In our first Spring Training story of the year, six players recently signed by the Cubs to 2007 minor league contracts have received Non-Rroster Invitations (NRIs) to Spring Training:
* bats or throws left
# bats both
# Koyie Hill
* Jason Smith
* Les Walrond
If some of the names sound familiar, it's probably because all six have at least some MLB experience.
Webb and Smith are both one-time members of the Cubs organization, both have done time on the Cubs 40-man roster, and both were rated as Top 10 Cubs Prospects by Baseball America
at various times (Smith in 1999, and Webb in 2001).
Smith was one of two players sent to Tampa Bay for Fred McGriff
in July 2001, and Webb was claimed off outright waivers by the Devil Rays in February 2004 after suffering a broken leg while walking his dog during the off-season. (Tough break).
Now 27, Webb has evolved into a jouneyman AAA rotation starter, spending last season in the Cardinals organization. But Jason Smith would appear to have something to offer. An athletic left-handed hitter who started his career as a shortstop, Smith is capable of playing all four infield positions and both corner outfield spots. In 49 games with the Colorado Rockies in 2006, he hit .263 with five HR in just 107 PA. In 166 career MLB games with TB, DET, and COL (about equal to one full season's worth of games), Smith has gone 230/260/385, with 11 HR, 10 doubles, eight triples, and nine SB (12 CS). Depending on who else Jim Hendry is able to sign this off-season, Smith, who is now 29, might have an outside chance to win a bench job with the Cubs in 2007.
A lefty "swingman" and a one-time Kansas Jayhawk, Walrond had some previous MLB experience with the KC Royals in 2003 before signing a minor league contract with the Cubs after the 2005 season. Walrond received an invitation to Spring Training with the Cubs, but was sent to Iowa after failing to make Dusty Baker's Opening Day pitching staff. Walrond had a decent year at AAA Iowa that earned him a September call-up with the big club, and Les showed a pretty good strikeout pitch with the Cubs (21 K in 17 IP). Unfortunately, between the punch-outs he was pretty bad (6.23 ERA and 1.79 WHIP). Walrond is 30 years old.
A switch-hitting catcher, Koyie Hill played college ball at Wichita State and is a one-time BA Dodgers Top 10 Prospect (2003-04) who failed to seize opportunities over the past couple of years with the Diamondbacks after being acquired by Arizona from the Dodgers in the 2004 Steve Finley trade. Hill suffered a broken ankle in August 2004 shortly after arriving in Arizona, and that likely has had a negative impact on his career. But he is an MLB-ready catcher, and he could be a viable back-up catcher for the Cubs in 2007 in case anything happens to Barrett or Blanco. Hill will turn 28 during Spring Training.
Jason Anderson, who pitched collegiately at the University of Illinois, got into 28 games (combined) as a middle reliever with the Yankees and the Mets in 2003, and Ben Howard is a one-time 2nd round draft pick of the San Diego Padres and BA Top 10 Padres Prospect (2002-04) who got six starts with the Pads in 2003 before getting traded to Florida in 2004, where he got into 31 games out of the bullpen (5.50 ERA & 1.54 WHIP). However, both Anderson and Howard have settled into life as AAA middle relievers, and "considerable AAA experience" is their primary attribute at this point. Both are presently 27 years old, although Howard will turn 28 in January.