Each of the last two Mondays, the Minnesota Twins have instituted the necessary evil of purging players from their spring training roster. If the player was on the 40-man roster he was optioned to a minor league team, and if not he was re-assigned to minor league camp. Younger players simply see it as an opportunity to impress; older players may see it as their final opportunity. It's how the game works.
Every team invites, partly out of necessity and sometimes out of curiosity, a number of players to camp who aren't on the organization's depth charts at all. They, along with non 40-man roster players in camp, are dubbed "Non-Roster Invitees". They rarely break camp with the team, but one or two are often the focus of speculation. Everyone loves a dark horse.
With the Twins in a transitional state, the chances for non-roster invites to wedge themselves into a role with the Major League team have grown. The bullpen is in major flux, and a couple of those position player spots aren't as secure as we thought they might be. Before the Twins make their next round of spring training cuts today, if indeed they do make cuts, here is the list of the top five non-roster invitees in camp, in decending order of probability that they'll actually make the trip north.
Both General Manager Terry Ryan and Manager Ron Gardenhire have admitted at different points that they'd only bring Dozier north as their starting shortstop. Considering that the club has also said on a number of occasions that they didn't sign Jamey Carroll to have him sit on the bench, sliding him to second base and Alexi Casilla to a utility role makes the most sense. How pleased Casilla may be is in question. And of course, Dozier has yet to play in a game above double-A.
Burroughs is easy to cheer for, because he's a darker horse than the rest. From a top prospect, to talking to lamp posts, and back to baseball again - he's played fairly well this spring. It helps that Luke Hughes, who does a lot of the same things as Burroughs, hasn't had a fantastic spring until this weekend. Hughes is out of options and has metaphorically torn the cover off the ball in recent days, his overall performance hasn't been irreplaceable.
Matt Capps, Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak. That's the bullpen, and it's not that great. Matt Maloney has played himself to an inside edge and is already on the 40-man roster. With just two spots likely up for grabs, Burton has done everything right: 7 innings, 3 hits, 1 run, 7 strikeouts, 4 walks. Two of the hits and two of the walks came in his one bad outing this spring. He had a couple of decent seasons out of the 'pen for the Reds in '07 and '08, but has been unable to find that level of success since.
Fien is another right-hander, like Burton, and has looked like he's had better stuff than Burton as well. He has a wider velocity differential between his fastball and changeup, while Burton's cut fastball and slider are a bit harder. His minor league track record looks a bit more promising than Burton's, with higher strikeout rates and lower walk rates. Whether or not he can translate that to the Majors is what the Twins would have to gamble on, since Fien has exactly 14 MLB innings under his belt. 11.1 of them came in 2009.
Towles has had mention before in this space, largely because his minor league track record indicates that his offensive potential much higher than we've seen from him at the Major League level. The man has a career triple slash of .295/.394/.465 in 1598 minor league plate appearances, and yet he hasn't been able to get more than a sniff of an opportunity with the Astros. Drew Butera is still the third catcher, but he does have an option year remaining. Would the Twins keep four catchers on the 40-man roster? It seems unlikely. If the team wants to go with Towles, they'd likely attempt to pass Butera through waivers in order to remove him from the 40-man.
Fans of these five players can find plenty of legitimate arguments for why they could break camp with the Twins, but it would still be a surprise if they did. Not many players can make the jump directly from double-A and find success, even if it isn't unprecedented. Burroughs and Towles need to force the Twins' hand if they're going to risk Hughes or Butera to waivers. Burton and Fien look good, but Kyle Waldrop and Jeff Manship are still around and besides, the team likes to reward organizational guys.
It's tempting to tab non-roster players as deserving. But they're still on the outside looking in, which means that the organization needs to react in order to allow them to play. Players already on the 40-man will always have an inherent advantage.
If any of these players do make the cut, it says just as much about the players who are losing their spots as it says about those who are being added.