Several non-roster invitees could have impact
Prospect Piscotty, veteran Neshek among players to watch in Cardinals' camp
ST. LOUIS -- The group will number 19 in total, almost all of whom (Pat Neshek being the exception) will be assigned lockers in one corner of the Spring Training clubhouse and numbers usually designated for wide receivers and linemen. These non-roster invitees will be wide-eyed and attentive, cognizant that impressions left with the Major League staff can later dictate their speed of ascension.
Just ask last year's group.
Remember Michael Wacha's spring showing? He had heads turning just days after arriving, with coaches and staff mesmerized by his advanced changeup and improving curveball. Wacha went on to strike out 15, walk one and allow no earned runs in 11 2/3 innings in Grapefruit League play. He eventually was reassigned to Minor League camp, but not before at least one staff member lobbied for him to open the year in St. Louis.
In other words, the foundation for Wacha's big league contributions in 2013 was laid down in Jupiter, Fla., months earlier.
Seth Maness, though without equal fanfare, left a similarly strong impression last spring. Having been used primarily as a starter in the Minors, Maness found himself tested by manager Mike Matheny, who several times brought Maness in mid-inning to wiggle out of jams. It would be a harbinger for his eventual role out of the Cardinals' bullpen.
By the end of 2013, seven players -- Kolten Wong, Wacha, Rob Johnson, John Gast, Maness, Tyler Lyons and Audry Perez -- who were non-roster participants in big league camp went on to contribute in St. Louis. Carlos Martinez did as well, though visa issues precluded him from ever spending time in Major League Spring Training despite the invitation. Oscar Taveras would have almost certainly been on the list, too, had an ankle injury not stalled his season.
Those with non-roster invites this season include first-round picks, up-and-coming prospects and the next wave of young arms. So as you get to know their names, here is a look at five candidates who could be poised to parlay this spring opportunity into a place on the Cardinals' roster sometime in 2014:
Outfielder Stephen Piscotty: Piscotty, the No. 36 overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, was an obvious add to this list. He comes into camp on the heels of a breakout season that included a position change to right field and a successful stint in the Arizona Fall League. He ended the season in Double-A, and he should take his place in the outfield for Triple-A Memphis on Opening Day. And while much of the attention is on top prospect Taveras, the Cardinals clearly have more than one young outfielder to watch closely this spring.
Left-hander Tim Cooney: In 2013, Cooney, like Piscotty, rose to Double-A in his first full professional season. He made 20 starts with Double-A Springfield, posting a 3.80 ERA. He struck out 125 while walking 18 in 118 1/3 innings and seems a strong candidate for inclusion in the Memphis rotation out of Spring Training. While the Cardinals have impressive starting-pitching depth, the organization has been unhesitant to call upon Minor League starters to fill bullpen voids when needed. Cooney could be in line for such a midseason summons.
Left-hander Lee Stoppelman: Stoppelman earned a late-season promotion to Memphis in 2013 and should begin this season back in that Triple-A bullpen. Though he doesn't get standout status on prospect lists, Stoppelman has had a smooth and dominant climb through the Minors since being a 24th-round selection in 2012. He has pitched exclusively out of the bullpen and could be a candidate to close in Memphis. While the Cardinals already have a pair of lefties (Randy Choate, Kevin Siegrist) earmarked for the Opening Day bullpen, Stoppelman could provide in-season help.
Left-hander Marco Gonzales: Could Gonzales be this year's Wacha? That would seem a stretch given that Gonzales did not dominate in his first taste of professional competition in the same way Wacha did a year earlier. To be fair, though, few have. Nevertheless, Gonzales was pegged as a fast-track candidate upon being drafted 19th overall (yes, same spot as Wacha) in 2013. He made it to Class A Advanced Palm Beach last year and should start this season in Double-A. He was an advanced college pitcher upon joining the organization, and a strong 2014 season would make him a candidate for a late-season summons.
Right-hander Neshek: Neshek is the one on this list with experience, and he is the most likely candidate to nudge his way onto the Cardinals' Opening Day roster. While almost all of the Cardinals' non-roster invitees are Minor Leaguers trying to get noticed, Neshek earned the invite by way of signing a Minor League deal. A seven-year Major League veteran, Neshek brings his unorthodox delivery to his fourth organization. His ability to neutralize right-handed hitters would be an asset in a Cardinals bullpen that is setting up to be a strength for this club.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.