MLB fans have grown accustomed to seeing the dugouts packed in September when the rosters expanded.
It used to be that teams would total 40 players on their active roster for the season’s final month, with minor league talents getting the chance to perform alongside the MLB regulars to show what they can do when given the chance to play in the big leagues.
That won’t be the case this year. In 2021, rosters will only expand to 28 players from the usual 26. Still, those extra few spots can be crucial for teams hoping to make a run at the postseason, and there are certainly going to be some top prospects that come up to help out their teams.
With the roster expansion limited, don’t expect to see too many guys not already on the 40-man roster making their debuts. So sorry, Mackenzie Gore and Julio Rodriguez fans, but their time will likely wait until 2022.
Sporting News is taking a look at nine prospects that could be receiving the call up to the big leagues, who could help make a difference for their team in the hunt for the postseason.
Jose Barrero, SS, Reds
The Reds have had a revolving door at shortstop this season, starting with shifting Eugenio Suarez to the position before moving him back to his more natural third base spot and plugging in utility bat Kyle Farmer into the spot. While Farmer has performed well, he could be best utilized in a flexible role where the team can take advantage of his positional versatility.
Enter Jose Barrero. The Reds’ top prospect debuted last season and struggled to make the hefty jump from Class High-A to the big leagues. This season, however, he’s crushed Double-A and Triple-A pitching, slashing a combined .304/.381/.518 at the two levels with 14 homers, 14 stolen bases, 31 walks and 76 strikeouts in 72 games of action. Heralded most for his defensive abilities as he was making the early rise in the minors, Barrero has made himself into a dynamic hitter and looks like the Reds shortstop of the future.
Promoting Barrero would give the Reds plenty more infield depth and allow them to rest Suarez and first baseman Joey Votto, while also potentially giving them an impact bat at a position that could use one as they hope to chase down the Brewers in the NL Central.
Joey Bart, C, Giants
Giants fans have enjoyed the resurgence of Buster Posey behind the dish after two down seasons — by his admittedly lofty standards — as he’s helped lead them to the top of the NL West. But he’s also spent the entire season behind the dish without playing any first base, and while Curt Casali has helped spell him behind the plate, he could use more rest time in September than in the past as the Giants find themselves looking to get back to the postseason.
Fortunately, the Giants have one of the best catching prospects in the game and a guy who has already spent some time in the big leagues. Joey Bart appeared in 33 games in 2020 and added two more this year, but he’s spent most of the 2021 campaign at Triple-A, where he’s mashed pitchers to the tune of a .311/.376/.532 slash line with 10 home runs. He has struck out 29 percent of the time and walked at just a 7.6 percent clip, but the team will trade that for his immense power and impressive defense behind the plate.
Bart is a 24-year-old catcher who has logged only 49 games this season. He would be more than ready to help absorb the catching workload in September and help give Posey some much-needed rest time before the playoffs.
Vidal Brujan, OF, Rays
Wander Franco was the splashy promotion this season by the Rays as the game’s No. 1 prospect reached the big leagues for the first time in his pro career. But second baseman/outfielder Vidal Brujan had been enjoying a strong campaign at Triple-A in his own right and earned a promotion earlier this year, though he has since been sent back down to Triple-A. With the Rays looking to hold onto their lead in the AL East, they will certainly be looking to strengthen themselves in any area down the stretch.
Brujan has been putting all his tools to use this season with Durham. He has racked up nine homers, swiped 21 bases and put together a promising .272/.358/.469 slash line. Another impressive aspect of his game has been his discerning eye at the plate as he’s walked 11.9 percent of the time and struck out just 14.6 percent. Though he rose through the ranks as a middle infielder, the presence of Brandon Lowe, Franco and Taylor Walls has caused the Rays to look into using his elite speed and above-average arm strength in the outfield.
Brujan wouldn’t immediately have a wide-open path to playing time as the outfield is filled by Randy Arozarena, Austin Meadows and Kevin Kiermaier with depth like Manuel Margot and Jordan Luplow, but with his speed — he stole 48 bases in 2019 and 43 in 2018 — he could be used as a weapon off the bench late in close games.
Luis Campusano, C, Padres
Austin Nola has established himself as one of the better bats behind the dish in the big leagues, but this season, he’s been battered with injuries. He fractured a finger in his catching hand in spring training and later in the year sprained his knee. The 31-year-old backstop hasn’t logged many innings at catcher this year because of the injuries, but to limit the risk of another injury, he might find his time behind the plate a bit sporadic in September to make sure he’s ready for the postseason.
Like their counterparts in San Francisco, the Padres have a more than serviceable catcher waiting in the wings. Luis Campusano has impressed scouts in his minor league career with one of the best hit tools among catchers and power that has started to emerge as he’s progressed through the minors. Though he’s struggled in his limited time in the majors, he has continued to bash Triple-A pitching in 2021, posting a .838 OPS while walking 7.9 percent of the time and striking out only 19.9 percent. His defense could still use some improvement, one of the chief reasons the 22-year-old backstop has spent more time in the minors, but his bat could provide the Padres with some thump if he’s able to keep his success in El Paso going in San Diego.
Campusano isn’t a splashy bat that is going to shake up the postseason race. But he would add some important depth for the Padres and could be an upgrade as a backup catcher over Victor Caratini, who has mustered only an 80 wRC+ this season.
Luis Gil, RHP, Yankees
Luis Gil has been up and down recently from the Yankees after he made his MLB debut on Aug. 3 against the Orioles, a matchup in which he threw six shutout innings with six punchouts, four hits and just one walk. The Yankees find themselves pushing to make the playoffs after an aggressive run at the MLB trade deadline, but they still have been looking to shore up the backend of the rotation with injuries to Domingo German and Corey Kluber, and Jordan Montgomery testing positive for COVID-19. Gil could be the answer to that, as well as another option out of the bullpen for September.
Gil has long been considered one of New York’s top pitching prospects thanks in large part to his explosive fastball that hits triple-digits with ease. His slider has improved to be an above-average offering and he’s worked to make his changeup a legit third offering. His problem has always been control. He walked 10 percent of batters at Double-A this season before that number spiked up to 16.8 percent at Triple-A when he was promoted, contributing to a 5.64 ERA. He has never posted a walk rate below 10 percent in the minors, but his strikeout rate has typically been between 25 and 35 percent.
The control issues would likely mean that Gil would be an inconsistent starting option in the big leagues, but his fiery fastball/slider combination could make him a legit weapon coming out of the bullpen if he can maximize his stuff in shorter stints. Whether it’s making a spot start or pitching in relief, expect to see Gil in some meaningful innings for the Yankees down the stretch.
Tanner Houck, RHP, Red Sox
Starting pitching has been the biggest weakness for the Red Sox this season, who outside of Nathan Eovaldi, lack a starter with an ERA below 4.50. Even with the impending return of Chris Sale, that lack of depth in the rotation is concerning for a team hoping to either catch the Rays in the AL East or hold onto one of the two Wild Cards. This is where Tanner Houck could be an asset to the team.
Houck has already been up with the Red Sox this season, having made several starts and pitched out to a 2.45 ERA across six appearances — four starts — with the big league club. The hard-throwing right-hander has struck out 33.7 percent of opposing batters faced while walking only 5.6 percent. His ERA in Triple-A is alarming at 5.14, but the underlying numbers show he’s actually been dominant. Batters are hitting just .238 against him and have struck out 28.9 percent of the time to just at 7.8 percent walk rate, leading to a 2.93 FIP.
The Red Sox could use pitching help beyond just the return of Sale, and Houck has already shown he’s capable of getting batters out at the big league level. With his combination of a hard-biting sinker and wipeout slider, he’d be a strong addition to the back end of the rotation or for use as a long reliever in the bullpen.
Cristian Pache, OF, Braves
The Braves have been dealt the most devastating injury of any contender with Ronald Acuna Jr. ruled out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL. He had been playing at an MVP level and his absence cuts into the depth of that Atlanta lineup. That is why it could be more important than ever for a player like Cristian Pache to step up heading into the final month of the season, especially with Atlanta not far out of the NL East race.
There is no one who could really replace Acuna in the lineup, but Pache has the potential to help lessen the blow of losing the All-Star. Pache has been considered one of the highest regarded prospects in the game mostly for his defensive prowess in center field and his speed. However, he’s flashed five-tool potential in the past with scouts praising his ability to make contact and his raw power. Pache was called up earlier in 2021 and struggled mightily, striking out nearly 40 percent of the time and walking under 3 percent, but he’s been swinging a much hotter bat since July 8, slashing .270/.350/.427 in Triple-A with four homers and four steals.
Pache is already on the 40-man roster and has twice now been given a chance to play in Atlanta. Though his bat certainly still needs more time to develop in the minors before he’s ready for a full-time role, the Braves could bet on the raw toolset giving them a spark in the outfield when they need some help in September.
Nate Pearson, SP, Blue Jays
The Blue Jays’ lineup might be one of the best in the league, but their pitching has left something to be desired this season. The pitching staff as a whole has the sixth-lowest Fangraphs WAR in baseball at 6.4, with the team lacking rotational depth past Hyun-Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray and Alek Manoah and the bullpen having some issues behind Jordan Romano and Tim Mayza. So the team could use an electric arm in some capacity down the stretch, and there aren’t many that provide more of that electricity than Nate Pearson.
The 6-6 right-hander might have the most over-powering stuff in the minors. He throws a fastball that has been clocked as high as 104 mph and routinely sits in the upper-90s, along with a slider that zips through the zone and gives him a standout offering. He’s improved his curveball and changeup to try and wipe out any concerns over whether he can be a starter long-term, but for the stretch run, the Blue Jays might find that his stuff would play up in the bullpen. Pearson has missed a lot of time this season with injuries, but he’s on the way back now and when he has pitched at Triple-A this season, he’s fanned 34 percent of batters — albeit with a 10.4 percent walk rate — in 24.2 innings of work.
Pearson’s brief stint in the majors last season didn’t go too well, nor did his one start earlier in 2021, but the stuff is too overpowering to overlook. He’s got the most raw potential of any pitcher in the Blue Jays organization and if he can harness it in September, he could be a real weapon for a team hoping to reach the postseason.
A.J. Puk, LHP, Athletics
Similar to Pearson, A.J. Puk offers a ferocious fastball/slider combination, only his comes from the left side. The Athletics used him as a weapon coming out of the bullpen in 2019 and it worked to great success with the 6-7 southpaw delivering a 3.18 ERA and 3.39 FIP in 11.1 innings. Now with the A’s pursuing the Astros in the AL West, they could use him again to help their playoff push.
The Athletics rotation has been solid, but the bullpen has had to lean on Jake Diekman as its only dominant left-handed arm. Since originally coming up through the minors as a starter, Puk has focused exclusively on relieving where his triple-digits fastball and wipeout slider have played well. The results this year at Triple-A are mixed as he’s struck out 25.5 percent of batters and walked only 6.9 percent, but opponents are batting .301 against him with 10 homers to contribute to a 6.08 ERA. Las Vegas, however, is a notoriously hitter-friendly environment, and since June 26, he’s pitched better anyway, posting a 1.64 ERA over 22 innings with just one homer, 24 strikeouts and four walks.
Oakland enjoyed getting to utilize Puk in 2019 down the stretch of the season, and he could play a similar role in 2021. His stuff makes him a potential asset out of the bullpen and could make a difference as the A’s try to reach the playoffs.