The rites of spring: pitchers and catchers, Jose Altuve's tattoo and, of course, non-roster invitees. This is one of my favorite articles to write every season, going through all the non-roster players and pulling out an interesting name for each franchise. Sometimes it's a top prospect who we might see later in the season, sometimes it's a veteran who is a good bet to be added to the 40-man roster and make the Opening Day roster, and sometimes it's a simple, "Wow, he's still hanging around!" dude.
Let's go division by division ...
American League East
Baltimore Orioles: Wade LeBlanc. The Orioles have LeBlanc, Ty Blach and Tommy Milone in camp, so if you like soft-tossing lefties, head down to Sarasota. LeBlanc had a solid 2018 with the Mariners but was crushed by the juiced ball of 2019, serving up 28 home runs in 121⅓ innings. Given some of the other options for the Orioles' rotation, he still has a good chance of making the team.
Boston Red Sox: Jeter Downs. Considering what the Red Sox gave up to get him, all eyes will be on Downs early in camp. He should get some reps in major league games before getting reassigned to minor league camp. The biggest question about his long-term future is whether he'll be able to remain at shortstop, but the Red Sox need a double-play partner for Xander Bogaerts, so second base looks like a perfect fit.
New York Yankees: Clarke Schmidt. The Yankees have several veteran pitchers in camp -- Luis Avilan, Chad Bettis, David Hale, Tyler Lyons, Dan Otero -- and it's possible one of them could crack the Opening Day bullpen, but Schmidt is the guy with upside who could impact the team later in the season. A first-round pick in 2017 out of South Carolina even though the Yankees knew he would need Tommy John surgery, Schmidt returned in 2019 and reached Double-A. He's a polished righty with a plus changeup and curveball. With James Paxton already sidelined, Luis Severino hurting and Domingo German suspended, another injury to the rotation could open up a hole.
Tampa Bay Rays: Joe Ryan. The Rays have so much 40-man roster depth, backed up by even more depth in the minors, that they don't need to fool around with any veterans -- there's no way anyone is bumping one of the younger players off the roster. Ryan is one of my favorite sleeper prospects, as dominant as any pitcher in the minors in 2019, fanning 183 in 127⅔ innings while allowing just 77 hits. A promotion to Double-A at the end of the season didn't faze him as he struck out 24 in 13⅓ innings. The fascinating aspect is he basically did it with one pitch, a 92-96 mph elevated fastball that he reportedly threw about 75% of the time. The secondary stuff may have to improve, but he's somebody to watch, maybe for 2021 more than 2020.
Toronto Blue Jays: Joe Panik. Panik hit .305 as a rookie for the Giants in 2014 and .312 as an All-Star in 2015, but he has hit just .257 the past four seasons and his lack of power stands out in today's game. He's still just 29, but his inability to play shortstop makes him an awkward fit as a utility guy and Cavan Biggio should have second base locked down (although Biggio can move to the outfield or first base if needed). Even if he doesn't make the Blue Jays, a strong spring could lead to a job somewhere.
Chicago White Sox: Nick Madrigal. With Luis Robert signed to a long-term deal and promoted to the 40-man roster, Madrigal becomes the player to watch. The White Sox non-tendered Gold Glove second baseman Yolmer Sanchez to clear room for Madrigal, who carries one of the most unique profiles we've seen in a long time. In 532 plate appearances in the minors last season he struck out just 16 times, making him a modern-day Joe Sewell of sorts. He also hit .311, although he lacks power (four home runs) and his contact skills are so good he doesn't walk much (.377 OBP). He has only 29 games played at Triple-A, but it won't be long before he's up and it will be fascinating to see how his approach works in the majors.
Cleveland Indians: Dominic Leone. The Indians have a nondescript list of invitees as even their top prospects are all too far away to earn an invite to big league camp. Mike Clevinger 's knee surgery puts a wrench into the Opening Day rotation, but none of the non-roster guys appear to be possible options there. Leone had good seasons in relief for Seattle in 2014 and Toronto in 2017, but has battled injuries in other years. He had a 5.53 ERA in 40 appearances for St. Louis in 2019.
Detroit Tigers: Tarik Skubal. You know about Casey Mize (the first overall pick in 2018) and Matt Manning (a first-round pick in 2016), but don't be shocked if Skubal ends up better than either one. A ninth-round pick in 2019 out of non-baseball factory Seattle University, where he had Tommy John surgery as a sophomore, he outpitched Mize and Manning during his nine-game stint at Double-A Erie, where he fanned 82 in 42⅓ innings. The lefty sits in the mid-90s with his fastball and could easily join Mize and Manning in the Detroit rotation by season's end.
Kansas City Royals: Greg Holland. This is your classic non-roster invitee: former elite closer on the back end of his career looking for another moment of glory after a tough season. Holland began last season as the Diamondbacks' closer, but eventually pitched his way out of the role and was released in August with a 4.54 ERA. He should make the team, although Ian Kennedy likely remains the club's first option in the ninth inning. The Royals hope Holland finds some control and becomes trade bait in July.
Minnesota Twins: Royce Lewis. The Twins are not only coming off a 101-win season, but have a farm system Baseball America just ranked as eighth best in the game. Lewis, the first overall pick in 2017, had a rocky 2019, hitting .236/.290/.371 between A-ball and Double-A, but remains the top talent in the system. That showed up in the Arizona Fall League, where he won MVP honors after hitting .353/.411/.565. Watch him in spring training to see if the hit tool can become a consistent weapon.
Houston Astros: Forrest Whitley. We've been hearing about Whitley for a long time, but this is a good reminder that he's still young enough that he didn't have to go on the 40-man roster. Whitley struggled with his command in 2019, was then shut down with shoulder fatigue, and then pitched exclusively from the stretch when he returned. He fared much better in the Arizona Fall League, providing renewed faith that he's still one of the best pitching prospects in the game. A strong spring will put him on the brink of the majors.
Los Angeles Angels: Luiz Gohara. After reaching the majors with the Braves in 2017, Gohara ranked as high as the No. 23 overall prospect on Baseball America's list. He missed all of 2019 with personal issues and then arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder. The Brazilian has had trouble keeping his weight under control, but he's still just 23 and maybe the Angels can find that upside potential.
Oakland Athletics: Miguel Romero. The A's don't have much on the veteran side of things, so let's go with Romero, a hard-throwing reliever who has a chance to crack the Opening Day roster. Signed out of Cuba in 2017, Romero has big league stuff, including a fastball that tops out at 98 mph, although throwing it over the plate is sometimes an issue. Still, he had a 3.96 ERA at Las Vegas in 2019, no easy feat considering the leaguewide ERA in the Pacific Coast League was 5.48.
Seattle Mariners: Jarred Kelenic. Carlos Gonzalez is here and there's at least a temporary opening in the outfield with Mitch Haniger out for the start of the season, but Gonzalez also hit .200/.289/.283 in 166 PAs last year, so he may be done. Kelenic jumped from low to Double-A in 2019 and became one of the top outfield prospects in the game. The Mariners will be tempted to rush him to the bigs and the ultra-confident Kelenic will tell you he's ready now, but it's certainly possible he could play his way into the lineup at some point during the season even though he doesn't turn 21 until July.
Texas Rangers: Greg Bird. Rangers first basemen hit just .228/.302/.402 in 2019, so Bird is here to give Ronald Guzman some competition. Bird broke onto the scene with an impressive 46-game showing with the Yankees in 2015, but has battled injuries ever since. Last year was another lost season as he played just 10 games before a season-ending plantar fascia tear -- after previous foot injuries in 2017 and 2018. Is there anything left here? He has had so many injuries and missed so much time through the years that it's hard to envision a comeback, but a good dice roll for the Rangers.
National League East
Atlanta Braves: Felix Hernandez. Here's a question? Who's the best player ever to accept a non-roster invitation to spring training? Jim Palmer once attempted a comeback after he had already been elected to the Hall of Fame, so it's hard to beat that (it didn't go well). Felix's ERA has risen for five straight seasons, including to 6.40 in 2019. Do the Braves really want to find out what happens in Year 6?
Miami Marlins: Matt Kemp. Hey, he was an All-Star two seasons ago (although he slowed down after a big first half). Kemp went from the Dodgers to the Reds last offseason in an ill-advised prospect giveaway (the Dodgers stole Downs and Josiah Gray) and promptly went 12-for-60 with one walk and 19 strikeouts, drawing his release. His defense has been subpar for years. It's a long shot for Kemp to make the team, especially since the Braves also signed veterans Corey Dickerson and Matt Joyce for outfield help.
New York Mets: Don't say it ... don't say it ... do not ... Tim Tebow. OK, OK, apologies. How about Matt Adams? Pete Alonso and Dom Smith have him blocked at first base, but the addition of the 26th roster spot gives Adams a chance to make the team as a pinch-hitting specialist. He still has pop with 20 home runs in a part-time role with the Nationals in 2019, although his OBP dipped to .276.
Philadelphia Phillies: Francisco Liriano. Now headed for his 15th season in the majors, Liriano was a full-time reliever for the first time in 2019 with the Pirates, appearing in 69 games with a 3.47 ERA. He still walks too many guys, but that slider makes him pretty effective against lefties (.194/.326/.333). After all the injuries in the bullpen last year, the Phillies have several of these guys in camp -- see Bud Norris, Blake Parker, Anthony Swarzak and Drew Storen -- but Liriano is the best bet to make the club.
Washington Nationals: Welington Castillo. The Nationals have a bunch of non-roster vets in camp, but Castillo has the most extensive résumé, with 10 years in the majors. The Nationals brought back both Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki at catcher, so Castillo is probably headed for Triple-A or a late-spring trade.
Chicago Cubs: Brandon Morrow. He hasn't pitched since July 2018 after missing all of 2019 with elbow problems. His initial two-year, $21 million contract with the Cubs expired, but he's back as a non-roster invitee. Morrow has had one completely healthy season since 2011, so if the Cubs can get 40 good innings out of him, consider that a victory.
Cincinnati Reds: Jesse Biddle. The most interesting part of the Reds' spring training will be the fight for playing time in the outfield, but Biddle has a chance to crack the bullpen as a lefty reliever. Biddle was once a top-100 prospect as a starter, got injured, made the majors as a reliever and had a solid rookie season with the Braves in 2018. After a slow start in 2019, he went from the Braves to the Mariners to the Rangers, getting just 16 big league innings.
Milwaukee Brewers: Shelby Miller. As a wise person once said, half of pitching is staying healthy. Miller was one of the top young starters in the game from 2013 to 2015, but he has made just 36 starts over the past four seasons and had an 8.59 ERA in 44 innings last year with the Rangers. As you might expect, the odds are against him, and he was never a big strikeout pitcher even when healthy.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Derek Holland. The veteran lefty had a good season in the Giants' rotation in 2018 (2.1 WAR), but his five-year WAR total is just 0.5, meaning he has been below replacement level over the other four seasons. He allowed 31 home runs in 135 innings in 2017 and 20 in 84⅓ innings last year. In other words, he has a shot at making the back end of the Pittsburgh rotation.
St. Louis Cardinals: Angel Rondon. Rondon won the Texas League ERA title in 2019 with a 3.21 mark, and between Class A and Double-A fanned 159 in 160 innings while allowing 125 hits. He should begin the season in Triple-A as a starter, but his fastball/slider combo could lead to a more rapid ascent to the majors as a reliever. He has a chance to impress the big league staff and become one of the first call-ups to the staff when needed.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Edwin Jackson. He's 36 years old and he's still hanging around, so good for him. Jackson is aiming for his 18th season in the big leagues (although he pitched for the Diamondbacks before, so his tally of teams played for will remain at 14 if he makes the team). It looked like last year would be it for Jackson after he got torched for 105 hits and 23 home runs in 67⅔ innings, but the man is a survivor. One more year, Edwin!
Colorado Rockies: Ubaldo Jimenez. Back in 2010, Jimenez had a marvelous season for the Rockies, winning 19 games with a 2.88 ERA and finishing third in the Cy Young voting. That was a decade ago. Jimenez last pitched in the majors in 2017 and he last had an ERA under 5.00 in 2015.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Josiah Gray. Similar to the Rays, the Dodgers are so deep that they don't have to fool around with the retread non-roster types. I mentioned Gray in the Reds comment. He had a monster breakout season in the minors after the Reds had drafted him in the second round in 2018, jumping from the Midwest League to Double-A, posting a 2.28 ERA while allowing just three home runs in 130 innings. Considering how little pitching he had done at LeMoyne College (he had been a shortstop until his junior season), it's an impressive rise. The Dodgers may have a future rotation anchor on their hands.
San Diego Padres: MacKenzie Gore. The consensus No. 1 pitching prospect in the game, Gore has just 183 professional innings, but frankly, there isn't much more for him to prove or learn in the minors after holding batters to a .164 average last year. Is he one of the Padres' best 13 pitchers right now? Yes. Will he break camp with the team? Probably not, as he had just five starts at Double-A -- although Chris Paddack had just seven in 2018 and made the Opening Day roster in 2019. The Padres have more options this year with the likes of Dinelson Lamet, Garrett Richards and Zach Davies, but if Gore has a big spring, you never know.
San Francisco Giants: Pablo Sandoval. The Giants have perhaps the deepest list of non-roster names that are familiar with the likes of Sandoval, Billy Hamilton, Gold Glove winner Yolmer Sanchez, Joey Rickard and a slew of pitchers. That's not always a good thing, because it implies there are roster spots to be won. Sandoval hit .268/.313/.507 for the Giants in 2019. He should once again be the backup to Evan Longoria and Brandon Belt.