Inside The Rays Spring Training: Invitees

In part five of his spring training preview, Insider Tommy Rancel takes a look at the Tampa Bay Rays’ non-roster invitees.

For the budget-conscious Tampa Bay Rays, internal depth is not a luxury, but also a necessity. While deeper-pocketed teams can absorb additional payroll throughout the season, the Rays have limited financial-flexibility once the season begins. With that in mind, players who fill roster spots 26-35 are nearly as important as the 25-man roster they support.

“We’re going to send guys to Triple-A at the end of this camp and throughout this camp that are major league players. That’s always a good thing in that it takes more than 25 guys to compete in this division. Often times, you lean on 30, 35 guys in this division and to get to this point where we are now with the depth that we have is a good thing.” – Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman

In addition to other members of the 40-man roster and prospects, the non-roster invitee has played a key role for the Rays. In the spring of 2007, Carlos Pena was the 26th man, only getting a chance after Greg Norton went down with an injury. While Pena is the exception more than the rule, several other NRI’s like: Joaquin Benoit, Al Reyes, Eric Hinske, and most recentl,y Casey Kotchman played key roles after coming into camp without a guaranteed spot. While it does not appear than an NRI will have an immediate impact on the 2012 Rays, there are several names that could fall in that important 26-35 roster range. Ignoring non-roster prospects like Hak-Ju Lee, Tim Beckham, and talented farmhands such as Marquis Fleming, Ryan Reid, here are some NRI’s to keep an eye on in this year’s camp.

Will Rhymes – When Rhymes signed with the Rays, I called him the infield version of Sam Fuld: a left-handed, contact hitter (93% career) who’s skill-set may be better utilized in the Rays’ system than with his previous employer – the Detroit Tigers. After starting the season as the Tigers’ starting second baseman, Rhymes spent most of 2011 in Triple-A. While he has Fuld-like characteristics, he is also similar to Jeff Keppinger; however from the left side. He is a decent baserunner and a passable defender, who does not miss much when he swings, but lacks power. Barring injury, he is unlikely to break camp with the team, but is definitely in the 26-35 mix.

Chris Gimenez – Despite having just 52 games of experience as a major-league catcher, Gimenez is the most experienced backstop in camp behind Jose Molina. That said, he goes into the spring with an uphill battle to overtake Jose Lobaton or Robinson Chirinos as Molina’s partner. Gimenez is mostly average behind the plate, but is athletic enough to play first base as well as the corner outfield. Offensively, he has done little in 267 plate appearances, but showed decent discipline in the minor leagues. Although he is fourth or fifth on the depth-chart, his experience and flexibility make him interesting enough to keep an eye on.

Matt Mangini – A former supplemental, first-round pick (2007), Mangini has hit well at the upper-levels of the minor leagues. A lot of that success has come in the notoriously offensive Pacific Coast League; however, the 25-year-old has some natural ability. He has spent most of his time at third base, but has some experience across the diamond at first. He was released by the Seattle Mariners for medically related issues in 2011. That said, I was told the situation was not serious. There is a void of natural third baseman in the system behind Evan Longoria, meaning Mangini could be on the shortlist of possible replacements should something happen to the Rays’ franchise player.

Juan Miranda – Similar to Mangini, Miranda provides organizational depth at a position that is rather thin at the upper-levels of the organization. Carlos Pena – with a dash of Luke Scott – will see most of the time at first base this season; however, in the event of injury, Miranda is waiting with major-league experience. The drop off from Pena to Miranda would be considerable; that said, the 28-year-old has plenty of raw power and shows a willingness to walk. Similar to Pena, he will likely produce a high-strikeout rate and struggle against lefties, but could hold his own as part of a platoon if needed. Of course the hope is he is not needed and Pena produces as expected. But in case of the unexpected, Miranda is a decent option to have around.

Jhonny Nunez – With 16 or 17 legitimate options vying for 12 spots on the opening day roster, a non-roster pitcher has little chance of cracking the Rays this spring. Meanwhile, Nunez has stuff that could catch the eye of coaches should a spot open up down the road. A former starter, Nunez spent the last two seasons as a swingman in the Chicago White Sox system. He throws a mid-90s fastball and backs that up with a slider that flashes above-average on occasion. The combo has proven successful for Nunez, who has struck out 117 Triple-A batters in 116 innings. Though he is unlikely to make the team, he provides the club with an MLB-ready arm just waiting for a call.

While Nunez is an intriguing NRI, everyone should also keep an eye on 40-man roster pitchers: Dane De La Rosa, Cesar Ramos, and a personal favorite of mine, Matt Bush this camp. While all will likely find themselves on the outside looking in to start the season, like the names above, each could end up playing a role in 2012.

For the entire Rays’ spring training preview click here.