In the past, when the calendar hit Sept. 1 and rosters could be expanded, it was an exciting time to see prospects up at the Major League level getting extended playing time. And while it often felt like that future-focused time was reserved for teams looking ahead to next year, there have long been contending teams that got boosts from young players getting called up when rosters expanded for the final month of the year. Who can forget what David Price did for the Rays in 2008 or how Francisco Rodriguez started the legend of K-Rod in September and all the way to a World Series ring for the Angels in 2002?
Rule changes have limited just how much impact prospects can have, as rosters now can be expanded only to 28, so teams will have to choose carefully. But with a combined 16 teams in both leagues still within 5.5 games of a playoff spot, there’s plenty of potential for a prospect to get called up and help with a postseason push. Here’s a list of 10 who could do just that, ranked based on a combination of talent and opportunity:
1. Shane Baz, RHP, Rays (No. 1/MLB No. 20)
Baz’s combination of plus stuff and plus command have catapulted him close to the top of pitching prospects and he’s been lights out in eight Triple-A outings (1.80 ERA, .175 BAA, 12.1 K/9). Since returning from the Olympics, he’s given up just two earned runs on six hits while striking out 14 without issuing a walk in 12 innings. As good as the Rays have been, Baz would upgrade the rotation or could be really nasty coming out of the 'pen. He has to be added to the 40-man roster this offseason, anyway, so why not start now?
2. Jose Barrero, SS, Reds (No. 3/MLB No. 33)
It was a little surprising Barrero was sent down less than two weeks after he was called up for the first time in 2021, but you have to think he’ll be back soon enough. We all know he’s a big upgrade defensively at shortstop (and can easily slide over to second), and his combined .303/.378/.532 line in Double-A and Triple-A points to how much he’s improved with the bat. The Reds claimed Asdrúbal Cabrera, but here’s saying Barrero is still a better option.
3. Vidal Bruján, 2B/OF, Rays (No. 2/MLB No. 22)
Sure, his 10-game stint in the big leagues earlier this year didn’t go so well, but it’s hard to imagine that Bruján's tools can’t help the Rays, even off the bench. He can hit (.282/.370/.466) and really run (36 steals) while playing multiple positions. Even if he’s not in the lineup regularly, seeing him pinch-hit, pinch-run or get the occasional start could provide a jolt of excitement.
4. Luis Gil, RHP, Yankees (No. 4/MLB No. 100)
Gil was pretty much lights out in his three big league starts in August, tossing 15 2/3 shutout innings while allowing just nine hits (.158 BAA) and striking out 18. Even if the Yankees don’t want him to start down the stretch, perhaps because of concerns regarding command (5.0 BB/9 in the Minors in 2021, 4.0 in those three starts), his ability to miss bats (12.6 K/9 in Triple-A) with his triple-digits fastball and improved slider could really help out of the 'pen.
5. Cristian Pache, OF, Braves (No. 1/MLB No. 40)
Pache really struggled in the big leagues at the start of the year, with just a .358 OPS in 22 games. He wasn’t much better for much of the year in Triple-A, either, as he looked lost at the plate. But it seems like he’s gotten himself back in sync at just the right time, with a .320/.386/.520 line in August. If he can carry his hot bat back to Atlanta, he’s a better option in center -- especially considering his elite-level defense -- than Joc Pederson or Guillermo Heredia.
6. Julio Rodríguez, OF, Mariners (No. 1/MLB No. 2)
OK, so maybe this is more a wish-list item than something that will happen, as the Mariners are unlikely to call up their 20-year-old phenom from Double-A. But Seattle's left-field situation is a bit of a mess, and it remains to be seen if Kyle Lewis can rehab in time. Meanwhile. J-Rod is hitting a combined .327/.434/.539 in the Minors and has been red-hot (.380/.508/.480) since his return from the Olympics.
7. Hunter Greene, RHP, Reds (No. 1/MLB No. 27)
Is there anyone who wouldn’t want to see this happen? Greene has struck out 12.2 per nine across two levels this year while holding hitters to a .207 batting average. In all likelihood, there isn’t room in the rotation right now, but why not put Greene in the bullpen where his fastball, which has averaged 99.4 mph and touched 103 mph as a starter in Triple-A, and his upper-80s slider could be devastating (not to mention help a relief core with a 5.18 ERA this year)? Like Baz earlier on this list, Greene will get added to the 40-man roster anyway this offseason.
8. Matthew Liberatore, LHP, Cardinals (No. 2/MLB No. 51)
Truthfully, it would be great to see both Liberatore AND Nolan Gorman up in St. Louis to help with the Wild Card push, but it seems like there’s more of a need for the southpaw. While his overall numbers in Triple-A at age 21 don’t jump off the page (4.56 ERA, .261 BAA), he’s been really good of late, with a 2.84 ERA in August. He’s gone seven innings in each of his last three starts, giving up six earned runs (2.57 ERA) on 18 hits and three walks while striking out 20 over those 21 innings. He could be an upgrade in the rotation over someone like Jon Lester.
9. Joey Bart, C, Giants (No. 2/MLB No. 16)
It’s a little surprising Bart hasn’t spent more time in the big leagues this year, but the Giants wanted him playing every day rather than backing up Buster Posey. His .906 OPS in Triple-A shows he really doesn’t need more time in the Minors, and now that he’s back from his quad injury, why not bring him back up and let him catch more so Posey can rest his legs on occasion? At the very least, he'd serve as a potent bat off the bench.
10. Ryan Pepiot, RHP, Dodgers (No. 2/MLB No. 66)
The thinking here is the Dodgers could use Pepiot kind of like they used Dustin May in 2019, though there likely isn’t a need to have Pepiot pick up some starts like May did. Pepiot has scuffled a bit since his promotion to Triple-A, particularly with his command, but his stuff still misses bats and could tick up in shorter stints as a reliever down the stretch.