Like most teams at this point in the offseason, the Indians have handed out a large number of minor-league contracts with (and some without) invites to spring training. None of these guys should individually be expected to have any impact, but it is quite likely one or two of them will stick and play a role at some point during the season. The obvious soft spot on the 25-man roster heading into camp is the role of a situational right-handed bat that can play OF and/or 1B. The Indians well-honed emphasis on flexibility and depth means that the bullpen, despite being very good last year and returning essentially the same cast this season, could house one or two NRIs at the end of the Spring. Here is a roundup of the Indians off-season minor league signings to date and an appraisal of what impact they might have.
Matt Pagnozzi C (12/02/11) - Pagnozzi is likely AAA depth at catcher, competing with last year's minor league free agent acquisition Michel Hernandez for the backup spot behind Luke Carlin. Pagnozzi has actually seen action in the majors each of the past three seasons - for Pittsburgh, Colorado and St. Louis - but only a handful of games in each of those appearances. The Indians only have two catchers on the 40-man roster (Santana and Marson), so anyone playing the position at Columbus has the chance to make an appearance in Cleveland in the case of injury. Presumably Pagnozzi has some acumen manning the position and working with pitchers, because his offensive abilities (high Ks, low BBs, poor power and hit tools) are lacking.
Jose Lopez 2B (12/16/11) - Lopez is arguably the most decorated off-season NRI, having been selected to the All-Star game in 2006 while playing for Seattle (he was, it should be noted, a fairly poor choice). Prior to that, his performance at a young age in the upper minors made him a two-time Baseball America top 100 prospect (2003 #38, 2004 #70). Lopez, although not particularly old at just 28, is well past his peak years in Seattle. At his best, Lopez was an adequate to plus fielder at 2B with above average power for the position that made up for a lack of on-base ability. The past two seasons, Lopez has simply been bad (.233/.263/.348 for Seattle, Colorado and Florida). As a right-handed hitter potentially capable of playing any of the infield spots, Lopez seemingly duplicates the flexibility of Jason Donald. Lopez is almost assuredly behind Donald in the pecking order, however, who is himself behind starters Cabrera/Kipnis and in competition with Cord Phelps and Jack Hannahan, both who are already on the roster. If he accepts it, Lopez could be the utility man in Columbus.
Felix Pie OF (12/16/11) - Pie brings the excitement that comes with being a "failed, former big-time prospect." Pie was a 5-time Baseball America top 100 prospect, ranking somewhere between #27 and #85 every season between 2003 and 2007. Perhaps because of questionable usage by the Cubs early in his career, and certainly because of a twisted (click the link) and frequent injury history, Pie has never turned his raw tools and athleticism into steady baseball performance. His best season at the major league level was 2009 in Baltimore, when he played 101 games, mainly split between CF and LF, with an OPS of .763. Pie will turn 27 next month, but given his poor development and injury history, it feels like an old 27. If he were healthy, and if the Indians were able to make significant progress in consolidating his raw tools, maybe you could imagine him competing for a backup OF spot on the roster. That seems unlikely though, and a spot in Columbus' outfield, if he accepts, seems far more likely.
Andy LaRoche 3B (12/21/11) - Another failed top prospect, LaRoche has never been able to reproduce the above average power and plate approach that made him a top prospect in the Dodger's system back in the mid-2000s. LaRoche, a four-time BA top 100 prospect, reached as high as #19 on the list following a 2007 season at AAA Las Vegas that saw him hit .309/.399/.589. Keep in mind that the PCL is a notoriously high-offense league when looking at those numbers. In the majors, LaRoche has been able to maintain his solid contact abilities, but without anything resembling the power and overall hit tool he showcased as a minor leaguer. His best season, 2009 with the Pirates, saw him hit .258/.330/.401 with just 12 HRs in 590 PAs. Since then it has been considerably worse. With Chisenhall and Hannahan sitting ahead of him in Cleveland, LaRoche doesn't look like more than an emergency injury replacement, competing for a spot or playing time with Jared Goedert (who has hit much better of late than LaRoche) in Columbus.
Robinson Tejeda RHP (1/3/12) - Working as a primary set-up man and swing starter, Tejeda was one of the Royals most valuable pitchers as recently as 2009 (posting a 1.3 fWAR in 73 innings). In 2010 he was still effective working out of the pen, but he collapsed last season. The reason is not hard to pinpoint. His average fastball velocity from 2009 to 2011 goes like this: 94.2>93.7>90.2. The same decline is seen in his slider and changeup, his other main offerings. Tejeda has struggled through bicep and shoulder problems the past two seasons. If Tejeda can show that he is healthy, and if his velocity returns, he seems one of the more likely candidates to appear in Cleveland. Even aside from those "ifs," Tejeda has always struggled with his control (5.0 BB/9 in the majors), an issue that his limited his effectiveness throughout his career.
Chris Seddon LHP (1/9/12) - A slow-tossing lefty, Seddon has been used almost exclusively as a starter in the minors, while 17 of his 21 major league appearances have come out of the pen. Seddon's biggest asset seems to be that he has been fairly durable, and would therefore look like backup rotation depth for Columbus. Unless the Indians' scouts see some potential in his repertoire that hasn't been seen by the three previous organizations Seddon has played for, hard to see him making any impact in Cleveland.
Chin-Lung Hu SS (1/9/12) - One of the least mentioned NRIs as far as I can tell, Hu had a great season at AA and AAA in the Dodgers' system back in 2007 (.325/.364/.507 while playing SS) that made him BA's #55 prospect in baseball. He has never been able to replicate that performance since, and was moved from the Dodgers to the Mets before last season. Since 2007 he has accumulated more than 100 games in the majors, but maxed out at 65 games with 129 PAs in 2008. Depending on whether the Indians start Juan Diaz in Akron or Columbus, Hu could end up as a starter at SS for the Clippers. He would still likely be a few notches down the pecking order in the event of a major league injury at the position, but one could imagine the circumstances that might bring him to Cleveland for a stint.
Chris Ray RHP (1/12/12) - Ray saved 33 games for the 2006 Baltimore Orioles, despite an unremarkable performance, which is apparently all you need to stick around the majors for awhile. Since then he has played for four organizations (Baltimore, Texas, San Francisco and Seattle) but has only been effective in short stints, seemingly getting by on guile as much as raw ability, as he has modest to poor strikeout abilities and mediocre control. He hasn't shown any basic decline in his pitches, so it is certainly possible he could work his smoke and mirrors in Cleveland.
Willy Lebron RHP (1/13/12) - Lebron is old(ish), turning 33 in late March. He has very little professional track record, having been completely out of pro-ball in the US from 2007-2010. But last season Lebron showed up in the KC system and put up decent strikeout numbers in AA and AAA. This is a pure scouting sign it would seem, so hard to guess what role he might play.
Jeremy Accardo RHP (1/19/12) - Inspried by Chris Ray's 2006 season, Accardo took over the role of "ineffective, but someone has to get those saves" closer-role for Toronto in 2007, saving 30 games, despite a lackluster 7.6 K/9. His numbers have gotten worse since, including a nearly 3mph dip in his fastball velocity over that span, but he has remained intermittently employed. I don't see much here, but this is another one for the pitching staff and trainers to try and sort out.
Fred Lewis OF (1/19/12) - Lewis is one of the more familiar names here, having logged more than 1500 plate appearances in the majors over the past four seasons (mostly with San Francisco and Toronto). He struggled badly with Cincinnati last season, is now over 30, and is yet another left-handed hitter, seemingly limiting his potential with Cleveland. His best season came in 2008 when he hit .282/.351/.440 with the Giants. At his best, Lewis offers decent speed and hitting abilities. The best guess, however, is that his best is a few years past him.
Gregorio Petit 2B/SS (1/20/12) - Petit missed all of last season to injury, and has only seen limited playing time at the major league level in 2008 and 2009 in Oakland. As a well-regarded middle-infield glove, with very little hitting ability, Petit is likely a utility guy for Columbus. Could be the best defensive fill-in if an emergency replacement was needed in Cleveland, but offers nothing in the way of upside.
Ryan Spilborghs OF (1/20/12) - As a partial platoon guy for the Rockies, Spilborghs, a right-hander, showed a particular knack for knocking around LHP for Colorado back in 2007-2008 (putting up an OPS against LHP of nearly 1.000). His overall ability, including his success against lefties, has dropped off since then, leading to his eventual demotion back to AAA last season. If he could recapture the success he had earlier in his career, Spilborghs could be a very good option for an OF platoon spot against LHP. His competition for that spot includes Duncan, Aaron Cunningham and Thomas Neal.