Sorting out the NRI tangle

The Astros have signed a plethora of non-roster invitees to their major and minor league spring training camps this off season–much more than in the past few years.  I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the 7 pitchers, 3 catchers, 2 outfielders and 1 infielder the Astros have invited to camp above and beyond those on the 40 man roster.  Two pitchers have been invited to participate in the minor league camp.

Right handed starting pitcher Brian Moehler and left handed relief pitcher Scott Sauerbeck along with righty outfielder Richard Hidalgo are the most well-known among those expected to compete for a spot on the 25-man roster.  Ben Weber, the right handed relief pitcher who helped the Angels win the 2002 World Series has been invited to the minor league camp along with left handed relief pitcher Kelly Wunsch.

I took a look at the latest stats available for all the non-roster invitees and a gander at what Rotoworld thought about them.  Based on that, here are my projections for the fifteen players the Astros have signed to minor league contracts this year:

Let’s start with the only veteran starting pitcher in this group, Brian Moehler.  Moehler had a decent year in 2005 (4.55 ERA) after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2003 and sitting out 2004, however, he was horrible for the Marlins in 2006, sporting a 7-11 W/L record in 21 starts and an ERA of 6.57.  My guess is that unless Moehler blows everyone away in spring training, he’ll be released by the end of spring training–the Astros simply do not need a right handed starter that is more a #6 than a #5 and there are plenty of young guys like Fernando Nieve, Chris Sampson, Matt Albers, and Dave Borkowski who can be the inning eaters the Astros might need in the bullpen.

The only other starting pitcher invited to the major league camp is the young lefty phenom Troy Patton, who had good numbers in Single A Salem. (ERA of 2.93, W/L of 7-7 in 19 starts with one complete game)  In 8 games for AA Corpus Christi Hooks, the 21 year old had a 4.37 ERA.  Patton, being a lefty, has a realistic shot at the starting rotation if he has a strong spring.  Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens were very impressed with his maturity and poise on the mound during the Nolan Ryan Elite Pitchers Camp held at Minute Maid Park from 29 January to 2 February 2007.

Now we come to the relief corps–the obviously well known names here are lefty Scott Sauerbeck and righty Rick White.  Others that have been extended an invitation to the big league camp are lefties Stephen Randolph, Kevin Walker and the young Venezuelan righty Jose Rodriguez who last played for the Navegantes del Magallanes. Rodriguez ended the Winter League with an ERA of 3.86 in 24 games. 

Sauerbeck and Randolph are likely to be battling for the 2nd lefty specialist slot if the Astros finally give in to Phil Garner’s now annual pleas for two left handed relievers.  A surprise candidate for this job might just be Kelly Wunsch who was not given a major league camp invite, but may impress Garner enough in spring training.  That happened with outfielder Luke Scott in 2005.

Speaking of position players like Scott, the Astros have invited minor league catchers Kevin Davidson and Louis Santangelo to the big league camp this year along with veteran Eric Munson.  Davidson and Santangelo are both known for their defense and strong arms, while Munson who was Brad Ausmus’ backup most of last year will try to earn that job again.  Others competing for the backup catcher’s job will be Hector Gimenez and Humberto Quintero, both of whom are out of minor league options.

The Astros invited only one infielder not on the 40 man roster this year–short stop Cody Ransom.  Ransom is most likely to start the season at AAA Round Rock and will be brought up only if there’s an injury on the big league roster. 

That brings us to the two most exciting position players the Astros have extended the invitation to this year–top prospect Hunter Pence and once-top prospect Richard Hidalgo. 

Pence is still a long shot for the 25 man roster although Jeff Bagwell and Phil Garner were both impressed by his performance at the Elite Hitter’s Camp held in conjunction with the Pitching Camp in Houston this year.  Prior to his DWI arrest, Pence was breezing through the Arizona Fall League and that performance contributed to his invitation to the big league camp.  The Astros obviously believe in Pence’s on-field abilities to give him a second chance, something they have done only once that I’m aware of–Future hall of famer Craig Biggio, after his DUI arrest in his rookie year was given a second chance, while other players who got in trouble with law enforcement were not.

That brings us to Richard Hidalgo who sat out all of 2006 and did not do well for the Mets, Rangers and Orioles after the Astros traded him in 2004.  He will be competing mainly for the one starting right field position with lefty Luke Scott and righty Jason Lane.  If the Astros carry 12 pitchers, only one of the three is likely to win a spot on the 25 man roster.  The only wild card here will be if either Hidalgo or Lane set the spring training world on fire, then Eric Bruntlett might be the odd man out. 

Scott will have to have a miserable spring to not make the club as the opening day right fielder, based on his superb performance following his July 2006 call up.  The true dilemma for the Astros may come if Scott does reasonably well and either Lane or Hidalgo does exceptionally well and Morgan Ensberg has a horrible spring. 

Would the Astros go with a platoon of Mike Lamb (and therefore lose his left-handed bat off the bench) and Mark Loretta (who hasn’t played 3rd base regularly for years and doesn’t really hit for power) so they can have two power bats in Luke Scott and Hidalgo/Lane?  If Eric Bruntlett has a decent spring and Ensberg doesn’t, the Astros may try to trade Morgan Ensberg for some pitching depth.  One thing that is in Bruntlett’s favor at the moment is that he can play all infield and outfield positions very well, even if his bat lacks pop.  In case of an injury, a Bruntlett on the bench can be a very valuable tool for manager Phil Garner.

It certainly will be a very exciting spring training this year as Astros fans follow the non-roster invitees and the players on the 40 man roster to see who makes the 25 man roster and who doesn’t. 

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