The group is led by a host of pitchers and catchers that will be needed to handle side-work and additional innings early in camp. Among the pitchers, right-hander Enrique Gonzalez and left-hander Fu-Te Ni will both return to big league camp despite not being on the 40-man roster. Gonzalez has extensive big league time and though he is a long shot for the MLB roster on Opening Day, he has a good chance to see a few innings in Detroit before the season is complete. Ni never could get things going in 2010, after a solid campaign in 2009 as a bullpen lefty. Though the Tigers look poised to head into the season with Brad Thomas and Daniel Schlereth as their primary lefties, Ni could still return to form and have an impact in 2011.
Another lefty looking to wiggle his way into the bullpen picture is veteran John Bale. Signed out of Asia to a minor league contract, Bale has had success at every level of professional baseball, and he could be a sleeper for the roster if injuries strike during the spring. Another Asian import is right-hander Chris Oxspring. Returning to health after arm surgery, Oxspring has solid stuff and knows how to pitch, but he won’t blow anyone away. Don’t discount him in the race for both the back end of the rotation and the bullpen.
The remaining two pitchers earning invitations to spring training are right-hander Brendan Wise and left-hander Adam Wilk. Wise is a sinker-slider type that just keeps trucking along. He had success at Triple-A in 2010, and he could be a viable middle relief option at some point down the line. Wilk was one of the organization’s top minor league pitchers in 2010, and even without knockout stuff, he has the guts, guile, and intelligence to get hitters out. He’s an extreme long shot to make an impact in Detroit early in the season, but with continued success in Erie and/or Toledo this year, he could be on the radar by season’s end.
Squating down to pull in all those pitches will be a group of six catchers that the Tigers are brining to camp to help ease the spring load on Alex Avila and Victor Martinez. The Tigers top three catching prospects, Rob Brantly, Bryan Holaday, and John Murrian will all start their springs with the big boys. They will be joined by veteran backstops Max St. Pierre and Omir Santos, and newcomer Patrick Leyland.
Only St. Pierre and Santos have any reasonable chance to break camp with the big club, but the exposure to big league camp will be good for all of these young receivers. In the good story category, Tigers manager Jim Leyland could have the pleasure of writing his son’s name on an early spring lineup card.
On the infield, Scott Thorman and Argenis Diaz were minor league free agents brought in to provide depth during the spring and compete for jobs at the upper levels of the system. Both will have their work cut out for them, but they have enough skills to stick around in camp for a while, and allow the Tigers to rest players like Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Inge, and Ramon Santiago at times throughout camp.
Brandon Douglas has done nothing but hit since joining the organization as an 11th round draft pick in 2008. That hitting prowess has earned him a chance to impress the brass on the big field in Lakeland this spring. Though the Tigers are currently staring at a bit of a log jam at second base with Carlos Guillen, Will Rhymes, and Scott Sizemore, Douglas might have enough offensive ability to force his way into the discussion by the end of 2011.
Rounding out the cadre of NRIs, the Tigers have also invited outfielders Andy Dirks, Avisail Garcia, and Ben Guez. Dirks turned in his best pro season in 2010 and continued raking during a winter in the Dominican. Scouts continue to see him as a player capable of being a big league fourth outfielder if given the chance, and the start of that chance now comes this spring.
Garcia is one of the organization’s most physically impressive and supremely talented players, and this opportunity to work with the big league coaching staff and be around big league players like Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez could prove to be the spring board he needs to translate raw tools to results in 2011. Garcia will likely stay in Lakeland for the entire season, serving as the Flying Tigers primary right fielder.
Guez moved all over the organization in 2010, jumping from Lakeland to Toledo, then back again, and he even made a stop at Erie in there as well. He finished with a decent showing in the Arizona Fall League. With a litany of outfielders in camp, Guez will likely get limited opportunities to strut his stuff, but the exposure to big league players will be valuable.
The Tigers could still add more players to this list of non-roster invitees, though big league camp is starting to fill up quickly with 58 players currently slated to be there.