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Hok Talk: Non-Roster Invitees

Can any of these guys crack the roster?

Toronto Blue Jays v Kansas City Royals
Jason Adam made an immediate impression on the team last year before disappearing back into the minors.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

It may not feel like it, but spring training is almost upon us. Pitchers and catchers will report in less than two weeks on February 12. It will be a spring training much like many others. Hope and the crack of bat on ball will be in the air. Salvador Perez will be playing pranks on his teammates. And the Royals will have a bunch of guys running around playing with the big league boys who aren’t actually on the team.

An important question you might be asking right about now is what exactly does it mean to be a non-roster invitee? Basically any player who is invited to participate in spring training with the club who is not on the 40-man roster is considered to be a non-roster invitee. If they open the year in the big leagues, they will have to be placed on the roster, usually requiring the team to remove someone else.

Last year, the Royals broke camp with two such players: Blaine Boyer and Ryan Goins. Neither was a stunning success. In 2017, the Royals brought along only one such player, Peter Moylan. Moylan, though he had signed a minor league deal, was expected to make the roster from the get-go, as he had performed well for the team in 2016, and everyone saw it for the roster chicanery it actually was. In 2016, they again only brought along one non-roster invitee, Chien-Ming Wang.

This year the Royals will invite seven pitchers, four catchers, five infielders, and three outfielders to train with the rest of the 40-man roster during spring training. As you can see above, none of them have a great chance to break camp as a member of the big league team. But it would also be out of the ordinary for none of them to make it. Let’s see who has the best chance.

For starters, almost none of the catchers are likely to make it. The Royals already have Salvador Perez entrenched in the starter role, and Cam Gallagher has played adequately enough to be his backup. Most of these guys got invited simply to have extra gloves for all the extra pitchers that will be around - beyond the seven non-roster invitees the team also has 23 pitchers on the 40-man roster. If you only have two catchers, it’s going to be awfully hard for all of them to get their work in. Nick Dini and Xavier Fernandez are veterans of this process. Sebastian Rivero seems to be getting his introduction to it. The interesting name here is MJ Melendez. Melendez (née Mervyl) broke out last year for Lexington, smashing 19 homers with an .808 OPS. He won’t make the big league roster this year or probably even next, but he’s definitely a guy to keep an eye on as a potential heir to Salvador’s throne.

The Royals seem pretty set in the infield, as well, with Chris Owings taking over backup duties there, and Whit Merrifield’s new deal all but ensures he’s around for at least the next three years. Nicky Lopez appears to be nearly major league-ready, but the Royals shouldn’t be playing him as a backup, so he probably won’t be added to the 40-man roster until they see an opportunity to give him some starts. Humberto Arteaga and Samir Duenez haven’t appeared particularly ready for the big leagues though both could be auditioning for backup roles later in the season if injuries or ineffectiveness force the Royals’ hand. Jecksson Flores had a breakout year for AA Northwest Arkansas last year, but he’d have to have a heck of a spring to be considered for more than a promotion to AAA.

The big name among the infielders that everyone will be watching is Frank Schwindel. For two straight years, he’s put up solid numbers for AAA Omaha; for two straight years, the Royals have not only declined to play him at the big league level, but they’ve refused to even protect him from other teams during the Rule 5 Draft. He had a terrific spring training last year, but it still wasn’t enough to get him a second look. If he can have another terrific spring and Jorge Soler or Ryan O’Hearn get hurt, it might finally be time to see him promoted, but don’t expect to see him during the regular season until then. Notably missing from this list is Cheslor Cuthbert, who—so far as I can tell—is not currently signed to a contract with any team after being DFA’d in order to allow the Royals to re-sign Kyle Zimmer. (Edit: Cuthbert cleared waivers and is in the organization).

The Royals only have three outfielders among the invitees. Elier Hernandez and Erick Mejia are both likely just getting a taste of big league camp. Bubba Starling, on the other hand, will be fighting to prove he still belongs in the organization. Chances are slim-to-nil that any of them crack the big league roster barring massive injuries as the team already appears over-full at that position in major league talent with Alex Gordon, Billy Hamilton, Brian Goodwin, Jorge Bonifacio, Jorge Soler, Brett Phillips, and Terrance Gore on MLB deals.

Then there are the pitchers. Jason Adam and Andres Machado have both pitched for Kansas City before but struggled mightily leading to their removal from the roster. Foster Griffin was once a high level prospect who had boosted his stock with a strong 2017 but fell backward again in 2018. Zach Lovvorn was a mediocre pitcher in the minors last year. Michael Ynoa has pitched in the big leagues for the Chicago White Sox in 2016 and 2017 but didn’t appear in a professional game, last season.

Then there is Jake Kalish. He struck out more batters than innings pitched, if barely, while pitching for Northwest Arkansas. But it was enough to earn him a promotion to Omaha where he again struck out his fair share of batters. But this time the punch-outs came with a much nicer 3.34 ERA. He doesn’t walk many, though he gives up more hits than you’d like. He did pitch a complete game shutout for the Storm Chasers, last season. If you like Kalish, you’ll really like the last guy on the list: Richard Lovelady. He’s been a fan-favorite around here for a while. Though he fell off a bit from his stunning numbers in 2017, he was still a more than adequate reliever for Omaha last year as he compiled a 2.47 ERA without a blown save. He also gets a lot of groundballs when he isn’t striking guys out, always a plus.

The Royals’ biggest weakness, especially toward the end of the year, was with their pitching staff and particularly their bullpen. If any of the non-roster invitees figures to make the cut, it will probably be either Kalish or Lovelady. It’s hard to see both of them making it, however, with spots already all but guaranteed to at least eight pitchers and with so many others still ahead of them on the depth chart.

Dayton Moore has made it very clear that keeping guys in the organization, especially pitchers, can sometimes outweigh performance. Without a 40-man spot to offer them, their chances would be much slimmer. It is for that reason that Eric Skoglund’s suspension, while bad news for him and for the team, is very good news for both of the aforementioned pitchers.

That being said, the most interesting battle to watch during spring training will definitely be to see who can claim the last couple of rotation spots after Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, and Jakob Junis. Only then will the bullpen picture begin to clear up as guys who won’t start may slot in there. Will we finally get to see the legendary stuff of Josh Staumont in Kansas City? Has Kyle Zimmer finally figured out how to keep his arm healthy? How many veteran cast-offs can Dayton Moore shove to the front of the depth chart halfway through spring training? These are the questions that will keep us entertained throughout the late winter and early part of spring.