Toolshed: Spring invitees to follow in AL

Tigers' Cameron, Angels' Jones among NRIs worthy of attention

Toolsy outfielder Daz Cameron should open 2019 one stop away from Detroit with Triple-A Toledo. (Scott Grau/Toledo Mud Hens)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | February 15, 2019 10:25 AM

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff. Forrest Whitley and Corbin Martin.

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, though, 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 out of a camp.

Below are the most interesting prospects to receive non-roster Spring Training invitations in the American League this year, players worth following closely as the 2019 season approaches.

AL East

Baltimore Orioles: Ryan McKenna -- It's no secret that the Orioles will lean hard on young talent in 2019, and McKenna has a chance to stick in the minds of the new regime of manager Brandon Hyde and general manager Mike Elias. The 2015 fourth-rounder shot off to a crazy start with a 1.023 OPS in 67 games at Class A Advanced Frederick but fell back to earth with Double-A Bowie in the second half with a .239/.341/.338 line in 60 games. He rebounded nicely as one of the most productive hitters in the Arizona Fall League (.344/.474/.590), and the 22-year-old outfielder can show that autumnal performance was no fluke in his first official stint in big league camp. With Adam Jones likely out of the picture in Baltimore, the future of the center field position is open and possibly McKenna's for the taking as early as the All-Star break.

Boston Red Sox: Bobby Dalbec -- The defending World Series champs already have a corner-infield prospect pushing toward the Majors in No. 79 overall prospect Michael Chavis, and Dalbec could make things even more interesting at the hot corner, should he make the right adjustments. The 23-year-old third baseman could put on a show in Grapefruit League play with his plus power (as underscored by his 32 homers last season between Class A Advanced Salem and Double-A Portland), but he also has major contact issues that could get exploited in Florida (see his 32.4 percent strikeout rate). A good spring could be the start of Dalbec forcing his way into Boston's long-term plans. A ton of strikeouts will lead to more questions.

New York Yankees: Trevor Stephan -- The 23-year-old right-hander was a late addition to the spring roster -- his non-roster invitation was announced Wednesday -- but that timing won't matter when he's taking the mound in Tampa alongside CC Sabathia, Luis Severino and new addition James Paxton. A third-round pick in 2017, Stephan worked exclusively as a starter in his first full season but hit a bit of a wall at Double-A Trenton, where he posted a 4.54 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 83 1/3 innings. The Arkansas product's two above-average pitches (fastball, slider) combine with his lack of a quality third pitch and lengthy delivery to point toward a possible future in relief, and he'll be able to show New York what he's capable of in shorter stints in the spring. A move to the bullpen would speed up his already-quick ascent toward the Bronx.

Tampa Bay Rays: Colin Poche -- Poche's results out of the bullpen in 2018 were the stuff of legends -- and awards. The 25-year-old left-hander finished with a 0.82 ERA with 110 strikeouts, 19 walks and a .151 average-against in 66 innings at Double-A and Triple-A in the D-backs and Rays systems. He's already turning heads in Tampa Bay's camp, with catcher Nick Ciuffo praising his "invisible fastball" and manager Kevin Cash pointing out, "He really hides the ball well." As elite as Poche is when it comes to relief prospects, relievers don't often face the same worries about service time as other players. Long story short, Poche has a real chance to make the big club coming out of spring, and his resume shows he has little left to prove in the Minors. Continuing to throw invisible fastballs in Port Charlotte could send him up I-75 to St. Petersburg for Opening Day.

Toronto Blue Jays: T.J. Zeuch -- Interest in the Toronto system falls apart pretty quickly after the big names, but don't let Zeuch escape attention. The 6-foot-7 righty rebounded from a 2017 hampered by back injuries to become a 2018 Eastern League All-Star, with a 3.08 ERA over 120 innings for Double-A New Hampshire. With his height and the downward movement on his fastball, the 2016 first-rounder is at his best when he's racking up groundouts instead of strikeouts, so he may not record the most attractive pitching lines. But with Zeuch likely to open 2019 one stop away at Triple-A Buffalo, inducing a ton of weak contact in front of the Major League brass will help his case to join Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Danny Jansen and potentially Bo Bichette at some point in Toronto.

AL Central

Chicago White Sox: Zack Collins -- With so many pitchers in need of work, a team can never have too many catchers in Spring Training. Collins' summons gives him a chance to show Chicago he should be behind the plate on the South Side for the long term. The 2016 first-rounder is offense-first, thanks to his power (15 homers at Double-A in 2018) and incredible ability to take a walk (101 free passes, .382 OBP). However, his defense and his ability to hit for average (.234) still need work. The White Sox had high hopes for Collins when they took him 10th overall out of Miami, and he'll need to show a more well-rounded package of tools to fulfill those hopes -- especially with Chicago potentially on the brink of contention.

Cleveland Indians: Daniel Johnson -- The Tribe has a few glaring holes in its outfield, and it just so happens that the organization picked up Johnson from the Nationals system in the Yan Gomes trade last November. Taken in the fifth round of the 2016 Draft, Johnson doesn't need to be on the 40-man roster yet, but he's got a few tools that can stand out on a Major League field, namely his plus arm, speed and glove. He's also got above-average power, which he showed when he hit 22 homers in the lower levels of the Washington system in 2017, but his overall offensive ability needs honing as he comes off a 2018 season in which he missed time with a broken hamate bone. Any potential help on the grass for Cleveland will be put under the microscope in Arizona, so if Johnson can show some consistency at the dish, he could become an outfield option at some point in the first half.

Detroit Tigers: Daz Cameron -- With the youth movement coming upon the Motor City, any Tigers prospect in camp will be worth watching this spring. Casey Mize will draw plenty of eyes in his first Grapefruit action, but Cameron is perhaps on track to arrive sooner. The 22-year-old center fielder climbed three levels in 2018, finishing at Triple-A Toledo while showing the family trademark plus defense, good arm and above-average speed. His offense still needs polish -- though a .342 average and .902 OPS in the AFL helped his stock -- but those tools alone could make him the most exciting center fielder in Lakeland this spring.

Kansas City Royals: Nicky Lopez -- The Royals might not be deep in many places coming off a 58-win season, but they are strong in the middle infield with Adalberto Mondesi and Whit Merrifield handling duties at shortstop and second base, respectively. That could mean two things for Lopez. One: he definitely won't be competing for a starting Major League job, so he won't be under a ton of pressure. Two: he'll need to have better than a normal spring if he hopes to leave any indication to the brass that he could someday soon unseat either player in the Majors. The 23-year-old continued to show a promising hit tool with a .308 average between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha, and his 52/60 K/BB ratio is undeniably impressive. That bat and plate discipline combine with good defensive tools to make a solid prospect, but he'll need more than that to break through. Perhaps he'll get some time at third base, where the Royals do have a hole, though he's yet to play there in the pros.

Minnesota Twins: Brent Rooker -- Rooker has the plus power to make a few Spring Training highlight reels. He also has specific instructions on what to work on. The 2017 35th overall pick split his time between left field and first base last season, and he'll need to improve at both positions to demonstrate he's more than a future DH. He's also got the typical power hitter problem -- he struck out in 26.4 percent of his plate appearances with Double-A Chattanooga last season. Some additional tweaks could make Rooker a part of Minnesota's big plans alongside the ascendant Lewis and Kirilloff, and there's no better place to start making those adjustments than Florida.

AL West 

Houston Astros: Ronnie Dawson -- If No. 8 overall prospect Kyle Tucker hasn't shown enough to become part of Houston's immediate plans, one can only imagine the burden placed on Dawson, who finished 2018 ranked as the No. 20 prospect in the system. He has a couple things going for him entering his first spring as a non-roster invitee, namely plus speed (35 steals in 2018) and some decent pop (16 homers). The two together could allow Dawson to grab some attention. But the biggest thing to watch will be his overall bat, as he hit .258 between Class A Advanced Buies Creek and Double-A Corpus Christi last year. Without more consistency, the rest of Dawson's tools with be for naught.

Los Angeles Angels: Jahmai Jones -- There was a time when Jones was the most exciting prospect in the Halos system. Since then, the Angels have added Jo Adell, Brandon Marsh, Jordyn Adams and Griffin Canning, to name a few. The presence of the first three (and other promising outfielders) is a big reason why Jones moved to second base full time last season. The 2015 second-rounder has good speed and had shown a good bat in the past, though the latter came back to earth in 2018 when he hit just .239/.337/.380 between Class A Advanced Inland Empire and Double-A Mobile. Perhaps being past the defensive conversion will do him some good; Jones will need to pick up again offensively this spring or else lose more ground to the brighter names on the improving Los Angeles farm.

Oakland Athletics: Parker Dunshee -- Good control will stand out more in a stat sheet than it will on a Spring Training broadcast, but that's what should be Dunshee's meal ticket in Arizona over the coming weeks. The 24-year-old righty issued only 31 walks over 150 2/3 innings between Class A Advanced Stockton and Double-A Midland during his first full season, and his 2.33 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 163 strikeouts in that span didn't look too bad, either. Dunshee doesn't have any special pitches, but the arsenal is deep and his strike-throwing ability makes it work. Back-end starter is a role within reach, and a few efficient Cactus League outings will do him wonders toward reaching that potential at some point in the coming summer.

Seattle Mariners: Evan White -- The 2017 first-rounder will do some things with the glove that will wow fans, coaches, scouts and front-office types alike. That's a rarity for a first baseman. Case in point: White was the only one ranked among MLB.com's top 10 first-base prospects to receive a 70 for his glove tool. The Kentucky product's average bat keeps him out of the Top 100 list for now, but there were positive indicators of improvement in the second half of last season. Notably, he hit .379/.467/.689 with 19 extra-base hits in his final 27 games from Aug. 1 onward. A .762 OPS in the AFL cooled things a bit, but if he can bring that hot bat back to the Grand Canyon State, he'll head to Double-A for the first time with the Top 100 well within his sights -- and the Emerald City not much farther beyond.

Texas Rangers: Eli White -- Speaking of players named White in the AL West, all Eli has done of late is hit. The 24-year-old finished second in the Texas League with a .304 average for Double-A Midland last season and followed that by finishing seventh in the AFL with a .344 mark in 15 games there. That hit tool caught the Rangers attention, and they picked him up from division-rival Oakland two months ago in the Jurickson Profar trade. White also possesses above-average speed and has professional experience at second, short, third and center field. He lacks the power to be a big-time impact bat, but he's got a real chance to show Texas that he could be a useful utility player. That'd be a welcome sight with Profar out of the picture.

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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