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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

The changing face of Cardinals NRIs – Part two


In the first part of this look at the St. Louis Cardinals non-roster invitees, the changing balance between veterans and prospects was analyzed. Here in part two, we’ll review the NRIs that made the team each year out of spring training since 2001 as well as some of the prominent names that came up short.

2008 NRI made 25-man Casualties
Ron Villone Juan Gonzalez
Rico Washington * Cliff Politte
* 1st MLB action Dewan Brazelton

Last spring, lefty NRI reliever Ron Villone signed late, on February 19. Tyler Johnson always seemed a month away from being ready. Tyler’s late March cortisone shot opened the door for Villone and by Johnson’s May surgery, Villone was firmly entrenched for the remainder of the season. Villone was not asked to return to the Cardinals in 2009 and remains a free agent.

Rico Washington made his first major league roster after almost a dozen years in the minors when Brendan Ryan suffered a strained oblique during spring training. After a month of hitting under the Mendoza Line, Washington was back in Memphis. He is now a minor league free agent.

Among the players that tried and failed to make the team include former two-time American League Most Valuable Player Juan Gonzalez and ex-Tampa Bay pitcher Dewon Brazelton. Neither made it through the month of March. In what may have been his final season, former Cards pitcher Cliff Politte reported to Memphis, but spent most of the season on the disabled list.

2007 NRI made 25-man Casualties
none Eli Marrero
Jolbert Cabrera

Though 19 tried, not a one of the 2007 NRIs made the opening day roster.

Former Cardinals catcher Eli Marrero tried to catch on as a third string catcher and backup outfielder but instead opened the season on Memphis’ DL due to elbow problems. He played in all of one game there before bad feelings not only ended the business relationship but apparently also Marrero’s career. (After being out of the game in 2008, Marrero is playing winter ball in Puerto Rico this off-season, but is not under contract with an MLB organization.)

Ex-MLB infielder Jolbert Cabrera was allotted 53 spring at-bats and did nothing, batting .151/.211/.189. Well, check that. He did lead the team with four spring errors. Cabrera missed part of the season with Memphis before getting his appendix removed and it went downhill from there.

2006 NRI made 25-man Casualties
Josh Hancock Alan Benes
Scott Spiezio Brian Daubach
Jeff Nelson

2006 camp brought a large batch of former major leaguers on minor league contracts. They included first baseman Brian Daubach and pitchers Blaine Neal, John Riedling and Brad Voyles. They all failed. Not an NRI though he should have been, second baseman Junior Spivey had a roster spot, but stunk it up so badly in the spring (.147, five errors) that he was outrighted to Memphis. There he continued to earn a major league salary through DL stints.

Alan Benes made one last try to reclaim his pre-injury glory but ended his career with Memphis. Infielder Deivi Cruz was the only spring hitter worse than Spivey (.146) and was taken off the roster and released before March was out. Reliever Jeff Nelson, a former four-time world champion with the Yankees, pitched well in March, but lost out in the numbers game.

Two that made the club were a pair headed for future disasters – former Cincinnati pitcher Josh Hancock, who posted a spring ERA of 1.80, and infielder Scott Spiezio, kept on the roster despite hitting just .194. Hancock died in a 2007 automobile crash while Spiezio is out of the game due to ongoing substance abuse problems.

2005 NRI made 25-man Casualties
Bill Pulsipher Bob File
Abraham Nunez Raul Gonzalez

Jason Isringhausen’s former comrade with the Mets’ Generation K, lefty Bill Pulsipher, was a surprise winner of a 2005 roster spot. Hamstring problems almost immediately put him on the DL and he was outrighted to Memphis by early May. He went to indy ball from there.

Former Pirates infielder Abraham Nunez was a one-year success for the 2005 Cards, covering third base while Scott Rolen missed 106 games. He turned that into a two year, $3.35 million contract with Philadelphia for 2006-2007 but washed out and is now trying to get back to the majors.

Among those that didn’t make it that spring were former major leaguers Bob File and Raul Gonzalez. The former, a pitcher, retired while the latter, an outfielder, went to Memphis, where he spent the season.

2004 NRI made 25-man Casualties
Tony Womack Kevin Witt
Ray Lankford Emil Brown
Cody McKay Greg Vaughn

In one of the biggest NRI showings in recent years, three players made the 2004 team, including second baseman Tony Womack, who went on to hit .307 that season, former Cards great, outfielder Ray Lankford, back for a curtain call after a year away from the game, and catcher Cody McKay. Lankford retired for good following a pedestrian season during which he was slowed by a wrist injury while McKay called it quits after 19 games with Memphis in 2005.

Former Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Kevin Witt was among those that didn’t make the team, but went on to have a fine season with Memphis. Outfielder Emil Brown lasted only 19 games in Triple-A, but since has become a four-year MLB starter with Kansas City and Oakland. On his last career legs, Greg Vaughn, with 355 major league home runs, was reassigned to minor league camp at the end of March and the outfielder retired the next day.

2003 NRI made 25-man Casualties
Cal Eldred Kurt Abbott
Lance Painter Jon Nunnally
Russ Springer
Kiko Calero *
* 1st MLB action

Four relievers, all NRIs, made the initial 2003 bullpen. Cal Eldred re-invented himself as a valuable reliever and Lance Painter would close out his career after pitching in 22 games for the Cardinals. Russ Springer had his initial stop in St. Louis, while Kiko Calero made his first MLB roster after having been signed as a minor league free agent prior to the season.

Though neither were NRIs, reliever Al Levine and starting pitcher Joey Hamilton, the latter with almost 200 MLB starts under his belt, were brought in amid some fanfare. Neither MLB veteran lasted the month of March before being released just prior to the deadline at which their entire contract amounts would have become guaranteed.

2002 NRI made 25-man Casualties
Eduardo Perez Al Martin

Two NRIs were among the combatants fighting to augment Albert Pujols in the 2002 outfield, though it would not be until 2004 that the full-time switch was made.

One NRI made the club out of camp, infielder/outfielder Eduardo Perez. Tony’s son returned to the Cardinals after having played in Japan in 2001. He was a previously a Cardinal in 1999-2000. Outfielder Al Martin, long time of the Pirates, had come over from Seattle. He ended up not playing that season due to injury, his only stop with the organization.

2001 NRI made 25-man Casualties
John Mabry Shane Andrews
Jeff Tabaka Bernard Gilkey
Albert Pujols*
* 1st MLB action

Among the final cuts in 2001 were veteran outfielder and former Cardinal Bernard Gilkey and third baseman Shane Andrews, both in camp as NRIs. Gilkey moved to the Braves for his final season while Andrews stayed around to hit .218 for Memphis that summer.

Three non-roster invitees did make the club, however. You may remember at least one of them.

Reliever Jeff Tabaka is a name some Cardinals fans would rather forget, having posted a 7.38 ERA in his career swan song in 2001. First baseman/outfielder John Mabry was back and made the club for his second stint, but didn’t stay long. He was traded to Florida after appearing in just five regular season games.

The unanimous choice as NL Rookie of the Year, Albert Pujols started at four positions that season – first base (32), left field (37), right field (33) and third base (52). Albert not only was not on the 40-man roster coming in, he burst onto the scene having had just 14 regular season at-bats above A-ball.


In closing:
In what was clearly a unique situation, Albert made the jump from spring NRI to the majors in one big step. Just because he did, it doesn’t mean Colby Rasmus, David Freese and Brett Wallace and the others vying for a 2009 roster spot will be assured of doing the same, however.

Yet the developing conditions are favorable for it to perhaps happen again.

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