Pirates Spring Training: Guide to the Bucs' NRIs, Part 1

Tom Szczerbowski

The Pirates have extended non-roster invitations to 10 pitchers. Do any of them have a shot at making the team?

With pitchers and catchers reporting on Monday, barring any last-minute additions the complement in major league camp will include 20 non-roster invitees. Exactly half of these will be pitchers. In contrast to some seasons, the Pirates will open camp with considerable depth both in the rotation and the bullpen, so it's questionable whether any of the NRIs have a good chance of making the team without a raft of injuries. There isn't, for instance, a reliever who's considered a near-lock to make the team, as Jose Veras and Juan Cruz were in the two preceding years. Still, a team needs depth for the full season, so there's a good chance one or more of these players will see time in black and gold before the season's over. So here's part one of a guide to the NRIs, with position players following in part two.

Brooks Brown: A right-hander, Brown has spent five and a half years in AA and AAA, mostly the former and mostly as a starter, without reaching the majors. He's a finesse, groundball pitcher who's been hit hard and doesn't have good control, either. He's pitched poorly in AAA and only adequately in AA. With little pitching help likely to arrive from Bradenton, the Pirates may have brought him in to eat innings at Altoona. They also could try him in relief, a role he hasn't played much yet. The NRI may simply have been a courtesy to a veteran pitcher, as he has no chance of making the team out of camp and doesn't profile even as depth for the Pirates.

Gerrit Cole: There's no realistic chance of Cole making the roster out of camp, but he'll attract plenty of attention as everybody speculates how long it'll take him to reach Pittsburgh.

Erik Cordier: First drafted all the way back in 2004, the right-handed Cordier's been considered a good prospect most of the time since then and was on the Braves' 40-man roster for two years. Unfortunately, he's been hampered by all sorts of injuries: a knee injury that cost him one year, Tommy John surgery, a hand injury and bone chips. When he's been able to pitch he's featured a mid-90s fastball, but he's struggled the last two years. He looks more like an interesting project than a candidate to make the team. He's been mostly a starter so far, so the Pirates could try him in relief in AAA.

Kris Johnson: The left-handed Johnson has very slowly come around since being selected in the supplemental first round in 2006. He split his time between Altoona and Indianapolis last year, pitching well for the Curve without dominating, then just decently for the Indians. After the Pirates re-signed him, he pitched brilliantly in the Dominican Winter League, allowing only 17 hits and walks in 27 innings. With the Pirates short on left-handed relief options, he could conceivably be a bullpen option at some point, but not likely at the start of the season.

Vin Mazzaro: Despite being a highly-regarded prospect, Mazzaro actually has seldom pitched well at any level. He has a career minor league ERA of 4.00 and WHIP of 1.41. He sits around 92 and generally gets groundballs, but he's never missed many bats. He hasn't pitched much in relief, so the Pirates could try him in the AAA bullpen. He'd be a longshot to make the team, especially considering that the Pirates just removed him from the 40-man roster.

Ryan Reid: A right-hander, Reid pitched mainly in relief in the Rays' organization. He doesn't throw especially hard and his K rate dropped sharply when he got to AA, but it's gone back up in AAA, to 8.3 K/9 in 2011 and 9.0 last year. Like Johnson, he had a strong winter campaign, in his case in Venezuela. He served as his team's closer and fanned 26 in 22 innings. Like Johnson, he doesn't have a realistic chance of making the team out of camp, but could be useful AAA depth.

Jonathan Sanchez: Among the veteran NRIs, Sanchez obviously has the highest profile. His pitching ranged from decent to very good as a major league starter from 2009-2011, but he fell to pieces last year, possibly due to health problems. He's suffered from nagging injuries throughout his career, so a move to the bullpen would make a certain amount of sense, especially considering that he's pitched very well as a reliever in the past. Given the Pirates' shortage of left-handed relievers, it's conceivable he could even make the team if the Pirates would try him in relief. More likely, they'll send him to AAA to see if he's recovered from last year's fiasco. Or, who knows, he could be lights-out in March and return to his 2010 form. Oh . . . wait. We're the Pirates.

Jameson Taillon: Like Cole, Taillon figures to attract a lot of attention, but he may not stay in camp long. He's ticketed for AA and it'll be easier for him to get work in minor league camp.

Kyle Waldrop: The right-handed Waldrop is a prototype Twins pitcher: a groundball pitcher who doesn't throw hard and rarely misses bats. He moved through the Minnesota system very slowly and has pitched solely in relief since shoulder problems cost him the entire 2008 season. He's relieved in 24 major league games in the last two years, but hasn't been terribly effective. A good indication of his ability comes from the facts that he went unclaimed in the Rule 5 draft multiple times and was removed from the 40-man roster by the pitching-starved Twins. He could conceivably have a shot at making the team, but the Pirates have plenty of pitchers with much higher ceilings. Waldrop makes more sense as AAA depth.

Mike Zagurski: With the Pirates short on left-handed relief, the veteran reliever Zagurski could be this year's version of Doug Slaten. That wouldn't be an especially hopeful outcome. Zagurski throws in the low-90s, reaching 95, and has put up very high K rates in the minors, but in 82 major league games he's been hit hard, struggled to throw strikes, and turned every right-handed hitter into Miguel Cabrera without dominating left-handed hitters. He's also a flyball pitcher who's had trouble with gopher balls. Then there's Clint Hurdle's unwillingness to use LOOGYs as LOOGYs.

In sum, I can't see any of these guys making the team out of camp unless something interesting happens with Sanchez.

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