – but he was a dang good one.

Things have changed, obviously, but that doesn’t mean fans should give up on Villalona entirely. He’s still only 22, and he’ll likely play at either San Jose or Augusta next year, so he won’t be egregiously old for the league. He has power, a tool that the Giants’ system is sorely lacking.

I consider myself a well-informed prospect-watcher, and I have no idea what to make of Villalona. He could show up at camp looking fit, spend the whole season at San Jose, and put himself back on the map as a prospect. Or he could head to Augusta instead and strike out 120 times. The best option at this point for Giants fans is to wait and see.

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