During the next several weeks we'll be presenting reviews of the lesser known players who will be in Atlanta Braves spring training camp in 2012: the non-roster invitees, or NRIs. We'll look at their career path to this point, and see what kind of chance they have of making the Braves opening day roster.
First up is one of the more intriguing bullpen options for the Braves, reliever Jason Rice. Selected by the White Sox in the eleventh round of the 2005 draft out of a California community college where he was primarily a catcher, Chicago converted him to a pitcher, but he went largely unnoticed for much of his early minor league career. He was drafted in the minor league phase of Rule 5 draft by the Red Sox in 2008. Boston moved him to a full-time relief role, and let him close games quite a bit between double-A and triple-A in 2010 and 2011.
At the end of last season it got a little weird for Rice, as he went through four organizations in the span of several months. The Red Sox swapped him in an August 31st waiver trade with the A's for corner utility guy Conor Jackson. Rice was called up to the Majors with the A's the very next day, but didn't appear in a game before Oakland tried to sneak him through waivers, only to lose him to the Indians five days later. Of course, either team could have claimed Rice when the Red Sox put him on waivers in September. The Indians didn't keep Rice in the Majors, optioning him to triple-A, then designating him for assignment after the season. He opted to become a free agent. That's when the Braves signed him in mid-November.
Rice is the kind of reliever that the Braves seem to gravitate to lately -- short at 5' 10" with a mid-90s fastball, and some spotty control. The Atlanta organization has had some success straightening out relievers with control problems, and if Rice is to have a chance at making the club, his walk totals will need to shrink.
The Red Sox sent Rice to the Arizona Fall League in 2010, so they clearly thought highly of him. He responded with improved command, but like many AFL pitchers, he was way too hittable. He pitched well in 2011 at triple-A while throwing a lot of innings for a reliever. He was a little more hittable, but his walk and K-rates stayed about the same.
This winter he's built upon his success, serving as a closer in the Mexican Winter League. What jumps out is the .154 batting average against in 18 games, as well as 20 strikeouts in a 19.1 innings pitched. He still walked 10 during that span, and for Rice the walks tend to lead to runs as they did in his final game of the season, but when he has his control he's hard to hit.
In addition to a solid mid-90s four-seam fastball, Rice mixes in a good two-seam fastball and cutter and a low-70s curve ball for show. He works mainly off his fastball, and brings an aggressive approach on the mound -- he wants the ball when the game is on the line.
With a pitcher like Rice who has been around for a while there are going to be many differing opinions on him, especially for a guy who seems on the cusp of the Majors. Clearly there are teams out there who want him as an option, though no team was fully committed to him last year. Strange that the Red Sox would trade him rather than see him as an option to help out their bullpen last year.
His conversion from catcher makes me think of Rice as a poor-man's Jason Motte. He needs to improve his control and prove that his fastball has enough to be a Major League out-pitch. There are some spots open in the Braves bullpen, and Rice could sneak into one with a solid spring, but more likely he will represent solid depth at triple-A, and could serve as Gwinnett's closer.