The NRI Watch List

Everyone’s thinking it when they look at the Cubs roster: This is a team that could sure use a surprise contribution from a non-roster invitee. There’s so little depth, and plenty of room on the roster to fit in one of the 24 NRIs that were announced at the end of January.

Anyone buying it? No, me neither. The Chicago roster is so well-stocked with both high-end talent and depth that it’s difficult to even pretend there’s room for one of these players to find their way onto the team. Ryan Schultz recently wrote about how the Cubs are going to have to decide between players for their final spot who would be on almost any other major league roster without too much thought, and even starting for some.

There are a few reasons why this group of NRIs might be of interest, though. The first is the emphasis the Cubs are placing on deepening their roster with recent acquisitions like Eddie Butler and Brett Anderson showing their commitment to building that depth at both the major and minor league levels. Just because the roster looks good now doesn’t mean that there won’t be holes to fill later in the year. Four of the Cubs’ 20 NRIs played some role in the major leagues in 2016; it’s likely that we’ll see at least a few of the 2017 group do the same, as several already have significant MLB experience.

The second is the future. Amongst the invitees are BP’s number one and two prospects in the system, Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ. Former catcher Mark Zagunis, who just missed the top 10 himself, joins them. All three should be major leaguers, and both Happ and Zagunis have a good chance to reach the highest level in 2017.

Finally, some of these players are simply intriguing in some way, whether it’s a particular tool they possess or an unusual career path. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have any impact on the big-league club, but they’ll be worth watching in spring training for one reason or another. With that said, here is a selection of players worth watching from the group, starting with those prospects.

Eloy Jimenez, OF

Jimenez has scouts raving about his bat: Highlights from his writeup on the BP list include “plus-plus raw power” and “one of the best offensive prospects in baseball”. He’s still just 20 and has not played above Low-A, so it’ll be a while until he’s on a major league field and all the more reason to catch a glimpse of him in Spring Training to see some of that power. There are concerns about his running and therefore defensive ability, but he has more than enough power to play anywhere.

Ian Happ, 2B/OF

Happ is not the kind of player who will get the kind of hype generated by Jimenez but he has less risk and he’ll be up a lot sooner as a college bat with half a season in Double-A already. He’s a switch-hitter with a good eye, doubles rather than home run power, and the prospect of defensive flexibility without being great at any one position.

It’s not hard to see why Ben Zobrist’s name has already been invoked in relation to Happ, especially as his manager might soon be Joe Maddon. Watch to see how much he gets moved around in the spring; he played all three outfield positions in addition to second base last season, and this will be Maddon’s first chance to use his versatility. Whether he gets an opportunity to do so on a team that already contains Ben Zobrist is very much in doubt, as Larry Scott wrote here yesterday.

Mark Zagunis, OF

The Zagunis catcher experiment ended after the 2014 season, putting more pressure on his bat, especially as he looks to be limited to a corner outfield spot. The good news is that he has hit at every minor league stop, never failing to post an OPS north of .800. The 24-year-old has an excellent eye, with a career .401 OBP in the minors and almost as many walks as strikeouts.

Even though he reached double-digit homers for the first time in 2016 despite his season being cut short by a broken foot, power is a question given his positional limitations. However, if he continues to hit and walk as much in the majors, a team will find a role for him. Given that even the likes of Happ will find it difficult to get playing time in 2017, that team might not end up being the Cubs, but he could prove to be a valuable trade chip.

Chesny Young, INF

The prospect most won’t be familiar with. A 14th-round pick in 2014, Young comfortably handled short-season ball, hitting well over .300, then Low-A, where he easily hit .300, following that up with almost a full season at High-A, where he hit over .300. Last season he spent all his time at Double-A, where he…you get the idea.

Young has never appeared on any BP top 10 lists, but he did recently make Eric Longenhagen’s Cubs list over at Fangraphs, checking in at 18. There’s little power and no elite defensive skills, making Young a more likely utility man, but he’s also yet to meet any competition that can prevent him from hitting .300. If that happens, as Longenhagen notes, he could yet make it as a regular at second.

Andury Acevedo, RHP

Acevedo was signed in November 2015 and immediately added to the 40-man roster, then barely pitched in 2016 after tearing his ACL, having pitched just five innings at Double-A.  Acevedo’s primary point of intrigue is the fact that even though he is still just 26, he has been associated with major league teams for the last ten years, halfway through which he was converted from position player to pitcher by the Yankees.

The Dominican can touch 98 with his fastball but is yet to demonstrate the requisite control to be a reliable option. The Cubs obviously saw enough to both add him to the 40-man last offseason and bring him back for another look this winter. A healthy Acevedo with moderate control might just be a viable reliever; it would certainly be nice to see him get a shot after a decade in the minors.

Maikel Cleto, RHP

Speaking of flamethrowers who have spent ten years trying to establish themselves, Cleto — who was signed by the Mets in 2006 — sits at 97-98 and touches 100. Sounds pretty useful, apart from the one minor flaw of not having a clue where the ball is going. This has resulted in 58 strikeouts and 30 walks in his 45 innings in the majors so far. The last of those came in 2014 with the Cubs’ south side counterparts, since when he has also played in the minors for the Braves and briefly carved up the Mexican League. If he could ever master the control issues, the strikeouts will certainly play; at the very least we should get to see him doing this once or twice in spring training.

John Andreoli, OF

Andreoli has posted prodigious walk and stolen base totals in the minors over the course of five seasons with the organization. He was also an NRI last year, but never got a shot to play in the majors despite posting a .374 OBP at Triple-A, following up on his .372 mark from the season before. BP’s Brendan Gawlowski saw Andreoli there last year and noted that he’s a plus runner who can handle playing CF, but a violent, long swing and poor balance at the plate gives him strikeout issues that may limit his upside. The profile still sounds like potential fourth outfielder, and he’s worth paying attention to in the spring for his baserunning alone: He has attempted 249 steals over the course of his 565 minor league games, succeeding over 80% of the time.

The Experienced Relievers – Jim Henderson, Manny Parra, Fernando Rodriguez

There will almost certainly be MLB innings accumulated by this group in 2017. Henderson is not so far removed from being the Brewers closer who struck out over 30% of hitters, and he pitched 35 innings for the Mets last season when he wasn’t sidelined by various ailments. Even though Parra missed all of 2016 after having Tommy John surgery, he still has over 600 MLB innings under his belt. Rodriguez dealt with shoulder issues that ended his 2016 early, but pitched almost 100 innings out of the A’s bullpen over the last two seasons and can be at least a league-average reliever. For all three, proving their health in the spring will be a key step to finding a major league role again.

Munenori Kawasaki, INF

This list wouldn’t be complete without Kawasaki, who was one of those four NRIs that did contribute to the team last season. His .890 OPS in 2016 is a little more impressive if you cover up the fact that it came in 26 plate appearances, as well as ignoring his career .237/.320/.289 line. He is adept at taking a walk, if not much else, but what Kawasaki lacks in on-field contributions, he makes up for with his abilities in other areas: dance; karaoke; and generally keeping things light in the dugout.

Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports

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