By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer
I don’t mean to sound like the old man yelling at the cloud, but September call-ups ain’t what they used to be.
For many years, September was a time when MLB teams could bring up as many players for the 40-man roster as they desired. Dugouts were crowded, bullpens were packed, and managers could treat the last month of games like a high-stakes spring training, with a barrage of relievers and a parade of defensive substitutes, depending on the game situation.
Now, teams can expand their rosters by only two, from 26 to 28, forcing organizations to be much more selective when it comes to adding players into the big-league mix. In turn, the beginning of the month saw just 60 new players join active rosters. Part of me misses the literal hundreds of names we used to see appear sporadically in September, but I can also appreciate this new reality, in which teams must be a bit more thoughtful with how they utilize their only slightly expanded rosters.
To be clear, these final two roster spots are hardly permanent, and other players currently in the minors or on the injured list might still cycle on and off the roster as the month goes on. Still, this first wave of call-ups offers some level of insight into what teams are prioritizing with their rosters down the stretch — and introduces us to some exciting new faces playing in the big leagues for the first time.
So in the 28-man era, how do teams tend to use their September call-ups? Well, most September additions fall into a few clear categories.
Let’s take a look.
Conveniently timed returns from the injured list
Sometimes Sept. 1 comes around just in time for a player to come back from injury and be easily added to the roster, without sending someone else down. In the case of the Dodgers, that was literally Clayton Kershaw, whom L.A. is surely happy to have back, especially with the recent news of Walker Buehler‘s Tommy John surgery.
But this instance also came in less famous but still impactful forms, such as trade acquisition Matthew Boyd coming off the IL for the surging Mariners and giving them a long-needed lefty in the bullpen or slider machine Matt Wisler returning for the Rays. Orlando Arcia, a key bench piece this season for the defending champion Braves, came off the IL as a September addition. Cardinals right-hander Jack Flaherty is also scheduled to return Monday against the Nationals, which could be a huge boost as St. Louis tries to grow its division lead over Milwaukee.
All of these guys will be varyingly important parts of their teams’ postseason push, and the expanded rosters allow their returns to take place that much more simply.
Let’s play it safe, and just add depth
If you aren’t going to call up your prospects or give playing time to guys who have never played consistently in the big leagues, there are plenty of guys bouncing around the upper minors who know how to survive and be competent at the highest level.
Sometimes these are longtime veterans, such as Jesus Aguilar (Orioles), Billy Hamilton (Twins) and Jesse Chavez (Braves), but this might also be guys who have bounced around organizations and proved useful in the right role, such as OF Bradley Zimmer (Blue Jays), INF/OF Matt Beaty (Padres) and LHP Austin Davis (Twins). You’re probably not increasing ticket sales with any of these additions, but they’re often more of a sure thing than calling up one of the kids.
Let’s see what this young guy can do
For the teams more content to let rookies and sophomores get some run, there are ample opportunities in September for players to seize the attention of the organization and fan base. These are not necessarily players who come with top-prospect pedigree, but they’ve generally performed well in the minors and earned a chance to prove themselves at the highest level.
I’m talking about guys such as Nate Eaton in Kansas City, Ryan Kreidler in Detroit, Cody Thomas in Oakland and David Villar in San Francisco — guys whose rookie cards might not go for five figures but who have raked at the upper-levels and might just keep raking at the top. There’s only one way to find out!
Let’s give our fans something to be excited about
The next tier is the smaller selection of young players who arrive in September with increased expectations from the fans, due to their top-prospect status or previous involvement in high-profile trades. This category applies particularly for teams that won’t be playing playoff baseball in 2022 but want to give their fans something to get excited about for next season, based on the play of the young players down the stretch.
Oakland and Cincinnati are perfect examples here, with each calling up a prospect received in one of its deadline deals. Left-hander Ken Waldichuk (acquired from New York for Frankie Montas) and infielder Spencer Steer (acquired from Minnesota for Tyler Mahle) both appear to be legitimate building blocks for the next good A’s and Reds teams, and fans can start to cheer for them now.
Even with his struggles in the first half of the season, I’d also still include Spencer Torkelson in this group because it feels way too soon to give up on his level of talent, and I have to imagine Tigers fans would still like to see him get at-bats in the final month over some of the far less tantalizing players on Detroit’s roster.
This is also a good time to mention Rangers top prospect Josh Jung, who has not been called up despite hitting awfully well in Triple-A since his return from shoulder surgery last month. He’s exactly the kind of guy who could get a fan base excited for next season with a strong finish, but it seems Texas prefers to be patient on that front.
It has been a long time coming
Arguably even cooler than young players getting big-league opportunities is when guys who have toiled in the minors for years finally receiving the long-awaited call. There’s no better example this season than Reds right-hander Fernando Cruz, who made his MLB debut last week at age 32.
A sixth-round pick by the Royals out of a Puerto Rican high school back in 2007, Cruz hadn’t pitched in affiliated ball since 2015 before he signed with the Reds this past offseason and then performed well in Triple-A before earning his call-up last week.
Maybe this young guy can help us win
Now, it’s one thing to come up from the minors and adjust to the majors with a team that’s already out of the postseason chase. It’s a whole other challenge to find your big-league footing when your performance might directly impact your team’s postseason ambitions.
The Astros might have the AL West locked up, but they’re still looking for real contributions from right-hander Hunter Brown and catcher Yainer Diaz, two talented rookies appearing in the big leagues for the first time. The struggling Brewers are hoping a speedy outfielder such as Esteury Ruiz can make a difference.
First-base slugger Triston Casas is finally up with the Red Sox, but it might be too late for him to help them get back into the AL wild-card mix. The Orioles are hoping two of their stud prospects, infielder Gunnar Henderson and pitcher DL Hall, can help keep their spectacularly unexpected season moving in the right direction.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that most of these players — many of whom got used to starting every day in the minors — are also adjusting to bench roles, which isn’t an easy thing to do against the best pitchers and hitters in the world.
It’s undoubtedly a confidence boost for a young player to know his team believes he is worth one of those extra spots, but the pressures of performing in a playoff race could also have the opposite effect if things go poorly, potentially setting back a prospect’s development and putting him in a difficult spot heading into spring training next year.
Generally, though, these are exciting opportunities for young players to immediately step in and understand what the big leagues are all about.
Maybe this young guy can save our season
If you thought the pressure was on for some other prospects, consider the situation of the Yankees‘ Oswald Peraza. Maybe this is a slight exaggeration, but if you’d wandered recklessly into a certain sect of Yankees fan Twitter during the team’s dismal August, you would have thought that the only thing that could stop a potentially historic collapse in the AL East was the promotion of Peraza, a 22-year-old shortstop with promising offensive ability.
Well, those fans got what they asked for, though Peraza’s hitless weekend in his team’s series loss to Tampa Bay wasn’t exactly the most promising start. That said, it’s absurd to expect Peraza to single-handedly turn a sluggish offense around, though I can understand Yankees fans’ general inclination to shake things up in any way possible.
Here’s the problem: Succeeding in Major League Baseball is really difficult. Perhaps Peraza will prove to be some sort of spark down the stretch, but that’s a lot to ask of any young player.
Get more from Major League Baseball Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more.