The baseball world became familiar with “Minor League Guy” last spring when a then-unknown Oscar Taveras appeared on a televised major league spring game wearing number 91 with no name on his St. Louis Cardinals uniform.
St. Louis is not alone in bringing in minor leaguers who are not a part of major league camp into the late innings of spring games. Reinforcements are needed as regulars and even their reserves don’t need to play every inning every day.
In 2013, spring training is elongated due to the World Baseball Classic, with a number of players on each major league roster participating. Couple that with a relatively small number of position players in the Cardinals major league camp, currently 23, and opportunity is presented.
As this 2012 spring photo reinforces, in the past, in mid-afternoon, a message was often sent over to the minor league fields with a request for a player or players to immediately join the major league club. Such was the case here, with Taveras ready to be ferried over the major league clubhouse by minor league field coordinator Mark DeJohn to trade in his minors uniform and don the anonymous St. Louis number 91.
This spring, not only are more non-camp invited minor leaguers playing, they have even been in several of Mike Matheny’s starting lineups. Among them were Jamie Romak, who was given a start at first base, and 2012 supplemental first-round draft pick Stephen Piscotty, penciled into a recent big league lineup in right field.
Matheny was clear that his primary motivation was to fill needed at-bats early in camp. Rather than play major leaguers out of position, he called on the youngsters. Yet, there are other benefits as well.
“I enjoy giving them the opportunity and seeing them play,” Matheny said. “I think it is a good reward for them and it gives us a chance to see what is coming.”
It is a good thing for all. Coaches see more young players to evaluate. Prospects feel a step closer to realizing their dreams. It even sends a good signal to prospective minor league free agents that the Cardinals treat signees like Romak well.
“We don’t go after that many minor league free agents,” noted Cardinals farm director John Vuch. “When we do, we get more of the guys we want than not. Opportunities like these help reinforce with players and agents why the Cardinals is a good place to come.”
Other non-camp invitees to appear for St. Louis this spring include Anthony Garcia, Carson Kelly, C.J. McElroy, Brock Peterson, James Ramsey, Xavier Scruggs, Charlie Tilson and Patrick Wisdom.
The common thread? All are non-pitchers. With the number of arms in camp competing for jobs and the pitching plans being scripted in advance, there seems more position player opportunity.
I spoke with Wisdom about his experiences with the major leaguers. Taken in the first supplemental round of the 2012 draft, 52nd overall, the third baseman began his career in short-season ball in Batavia, New York. There, home crowds averaged less than 1,000.
Just an off-season later, he was on a big-league field – many times, in fact. In his seventh game with the big league club this spring, Wisdom was given the honor of making the start at the hot corner for injured David Freese. Most appropriately, it was St. Patrick’s Day.
To say our 18th-ranked Cardinals prospect is delighted to receive the opportunity would be an understatement.
“With all the big leaguers and the coaches, there is no much knowledge there on the field,” Wisdom said. “It is a great opportunity to ask questions, to learn, to observe how they go about their business, and how they play the game. It is something you can add to your game, as well.”
There seems to be more advance planning going into these moves in 2013. The major league staff typically identifies needs for the next day (or two if an overnight trip is ahead) and communicates that to the minor league staff. Coordinators DeJohn (position players) and Brent Strom (pitchers) do the matching. Sometimes the requests are generic – an outfielder, for example. Other times, it might be very specific – say, a left-handed-hitting centerfielder.
As spring goes on, be aware of this rule. Once a 40-man player is optioned out, he is prohibited from appearing in further spring games with the big league club – even as one of these informal additions. This means we will not see infielder Ryan Jackson again in “1 P.M.” games for the remainder of this spring, for example.
31 40-man roster players currently remain in Cardinals camp along with nine non-roster invitees, competing for 25 jobs. As a result of this restriction, some of the 40-man players may be kept around a bit longer than otherwise – beyond when they may have been practically ruled out of being a viable competitor for a major league job to open the season.
In this spring, the time may almost be past in which non-camp invitees will appear in major league games, but the experiences that Wisdom and his peers gain may last for years.
Bonus for The Cardinal Nation subscribers: Listen to Wisdom describe what his big-league spring training game experiences have meant to him.
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Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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