We made it through the winter. We made it through the holidays and we made it to a new year. Those of you in the north, you even made it through a polar vortex. Your reward? You’re beginning to get the first few drops of news from the baseball fountain that has been dry for what feels like an eternity.
Most of these first bits of news come in the form of spring training invites, the psuedo-news stories that tell us which young players and minor league free agents will be in camp competing for a spot on the major league roster. Understanding the reasoning behind these invitations, however, requires a little background knowledge.
Every situation is different for every team, but they all involve roughly the same situations. Spring training invites typically fall into one of the following categories:
—40-man roster players: All players on the 40-man roster are automatically invited to spring training. Most of these are major league veterans, but minor leaguers have to be added to the 40-man roster at a certain point to avoid being exposed to the Rule V draft (an explanation for a different time). Many of these players are in no contention for a major league spot this year, but they are required to be in major league camp. At some point they will be optioned to the minors (this can happen in three different seasons), but they will be in camp longer than most players, even if they don’t have a chance to make the Opening Day roster.
When you see articles announcing invites to spring training, many of these players aren’t mentioned. Gregory Polanco of the Pirates is a good example for this spring. He’s on the Pirates 40-man roster and will spend most of March in spring training, but there’s little chance of him breaking camp with the team.
—Non-roster invites (with a chance): For the most part, these are veterans in camp to compete for a bench role, such as Delmon Young, who just signed a minor league deal with the Orioles with a spring training invite. Some prospects fall into this category, but in general, prospects who are in camp with a realistic chance to make a major league club are already on the 40-man roster.
—Non-roster invites (catchers): This one is simple. Lots of catchers get invited to spring training simply because there are a lot of pitchers who need to throw bullpen sessions and teams need the manpower. Don’t read anything into any young catcher being in camp.
—Non-roster invites (there for experience): This is where it gets a little tricky; we don’t always know the exact reason why they are in camp.
Byron Buxton will be with the Twins in spring training, but has no chance to make the major league roster this season. He’s there to get a taste of big league life. He’ll be among the first cut when the Twins trim down their roster, but getting that brief glimpse of the major league side of a team’s spring training complex can be quite the carrot to hold over a prospect’s head. On the other hand, teams have often used the lack of an invitation to send a message that they are disappointed in a prospect in one way or another, whether due to his on-field performance or some kind of off-field problem.
Other prospects are there because they’re going to be in the majors soon. Another Pirate, Jameson Taillon, should be in the majors around the same time as Polanco, but because he’s not on the 40-man roster, the Pirates had to give him in invitation to camp. He isn’t expected to make the Opening Day roster, but probably will be in camp longer than a player like Buxton. Since he’s part of the team’s plan for the second half of the season, the Pirates will want Taillon to get as much major league experience as possible before they’re forced to cut the roster down.
Each team handles these invitations differently, but they all operate roughly the same way.
The key as a fan is not to over-think things. Buxton won’t be making the Twins roster, no matter what stories come out of Fort Myers about how impressive he’s looked this spring. He’s also not going anywhere other than to the back fields when the news comes out that he’s among the first round of cuts.
Their time in major league camp provides players with a taste of big league life and fans a chance to see them in a big league lineup for a few games, giving us a glimpse, no matter how brief, of things to come.