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Five Non-Roster Contenders for Tampa Bay Rays’ Roster

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Jun 27, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Ronald Belisario delivers a pitch against Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Ronald Belisario

Belisario has spent five years in the major leagues, including four with the Los Angels Dodgers. In two of his first big league seasons, he was excellent, managing an ERA under 2.60, but he put up just a 5.04 ERA in the other year and has been considerably shakier the last two seasons. Last season, he was regarded highly enough by the Chicago White Sox to receive same opportunities, but he was non-tendered after posting a 5.56 ERA.

Belsario is a relief pitcher who pitches in 60-plus games per season as a setup man. He has a hard sinker that he regularly throws at 95 miles per hour and that makes him a ground ball machine. He has the qualifications to be an effective middle reliever in the big leagues and also has the ability to provide length.

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However, jobs are scarce in the Rays bullpen, which will complicate Belisario’s case to make the team. As it stands right now, Brad Boxberger, Kevin Jepsen, Grant Balfour, Ernesto Frieri, and Jeff Beliveau are locks to be with the team, leaving two spots hypothetically available. However, Jake McGee will come off the DL by the beginning of May if not the middle of April while Alex Colome will end up in the relief corps if he does not win the Rays’ fifth starter job.

To make matters worse, Belisario reported to camp with a fracture in his left, non-throwing shoulder, an injury that will sideline him for two weeks. Nevertheless, Belisario can still make the team, and his ability to throw multiple innings could earn him a spot as a long reliever even after McGee returns. In addition, with the performance of pitchers like Balfour and Frieri up in the air, Ronald Belisario could end up returning to a setup role with the Rays if he pitches well.

Bobby Wilson

Right now, Wilson looks like the heavy favorite to win the Rays’ backup catching spot. Curt Casali is his only really competition and could replace him before the year is through, but Casali needs more work at Triple-A.

Before coming to the Rays, Wilson had an undistinguished career as a backup catcher for the Los Angles Angels of Anaheim. In five years, he logged 447 plate appearances as an Angel. They released him in 2012 and he has only posted 4 major league at bats in the past two years. He stood out for his pitch-framing and a .241/.313/.451 slash line against lefties, but he was a disaster against right-handed pitching and wasn’t anything special at throwing out attempted basestealers.

The Rays would love for Wilson to be decent enough to be their second catcher to begin the season. With both Casali and Luke Maile having the ability to crack the big leagues before the year is through, the Rays simply need a stopgap for a few months and hope that Wilson can provide that. Otherwise, they may need to make a deal for another catcher.

Assuming he does make the team, Wilson will start at catcher around every five days for the Rays, with a disproportionate amount of his playing time coming against left-handed pitching. Considering Rene Rivera also hits lefties very well (and John Jaso doesn’t hit them at all), don’t be surprised if Rivera ends up at DH for some of Wilson’s starts.

Alexi Casilla

Casilla spent seven years as a valuable middle infielder for Minnesota and the last two as a fringe player for Baltimore. He enters the Rays camp with the middle infield positions up for grabs. The Rays don’t yet know whether Asdrubal Cabrera will play shortstop and second base, and Casilla will have an outside chance to make the Rays if Cabrera is at second base.

Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham headline the competition to start alongside Cabrera, but neither is even a sure bet to make the team. Franklin needs to prove himself defensively at shortstop and against left-handed pitching while Beckham is coming off an injury-riddled year and has a questionable minor league track record at the plate. Casilla, meanwhile, might be a better defender at short than either of them and easily has the best speed as well.

The issue with Casilla, though, is his inability to hit. He has just a .247/.302/.331 line (73 OPS+) for his career and done anything at the plate since 2011. Unless shortstop defense is truly an enormous issue, the Rays are better off going with either Franklin or Beckham, both of whom have significantly higher offensive upside. Casilla will likely head to Triple-A Durham, where he will be ready in case somebody gets injured or falters.

Juan Francisco

Once a top prospect for the Cincinnati Reds, Francisco has evolved into a part-time left-handed slugger. Francisco’s power has never been in question, but the issues with the rest of his game have caused him to bounce around baseball. The Rays represent the sixth big league team with whom Francisco has spent time the last four years.

The good news about Francisco is that he has an excellent .476 career slugging percentage against right-handed pitching and can play both corner infield spots. The things working against him, though, are manifold. His defense at third base is terrible, he doesn’t hit lefties at all, he has not hit even .235 since 2011, and he has not managed even a .300 OBP since 2010.

With John Jaso already penciled in as a left-handed DH, Juan Francisco’s best chance to make the Rays is if the team trades David DeJesus and wants a power bat off the bench. However, Francisco’s chances of making the team may not be as high as we would think. With Evan Longoria and James Loney entrenched at the infield corners, the Rays would rather have an outfield backup like DeJesus, and they would also rather have a righty hitter as their 25th man.

Jake Elmore

Elmore is one of the more fascinating invitees in camp. In his brief major league career, he has played all nine positions on the field. He hasn’t hit much with a career .221/.288/.291 slash line in 221 plate appearances. Of course, the sample is limited as he has played parts of three seasons with three different teams and only logged 12 major league plate appearances in 2014.

In the Rays’ dreams, Elmore turns into the next Ben Zobrist. Zobrist didn’t hit either in his first 303 MLB plate appearances, hitting to just a .200/.234/.275 line before returning as a dynamic super-utility player. While the chances of Elmore following suit are quite low, he has surprisingly strong Triple-A numbers, hitting to a .313/.407/.422 line with especially good performance against left-handed pitching. Elmore also hit lefties well in his stint with the Houston Astros in 2013.

Working against Elmore is that he is a natural second baseman whose defense at shortstop has never been great. There is plenty of reason to believe that he will be at Triple-A Durham to begin the season. However, the Rays signed him wondering if they were getting a sleeper and we will have to see if he can work his way into big league consideration at some point.

It is certainly going to be an interesting spring training for each of these five non-roster invitees. While some of them face long odds, a hot bat or an injury to a roster player could send any of them north with the Tampa Bay Rays. If not, it’s nice to know that several players of this caliber will be at Triple-A Durham and only a phone call away.

Next: Josh Sale's Tampa Bay Rays Tenure Ends With Silence

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