The NRI must clearly outperform other candidates, and even that might not be enough if the other candidate has a guaranteed contract or is out of options. And yet each spring, one or more NRIs find a way to stick with teams when they break camp in Florida and Arizona.
Some were veterans who parlayed a fine spring and a glaring need for their specific skill sets to a roster spot. Others were youngsters whose outstanding preseason play at a position that was previously vacant won them the job, like Albert Pujols at third base for St. Louis in March of 2001.
Monster springs aren't any guarantee that an NRI will be going north with the team. An NRI youngster like Astros outfielder Hunter Pence might be leading all Major Leaguers with a .636 batting average (through March 12), but with no position open in Houston and options left, Pence will almost certainly open the season in the Minors. The same applies for other NRI 20-somethings having sensational springs, like Kansas City's Billy Butler (.526, 2 HR, 8 RBIs).
This spring, the 758 non-roster invitees in the 30 camps include several who have enhanced their chances of still being around when the calendar turns to April.
Here's five most likely to stick:
Sammy Sosa, Rangers. For the moment, the stars seem to have aligned in Sosa's favor. The Rangers have two left-handed hitters in left field in Brad Wilkerson and Frank Catalanotto, and they have the left-handed hitting Kenny Lofton in center.
The right-handed hitting Sosa was initially being considered as a designated-hitter option against left-handed pitching, but has had a good enough spring thus far that he might push his way into the lineup as a full-time player.
"I still think he can help us," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "Until he proves differently, I'm a Sammy Sosa fan."
Sosa, who did not play last season, was hitting .440 with two homers and five RBIs through his first eight Cactus League games.
"I know I can still hit," Sosa said. "I just need more time. I'm getting better every day but I'm going to be there in the end. I still think I can play this game for three or four more years."
Alex Gordon, Royals. The Royals think so highly of Gordon they moved Mark Teahen to the outfield even though Teahen hit .290 and led the team with 18 homers last season. But Gordon has given indications he is a special kind of player and perhaps ready to be Kansas City's everyday third baseman.
"He's a very good player who goes about things the right way; I think the fans in Kansas City are going to see him for a long time," Royals manager Buddy Bell said.
Gordon was hitting .316 through nine games.
Dustin Hermanson, Reds. Signed late (Feb. 28), the right-hander is making up for lost time. Limited to only six games last season for the White Sox after he had fractured and weakened vertebrae in his back down the stretch of the 2005 season with Chicago, Hermanson is apparently healthy. He pitched a perfect inning Friday in his first outing, and if he continues to perform well, could compete for the closer's job.
|"He's a very good player who goes about things the right way; I think the fans in Kansas City are going to see him for a long time."|
|-- Royals manager Buddy Bell, on Alex Gordon|
"If he's 100 percent healthy, we know what we've got," Reds manager Jerry Narron said. "We've got a pretty good guy at the end of the bullpen."
Hermanson would give the Reds another veteran option in a bullpen that was a team trouble spot last season.
"There's no job set right now," Hermanson said. "I have to earn a job and I have to beat out some really good pitchers. But I am going to enjoy myself while I'm here. I'm not going to take the fun away from the game because I won't be able to perform if I do that. I'm here to have a good time. I know if I have a good time, I'll be able to perform. So far, so good."
Arthur Rhodes, Mariners. The left-handed reliever will probably claim a spot on the 25-man Opening Day roster as a setup man to right-handed closer J.J. Putz. Rhodes returns to the Mariners afer spending the 2004 season with Oakland, the '05 season with the Indians and '06 with the Phillies. He had a 8-0 record and 1.72 ERA in 71 appearances for the 116-win Seattle team in '01.
Luis Rivas, Indians. Rivas has emerged as perhaps the top contender among the players competing for a utility infield spot. He has impressed manager Eric Wedge and the coaching staff with his speed and hustle. The key for Rivas, who hit .286 through his first eight games, might be how well the second baseman can help out at shortstop.
And five to keep an eye on:
Rick White, Astros. The Astros are looking for someone to take over the role held by Russ Springer last year. White could be the situational right-hander with experience to fill the bill and has impressed the staff this spring.
Bruce Chen, Rangers. The veteran left-hander has looked good in early competition for the fifth spot in the rotation.
Larry Bigbie, Dodgers. Batting .357 (through March 12) and with Marlon Anderson injured, Bigbie's bid to be the left-handed bat off the bench the Dodgers looks strong.
Al Reyes, Devil Rays. The veteran right-hander has a solid chance at making the team if he remains healthy. Rays manager Joe Maddon likes his savvy and presence.
Dan Kolb, Pirates. Kolb, who spent 2006 with the Brewers, has so far shown flashes of the stuff that could earn him a roster spot.
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less