Toolshed: Spring invitees to follow in NL

Cards' Knizner, Phils' Romero among NRIs worthy of attention

Andrew Knizner's road to St. Louis was cleared by the trade of Carson Kelly to Arizona. (Lianna Holub/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | February 19, 2019 10:00 AM

Fernando Tatis Jr. and Logan Allen. Nick Senzel and Taylor Trammell. Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia.

There's never a shortage of Top 100 Prospects who receive invitations to Major League camp ahead of Spring Training, and this year's edition in Arizona and Florida is no different. There are also, however, plenty of less touted non-roster invitees (NRIs) who bear watching as they open camp on the big league side intent to show off their multiple tools, make a lasting impression and -- perhaps for a lucky and talented few -- even snag a Major League spot.

Here are the most interesting prospects to receive non-roster Spring Training invitations in the National League, players worth following closely as the season approaches:

NL East

Atlanta Braves: William Contreras -- For all the youth arriving in Atlanta in recent years, the Braves don't have a clear close to Major League-ready catcher of the future. Perhaps that's a role that Contreras slides into, beginning with his first trip to big league Spring Training. The brother of Cubs backstop Willson Contreras has all the tools to stick as a well-rounded catcher. Like his kin, his arm grades out as a above-average and he showed a promising bat for his position by hitting .285/.347/.436 with 11 homers in 105 games between Class A Rome and Class A Advanced Florida. Contreras also earns plaudits for his glovework behind the plate, and Braves arms will get a good look at the 21-year-old's handiwork this month and next. Should they click as a group, the Venezuelan's path could be hastened, with a 2020 debut within view.

Miami Marlins: Nick Neidert -- The Marlins have a robust group of non-roster invitees, ranging from veterans like Curtis Granderson to a player who's yet to debut in affiliated ball in No. 99 overall prospect Victor Victor Mesa. Among the prospect group, Neidert is the one to watch coming off his strong first season with the Fish. The 22-year-old right-hander led the organization with 154 strikeouts over 152 2/3 innings at Double-A Jacksonville while posting a 3.24 ERA and 1.13 WHIP and walking only 31. Neidert has the three-pitch mix, along with impressive control, to start, so he should get some long looks in Grapefruit League play before heading to Triple-A New Orleans. With his changeup his best pitch, he won't light up the gun quite like Sandy Alcantara or Jorge Guzman, but he's much more likely to fill up the zone with regularity. And that'll be his meal ticket.

New York Mets: Anthony Kay -- The 2016 first-rounder needed Tommy John surgery shortly after the Mets drafted him out of UConn, making last season his first in the Minors. He held his own with a 4.26 ERA, 123 strikeouts and 49 walks over 122 2/3 innings between Class A Columbia and Class A Advanced St. Lucie. But it'll be even more interesting to see what the 23-year-old southpaw can do another year removed from surgery and the worry that comes with it. Kay can touch the mid-90s and show a good changeup, but his stuff will be challenged in longer stints at higher levels. Testing the arsenal in Grapefruit League outings should be telling.

Philadelphia Phillies: JoJo Romero -- There'll undoubtedly be a logjam of arms at the upper levels of the Philadelphia system, with Enyel De Los Santos, Drew Anderson, Ranger Suarez, Cole Irvin and others likely to slide into the Lehigh Valley rotation. While Romero doesn't have any Triple-A experience, he might have the best chance to start in the Majors, thanks to a a deep five-pitch mix headlined by his fastball, slider and changeup. He'll have to use that arsenal to separate himself from the pack. One way he can do that is by continuing to dominate on the ground after he forced Double-A batters to put the ball on the grass 52.3 percent of the times they made contact last season. If hitters in Florida continue to roll over Romero's stuff this spring, the Phillies will find a way to test him further coming out of camp, no matter how deep the IronPigs rotation could be.

Washington Nationals: Wil Crowe -- The Nationals aren't particularly deep in pitching prospects, but few organizations will feel bad for one that added Patrick Corbin to a rotation that already boasted Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Among the hurlers in Major League camp, Crowe is the clear standout. The 2017 second-rounder has a four-pitch mix, with his fastball, curveball and slider all potentially being above-average. That helped him put up a 2.69 ERA and 1.16 WHIP with 78 strikeouts over 87 innings at Class A Advanced Potomac, but he faltered down the stretch after moving up to Double-A Harrisburg, where he had a 6.15 ERA in five starts. Part of that could have been first full season fatigue, and the right-hander will get a chance to show what he's capable of when fresh in the spring. He won't be a candidate to break into the Washington rotation anytime soon, but the Nats would love if he could make the steps to help with depth at some point this year.

NL Central

Chicago Cubs: Zack Short -- It's fairly well known that Cubs' cupboard is pretty barren, but Short has a few interesting things going for him. The 23-year-old shortstop walks a ton, with 82 free passes in 124 games at Double-A Tennessee last season contributing to a .356 on-base percentage. He also slugged 17 homers, despite power being one of his weakest tools. He could be above-average with the arm and glove and has played second base and third in his Minor League career, enhancing his chances to find a spot on the Wrigley dirt. The focus will be on his overall hit tool. Short batted .227 in the Southern League and has a .242 career average in three pro seasons. It's an interesting profile, for sure, but Short has some work to do to be more than just a statistical oddity.

Cincinnati Reds: Tony Santillan -- This could be one of the most exciting Reds camps in years after the offseason moves made to compete in a what looks like an open NL Central race. The potential internal addition of a big arm like Santillan could be huge. Cincinnati took the right-hander in the second round of the 2015 Draft and has transformed him from a hard-throwing fireballer with control issues to a much more well-rounded pitcher who can find the zone with regularity. His walk rate went from 13.3 percent in 2016 to 6.0 percent last season between Class A Advanced Daytona and Double-A Pensacola. He also posted a 3.08 ERA with 134 strikeouts over 149 innings. The 21-year-old will be the Reds' most exciting arm at the upper levels, so his spring outings will be closely watched. A debut this summer is certainly possible, especially if the Reds try to put all hands on deck, a la the Braves last season.

Milwaukee Brewers: Corey Ray -- As addressed in this MiLB.com story by Gerard Gilberto, few in the Minors or Majors rivaled Ray's combination of power and speed in 2018, when he hit 27 homers and stole 37 bases in 135 games with Double-A Biloxi. That was a necessary bounceback for a 2016 first-rounder who produced a .679 OPS in his first full season. That said, there are still some holes in Ray's game, namely his hit tool. The left-handed slugger struck out 176 times, tied for ninth-most in the Minors, and hit just .239 in the Southern League. There were hopes he could develop into a five-tool star out of Louisville, but the bat holds him back here. More contact this spring would be a welcome development as Ray tries to push toward joining an already crowded outfield in Milwaukee.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Bryan Reynolds -- This will be Reynolds' second camp with the Bucs following his acquisition from the Giants in the Andrew McCutchen deal, and he comes back after making a fairly solid first impression. The 24-year-old switch-hitter produced a .302/.381/.438 line with seven homers and four stolen bases in 88 games with Double-A Altoona and only got better in the regular season as he recovered from a broken hamate bone that held him out for much of April and May. He struggled some in the Arizona Fall League but interestingly had a 14/14 K/BB ratio in 18 games with Surprise. Only 12 of the 64 qualified hitters in the autumnal circuit had a K/BB ratio of 1 or below. The Pirates split Reynolds between center and left last season, with three starts in right thrown in for good measure. His hit tool is solid, but he lacks the power to be of good value in a corner, so he'll have to show this spring he's capable of sticking in center going into an assignment to Triple-A Indianapolis.

St. Louis Cardinals: Andrew Knizner -- Knizner's path is now clear ... to be Yadier Molina's backup. For a while, the Cardinals have had the good problem of too many talented catchers. Carson Kelly stalled out trying to find time behind Molina, so much so that he graduated as a prospect because of his time on the roster, not his at-bats, before he was dealt to Arizona in December. That move opens the door for Knizner, who only spent much of 2018 with Double-A Springfield because the Cards wanted him to get the game time he wouldn't have found with Molina in St. Louis and Kelly in Memphis. The 24-year-old hit .313/.368/.430 with seven homers and 18 doubles in 94 games between the top two levels while continuing to grow behind the plate. With his bat basically Major League-ready, Knizner will be closely watched for his defense this spring and, if deemed sufficient, it shouldn't be long before he usurps Francisco Pena as the Cards' backup catcher quickly in 2019.

NL West

Arizona Diamondbacks: Daulton Varsho -- Varsho is far from an average catching prospect. His speed is his best tool, and that helped him steal 19 bases in 80 games with Class A Advanced Visalia. It would have been interesting to see how many thefts he could have racked up had he not been limited by a broken hamate that sidelined him for much of June and July. Case in point: he went 8-for-12 on the basepaths in the Arizona Fall League, where he was made up for lost time. His athleticism translates to the plate, where he hit .286/.363/.451 with 11 homers for the Rawhide, and behind it, although his arm is considered below average. Varsho's set of skills could catch open plenty of eyes during his first trip to Major League camp, and a few Cactus League backstops might not want to be caught sleeping when one of their own reaches first base.

Colorado Rockies: Peter Lambert -- Considered a Top 100 prospect as recently as last 2018 season, Lambert has dropped out in part because he got hit around at Triple-A Albuquerque, where he had a 5.04 ERA, 1.57 WHIP and .320 average against over 55 1/3 innings. Some contributing factors are the fact he throws a lot of strikes and his four-pitch mix doesn't include a truly plus pitch. Put that aside. After taking his bumps, Lambert has the chance to learn and adjust, and this spring will be the first chance to put those adjustments to the test. Even if his individual pitches don't stand out, he's got the full package to make it as a starter, and the Rockies would like to see him head back to the Pacific Coast League with a bit more confidence.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Will Smith -- Keibert Ruiz gets a little more ink as MLB.com's No. 36 overall prospect while Smith misses out on the Top 100, but don't get it twisted -- Smith has perhaps an even bigger chance to make the Major League roster at some point this year. The 2016 first-rounder finished last season at Triple-A, and while he hit a bit of a wall there offensively, he grew quite well with the bat at Double-A Tulsa, where he hit 19 homers in 73 games. Smith also earns impressive marks for his receiving and arm (36.4 percent caught stealing rate last season), making him an impressive package for a backstop. Los Angeles will use Austin Barnes and Russell Martin to paper over the loss of Yasmani Grandal, but Smith will get a big shot to measure up to those two [and Ruiz] in camp in hopes of making the Major League job his by the second half.

San Diego Padres: Josh Naylor -- Naylor will draw plenty of attention for his bat, coming off a season in which he batted .297/.383/.447 with 17 homers at Double-A San Antonio, but more eyes will be watching [and scrutinizing] his defense this spring. The 5-foot-11, 250-pound slugger was taken by the Marlins with the 12th overall pick in the 2015 Draft as a first baseman and stayed in that role with San Diego until the Padres signed Eric Hosmer. With Naylor's career clearly on a crash course with Hosmer's, the Padres moved him to left field. And because he lacks speed, the jury remains out on whether he can handle the position long-term. Naylor would love to add his name to the long list of prospects heading to San Diego this season, but he'll have to show he's capable of carving out a spot with his glove first.

San Francisco Giants: Shaun Anderson -- The Giants are sorely lacking in exciting pitching prospects. That might put more pressure on the system's top arm to show he's capable of providing value. Luckily, Anderson is fairly close to being Major League-ready. The 24-year-old right-hander has a solid four-pitch mix, led by his fastball, slider/cutter and changeup, and throws plenty of strikes. He put up a 3.69 ERA with 127 strikeouts and 33 walks over 141 1/3 innings between Double-A Richmond and Triple-A Sacramento last season, making eight starts at the upper level following a late-July promotion. The Giants made one offseason addition to the rotation by signing Drew Pomeranz, but it's not hard to see Anderson finding a spot in the back end in due time. A sharp spring would leave a lasting impression.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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