If nothing else, last spring taught us that minor league contracts matter, and that invitations to big league camp can be eye-opening. Freddy Garcia was a non-roster invite last year, one of five NRIs to break camp with the big league team. Manny Banuelos was also a non-roster invite last year, offering a standout performance that cemented his place on the prospect map (even for those who don’t follow the farm system).
Here’s a look at all those NRI pitchers who will be in camp when it opens on Sunday.
And just to be clear for those who are confused every year: Each and every player on the 40-man roster is automatically invited to big league camp. That means guys like David Phelps and Dellin Betances will be there automatically, no invitation necessary.
LHP Manny Banuelos
Alphabetically, we start with the top prospect in the Yankees minor league system. Last spring, Banuelos opened eyes in his first turn with the big leaguers. This spring, Banuelos is legitimatelly trying to open more than eyes. He’s trying to open doors. There’s little chance he can make the big league roster out of camp, but a mid-season call-up isn’t out of the question. He’s the top arm in the system, and this could be the last time he needs a non-roster invitation to camp.
RHP Dan Burawa
A 12th-round pick in 2010, Burawa has yet to pitch above High-A — and he has just 20 games above Low-A — but clearly the Yankees are intrigued. They sent Burawa to the Arizona Fall League this offseason, and now they’ve invited him to big league camp after just a year and half of pro ball. I don’t know much about him except that he throws pretty hard, but he was drafted out of college, so the Yankees might see him as a potential fast-mover.
LHP Juan Cedeno
I would argue — rather easily — that this is the biggest surprise of the bunch. Cedeno has not pitched during the regular season in any of the past three years. He’s appeared Korea, independent ball and in the Dominican Winter League, including 1.04 ERA in 8.2 innings there this winter (lefties went 3-for-15 against him). Cedeno previously spent time in the minor league systems of the Red Sox, Royals, Dodgers and Tigers, but never above Double-A. This is clearly about getting a closer look.
RHP Matt Daley
A 29-year-old born in Queens, Daley spent part of the past three seasons in the big leagues with the Rockies. He was solid in 2009 (1.19 WHIP in 51 innings) but he hasn’t been able to repeat those results. The Yankees signed him to a minor league deal, and right now he looks like relief depth to be stowed in Triple-A.
RHP Manny Delcarmen
The former Red Sox relief prospect is another minor league free agent who could bring added depth. For a while Delcarmen looked like a good young piece of the Boston bullpen, but his performance began to lag in 2009 and he spent all of last season in Triple-A.
RHP Brett Marshall
Back from Tommy John surgery, Marshall had a strong partial season in 2010, but showed some inconsistencies in 2011. He finished strong last year and remains one of the under-the-radar prospects in this pitching rich farm system. He’s still just 21 — almost 22 — and despite the injury should be ticketed for Double-A. You’re forgiven if you haven’t heard of him, but he’s worth watching at this point.
RHP Adam Miller
Speaking of pitching injuries, Miller was considered one of the game’s elite pitching prospects before injuries knocked his career far off track. He didn’t pitch in 2009 or 2010, but he returned last season to get 44 innings as a reliever. He’s kind of this spring’s version of Mark Prior. Granted, it’s very different because Miller doesn’t have Prior’s big league track record, but it’s similar in that this is a very good arm that’s trying to get healthy again. Might be nothing, but if Miller gets back on track, there’s considerable upside.
LHP Mike O’Connor
Originally a starter, O’Connor has made 35 big league appearances scattered across three seasons (with large gaps in between). O’Connor is clearly coming to camp to add some depth from the left side. He’s another one who looks like a real longshot to break camp with the team and seems more likely headed for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to give the team a mid-season alternative.
LHP Hideki Okajima
Scratch that. Okajima failed his physical and won’t be in camp.
RHP Ryan Pope
On the 40-man roster at this time last year, Pope only pitched 45.2 innings last year — less than half what he pitched in 2010 — and most of his appearances came in a repeat of Double-A. It was clearly a stepback for the former third-round pick, but with a Triple-A assignment likely for 2012, Pope is trying to put himself back in the conversation for a big league call-up. He’d like to start with a good impression in big league camp.
RHP Graham Stoneburner
Injury limited Stoneburner to just 11 Double-A starts last season, so he didn’t have much time to build off a terrific showing in 2010. Given the current state of the Triple-A rotatoin, Stoneburner is likely headed back to Double-A (unless the Yankees decide to move him to the bullpen). He’s a legitimate prospect with an awesome name, and this will be his first taste of big league camp.
RHP Adam Warren
Quite often, Warren seems to be lumped into a trio with D.J. Mitchell and David Phelps. All three are Triple-A starters with legitimate prospect status and real potential to help in the big leagues sooner rather than later. Unlike Phelps and Mitchell, though, Warren is still not Rule 5 eligible, so he’s not on the 40-man roster. Even so, he’s a very legitimate candidate to see some big league time this year.
RHP Kevin Whelan
When he finally worked through some control issues, Whelan emerged with a breakout season in 2011. He was dominant as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s closer, and even though he wasn’t among those invited to big league camp last spring, he got a big league call-up during the season. Designated for assignment to make room for Hiroki Kuroda, Whelan needs to keep his control in check to get back on the radar.
RHP Chase Whitley
Already a fast-riser in the Yankees minor league system, Whiley was a 15th-round pick in 2010 and already has 19 games of Double-A experience. He’s likely headed back to Double-A to open this season, but the fact he skipped Charleston, got all the way to Trenton last year and now has an invitation to big league camp sends a pretty clear signal that the Yankees are interested in what Whitley can do.
Associated Press photo of Banuelos