SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — There’s no lower status in spring training than a non-roster player signed to a minor league contract with an invitation to major league camp. On the other hand, certain non-roster players are more equal than others.
Ryan Raburn, for example, was leading all of exhibition baseball in home runs with four when Tuesday’s games started. Hitting home runs in practice games plus four bucks will get you a Cinnamon Dolce Creme Frappuccino at Starbucks but not much juice on a baseball team.
However, Raburn’s four homers and .529 batting average — even after an 0-for-2 Tuesday — do nothing but help his chances of winning a berth on the Indians’ roster, especially coming off the worst season of his career.
He began 2012 as the Detroit Tigers’ everyday second baseman, but by the time July 31 rolled around, Raburn literally was not hitting his weight. After spending more than a month at Triple-A, he was recalled to the Tigers in September but by that time, his fate was sealed.
One of the more certain ways for a player to get himself released is to bat .171 with one home run and 14 RBIs in 205 at-bats. Maybe another 100 at-bats or so would have shaken Raburn out of his slump, but the Tigers were in a battle to win the Central Division and couldn’t worry about turning Raburn’s fortunes around.
Raburn didn’t seem like a logical candidate to hit so poorly. Coming into 2012, he had a career average of .269 and hit 16, 15 and 14 home runs in consecutive seasons through 2011. So combine that with the fact Raburn is only 31, and it was a good bet General Manager Chris Antonetti’s low-risk signing could pay off.
“He had a tough year and that happens,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “If he had had a good year, we wouldn’t have had the chance to get him. The Tigers thought he could be their starting second baseman, so there’s something there.”
Raburn has some idea of what went wrong.
“I noticed last year that I wasn’t using my legs as much,” he said. “Here, I’ve tried to get my legs more involved. I’m not a big enough guy to just use my upper body and be able to do anything.
“Last year I hit some balls hard, but they just didn’t go anywhere. Right now, balls I’m barely hitting are going somewhere.”
Raburn was not a hit with Tigers fans last year, often getting beat up on radio call-in shows.
“Fans are fickle,” he said. “They love you one minute and hate you the next. It’s part of the game, the nature of the beast. Unfortunately, I started out pretty bad, so I can’t blame them. But last year is in the past.”
Raburn is keenly aware that he has to compete for a spot on the roster. Mike Aviles already has a lock on one of three utility spots, so Raburn is in the mix with Jason Giambi, Ezequiel Carrera, Matt Carson and Ben Francisco.
Francona has talked about Giambi as though he is close to wrapping up a roster spot. If so, the other utility player, like Aviles, needs to have the kind of versatility to play infield or outfield.
That gives Raburn an edge, because he has played all three outfield positions plus first, second and third, though Francona is looking at him as a second baseman/left fielder. Both Carson and Francisco play the outfield exclusively, and Raburn has a big edge in major league experience on Carson.
“I’ve got something to prove,” Raburn said. “Last year was one of those fluke years. I don’t have the luxury of having a spot, so I want to try and make it as difficult as possible for them to make a decision.”
Raburn said there was interest from other teams, but the Indians seemed like the best place for him.
“My agent said there were several teams, but I don’t know specifically which ones,” he said. “Hopefully they (Indians) have a spot for me. I’d love to play for this team. I’d love to play with the guys on this team. In a short period of time, I’ve gotten to know quite a few guys.”
Francona made an impact on Raburn when he was making up his mind.
“Tito contacted me personally,” he said. “And especially after the year I had, for him to take the time to call me was big. It meant a lot to hear how much they would like to have me.”