The Fascinating Enigma of the Non-Roster Invitee

Justin Turner has been a revelation in Dodgers blue. (via Stacie Wheeler)

Justin Turner has been a revelation in Dodgers blue. (via Stacie Wheeler)

Spring training brings fresh starts, new opportunities and perhaps even a path to redemption for many ballplayers. Major league baseball teams usually invite a group of non-roster players to their respective spring training camp in order to round out both minor and major league rosters and to occasionally discover that diamond in the rough who could possibly make an impact at the major league level during the upcoming season. Although rare, once in awhile a non-roster invitee makes the 25-man opening day roster. Even rarer is the NRI who then becomes a prominent starter for years to come after seizing the opportunity and proving his worth.

Justin Turner, granted free agency by the New York Mets after the 2013 season, was signed by the Dodgers in February of 2014. Turner is perhaps the most productive and successful former non-roster invitee the Dodgers have ever had. Now a mainstay in the Dodgers starting lineup and having secured his starting spot at third base, Justin Turner has become one of the most integral members of the Dodgers since earning his spot on the 2014 opening day roster.

The non-roster invitee is one of Spring Training’s greatest enigmas, but not all non-roster invitees are alike. Often adorned in a high-numbered jersey, the non-roster invitee is often overlooked during spring training. Only a very small percentage break with the team when camp concludes, and it is even more unusual to see a NRI contribute to a major league team significantly throughout the course of an entire season thereafter. A player on the 40-man roster has to be cut in order for a non-roster player to be added. First, the NRI must be put through his paces and be able to prove themselves in major league camp before they can secure a coveted spot on the major league roster.

All teams routinely invite a group of their best prospects to major league camp as non-roster players. These top prospects are not necessarily expected to make the major league roster, but instead they are invited to gain experience alongside their major league counterparts and benefit from some valuable time with the coaching and training staff. Last year, Julio Urias, one of the Dodgers’ top pitching prospects, was in major league camp as a non-roster player and was seen taking in a Zack Greinke bullpen session at Camelback Ranch. Urias would later pitch for the Dodgers during their Cactus League schedule, but he would eventually be sent to the minor league side of camp as opening day approached. Urias is once again be a part of the Dodgers’ camp as a non-roster invitee this spring.

Non-roster invitee Julio Urias watches Zack Greinke during 2015 spring training. (via Stacie Wheeler)

Non-roster invitee Julio Urias watches Zack Greinke during 2015 spring training. (via Stacie Wheeler)

There are also those non-roster invitees who are essentially AAAA-type players, but not necessarily highly ranked prospects like Urias. Scott Schebler is a good example. These players could very well be a starting major leaguer for a number of teams, but they may not have a spot open for them on the team in which they are with during spring training. So, they fight. These promising players may get a lot of playing time during the spring in order to allow the starters time to work on other aspects of their spring routines. Schebler, now with the Cincinnati Reds, played in 18 spring games for the Dodgers in 2015, and hit .321/.345/.714. The capable outfielder only appeared in 19 games for the Dodgers during the 2015 regular season and was subsequently traded during the offseason to the Cincinnati Reds, where once again he will vie for a starting spot on the major league club this spring.

There are also non-roster invitees in big league camp who have absolutely zero chance to make the roster. They are there merely to supplement the team’s need for additional players during workouts and training. Catchers are usually in this group. Many backstops are required during spring training to work with the plethora of pitchers in camp. Ramon Castro comes to mind, as does Shawn Zarraga, who is penciled in on the Dodgers’ 2016 NRI list for the second year in a row.

Multiple Dodgers catchers working with pitchers during 2015 spring training. (via Stacie Wheeler)

Multiple Dodgers catchers working with pitchers during 2015 spring training. (via Stacie Wheeler)

Although they are dwindling, open tryouts are always a fascinating event during spring training. Occasionally teams will invite prospective ballplayers to come to their spring training facility and try out in hopes of being signed and invited into camp. Those participating must not be enrolled in high school, on a college roster or be under contract with another major league team. Many has-been players, former college players and minor leaguers who no longer are affiliated with any team will try to prove they still have something left in the tank. Usually, they do not. Or at least, not enough left.

Randy Keisler was signed out of the 2011 open tryout for the Dodgers, and the left-hander did subsequently start 19 games for the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes. Jarrad Page, the former NFL safety, was signed by the Dodgers in 2012 out of the annual open tryout. Page only appeared in eight games for the Single-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes and was released after he collected just one hit in 25 at-bats. Undrafted former college outfielder Bill Rice signed with the Philadelphia Phillies after an open tryout in 2010. He went on to play in the Philadelphia minor league system for three seasons.

In addition, there may be some entertainment value in these open tryouts. You never know when Jose Canseco might show up — like he did in 2004, at the Dodgers’ old spring home in Vero Beach, Fla.

So You’re Saying There’s a Chance?

Even though a majority of the prospects, hyped up hopefuls and aging veterans looking for a second chance will never make an impact on the major league team they were invited by, once in a blue moon a non-roster invitee makes a huge splash with their team during the spring and sticks around, proving that the NRI system still can be a viable way to discover an unearthed or cast aside talent.

Pretty is What Changes
Take notice, baseball. Few things endure just as they've always been, casual pursuits least of all.

Justin Turner’s success with the Dodgers has been one of the most fascinating stories of a non-roster invitee turned starter since the likes of Aaron Miles back in 2011. During the 2015 National League Division Series, Turner’s postseason performance with the National League West division champion Dodgers demonstrated to the Mets just what they missed out on after they released the Southern California native in the winter of 2013. Justin Turner hit .526/.550/.842 with 10 hits — including six doubles — in 20 plate appearances during the five-game National League Division Series.

Justin Turner has exceeded all expectations over his two seasons with the Dodgers, and he has become a vital member of the Dodgers’ starting lineup. A part-time player in 2014, Turner secured his place as the Dodgers’ starting third baseman last May after Los Angeles traded Juan Uribe to the Atlanta Braves. Ironically, Uribe would end up on the Mets pitted against the Dodgers and Turner in the 2015 NLDS. The Dodgers have opted to rely on Turner at third base going into the 2016 season, as evident by the three-team trade this offseason which sent aforementioned outfielder Scott Schebler to Cincinnati and veteran third baseman Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for a trio of prospects.

Looking back at the illustrious list of former non-roster invitees the Dodgers have enlisted over the course of the past five season, the last NRI to make a lasting mark at the major league level in the same season would be none other than then veteran Aaron Miles. In the same year, Mike MacDougal and Lance Cormier also made the team out of Spring Training. MacDougal pitched in 69 games for the Dodgers in 2011, and he was surprisingly effective in middle relief with a 3-1 record and a 2.05 ERA. Lance Cormier, the type of non-roster invitee attempting to resurrect his career, was less successful, and the right-hander only appeared in nine games, with disastrous results.

Miles, who may be remembered more for his relief pitching than his work around the infield, played in 136 games for the Dodgers in 2011 and split time at second and third base. Although Miles and MacDougal contributed to the Dodgers in 2011 with admirable results, their careers came to an end — Miles hung up his jersey at the conclusion of the 2011 season and MacDougal called it quits after seven additional appearances for the Dodgers in 2012.

The last hurrahs of Miles and MacDougal make Justin Turner’s story even more remarkable when his future value to the Dodgers is considered. Turner was not an aging veteran vying for one more crack at a major league roster, nor was he the promising prospect at 29-years old when the Dodgers gave him an opportunity to prove that his high leg kicking swing could catch up to major league fastballs (with some help from Marlon Byrd).

Scott Spratt gave Justin Turner some much deserved attention in his article “Justin Turner, the Forgotten Dodgers Star,” where he broke down Turner’s excellence amongst respective hitters with at least 500 plate appearances since 2014. Turner ranked 11th in weighted runs created plus (wRC+), as he has hit 48 percent better than league average in that time (148 wRC+) — not too shabby for a former non-roster player. At a pay rate of just $1 million in 2014 and $2.5 million in 2015, Turner’s value is exceptional.

Turner received a pay raise through arbitration this offseason, yet the $5.1 million the Dodgers agreed upon should be well worth it should the red-bearded infielder rehab successfully from microfracture knee surgery, even if he does not garner another three-win season. Leg worries hampered Turner’s ability to play on an everyday basis during his first two seasons in LA. After his mid-career resurgence and a knee tune-up, perhaps Turner can not only provide the Dodgers with a reliable third baseman for the long-term but also cement his place in history as one of the most successful former NRIs of all-time.

As we look to the new crop of non-roster invitees, the Elian Herrera’s and the Corey Brown’s, who will all look to dazzle the major league coaching staff in hopes of becoming the next Aaron Miles or Justin Turner, we may continue to enjoy the mysterious way of the NRI. While few non-roster invitees will break with the club when the spring season concludes, there will always be a place for those veterans attempting comebacks from injury à la Brandon Beachy or the journeymen attempting to finally secure a spot on a major league squad. Few will find as much success as one-time NRI Turner, but the non-roster invitee list still provides optimism and aspiration for many players trying to break into the show.

References & Resources


Stacie has been writing about the Dodgers since 2010. Read her at DodgerBlue.com, watch her videos on Dishing Up The Dodgers, and follow her on Twitter @StacieMWheeler.

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