You can see them at virtually any minor league game in the country, yet the work they contribute to major league organizations tends to be invisible to the public.
Professional scouting departments scour the minors all season, trying to identify prospects who can swing a trade in their organization's favor. They work overtime—in spring training, in instructional league, in Latin American winter leagues—to find players who could, at the very least, provide complementary value as minor league free agent acquisitions or Rule 5 draft picks.
Pro scouts receive some measure of recognition each July, when out-of-contention teams cash in their veterans for new blood. Behind every minor leaguer who changes teams at the trade deadline, at least one set of eyes has scouted and recommended him.
Likewise, Opening Day provides an opportunity for pro scouting departments to showcase their worth. That's because many of the biggest surprises on Opening Day rosters happen to be players brought to spring training on minor league contracts after being vetted by pro scouts. Let's look at the players who made big league rosters out of spring training after signing minor league deals in the offseason, meaning that organizations had to create room for them on the 40-man roster.
American League East
• The Red Sox will carry reliever Justin Thomas as a second lefty behind Franklin Morales in the bullpen. You can read more about Thomas here (subscription required), but know that he held lefties to a .179/.258/.220 batting line in four seasons and 327 plate appearances at the Triple-A level.
• Similarly, the Yankees brought lefty reliever Clay Rapada north to support Boone Logan in the bullpen. Rapada, 31, has held major league lefties to a .153 average (18-for-118) in parts of five seasons.
• Veteran first baseman Nick Johnson made the Orioles after batting .292/.393/.458 in 48 at-bats this spring. He spent last season in the Indians system. The 33-year-old Johnson will work in tandem with Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds and Wilson Betemit at first and DH for Baltimore. Catcher Ronny Paulino, who was non-tendered by the Mets in December, made the Orioles as backup to Matt Wieters—at least while Taylor Teagarden is on the disabled list.
National League East
• Seasoned veterans Chad Gaudin and Austin Kearns, with a combined 15 years of big league time between them, made the Marlins' Opening Day roster as a seventh reliever and fifth outfielder. The Marlins know how to reclaim major league value on minor league contracts, getting contributions from Jorge Cantu, Clay Hensley, Greg Dobbs and Brian Sanches in recent seasons.
• The Nationals loaded up on the left end of the defensive spectrum, carrying first baseman/left fielder Chad Tracy (back from a year in Japan) and right fielder/center fielder Brett Carroll to cover four positions, where the only set-in-stone regular is right fielder Jayson Werth.
American League Central
• One of the offseason's most active teams, the Twins signed 17 minor league free agents and claimed five players on waivers over the winter. Among the minor league free agent signs, righty reliever Jared Burton and third baseman Sean Burroughs played their way into the picture, adding depth to Minnesota's roster. Burroughs made his first Opening Day roster since the 2005 Padres.
National League Central
• Mat Gamel clubbed six homers during spring training, but still the Brewers will hedge their bets at first base following Prince Fielder's departure by carrying Travis Ishikawa, whom you can read more about here (subscription required). The 28-year-old Ishikawa, who spent most of 2009-10 in the big leagues with the Giants, beat out Brooks Conrad for the final Milwaukee roster spot, and he'll begin the year serving primarily as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement.
• Travis Buck earned a backup outfielder job with the Astros, beating out fellow non-roster invitees Justin Ruggiano and Brad Snyder and waiver claim Fernando Martinez. The trade of Jason Bourgeois this spring leaves Buck and utility infielder Matt Downs as the primary outfield backups.
• The Cubs awarded 25-man roster spots to a Rule 5 pick (Lendy Castillo) and two players they picked up off the scrap heap during spring training, including 36-year-old righty reliever Shawn Camp, who's been kicking around the big leagues since 2004. Camp hit on hard times last year (1.52 WHIP in 66 innings), but he provided effective middle relief for the Blue Jays from 2008-10. Chicago also awarded a roster spot to 29-year-old Joe Mather, who hit .382 (26-for-68) and slugged .691 (14 extra-base hits) this spring. He plays all three outfield posts plus first and third base. (The Cubs' other spring-training acquisition was waiver-claim middle infielder Luis Valbuena, who is out of options but came to the organization on a major league deal.)
American League West
• Japanese import Munenori Kawasaki went 20-for-44 (.455) in spring training (with two extra-base hits) to pace all batters in hitting and make the Mariners' Opening Day roster as the middle-infield backup to Dustin Ackley and Brendan Ryan. The 30-year-old Kawasaki hit .294 in an 11-year career for the SoftBank franchise in Japan. With Kawasaki, Ichiro Suzuki and Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle has more Nippon Professional Baseball veterans than any other U.S. club.
• Alberto Gonzalez outplayed Luis Hernandez to win the Rangers' utility infield job. You might remember the 28-year-old from his previous engagements with the Yankees, Nationals and Padres.
National League West
• Gregor Blanco has a lengthy track record of drawing walks, slapping singles and playing steady defense in center field, and after hitting .333 (26-for-78) in spring training he made the Giants as the club's fourth outfielder. The 28-year-old has even handled himself well versus big league righties, batting .272/.371/.343 in 634 plate appearances, most of them for the 2008-10 Braves. You can read more about Blanco here (subscription required).
• Three of Jamie Moyer's Rockies rotation-mates weren't even born when the lefthander made his major league debut on June 16, 1986. (They would be Jhoulys Chacin, Juan Nicasio and Drew Pomeranz.) Coming off Tommy John surgery at age 48, Moyer signed a minor league deal with the Rockies and made the team with a strong spring performance (18 innings, 20 hits, eight runs, four walks, 16 strikeouts).
Special Cases: Other Minor League Signees Who Made Opening Day Rosters
• Article XX(B) major league free agents who if sent to Triple-A would have received a $100,000 bonus and automatic June 1 opt-out date: Rick Ankiel, of, Nationals [15-day disabled list]; Miguel Batista, rhp, Mets; Juan Cruz, rhp, Pirates; Willie Harris, of, Reds; Jason Isringhausen, rhp, Angels; Cesar Izturis, ss, Brewers; Scott Linebrink, rhp, Cardinals; Jose Lopez, 3b, Indians; Kevin Millwood, rhp, Mariners; Xavier Nady, 1b, Nationals; Vicente Padilla, rhp, Red Sox; Juan Pierre, of, Phillies; Omar Vizquel, 2b, Blue Jays; Dan Wheeler, rhp, Indians; and Jamey Wright, rhp, Dodgers.