September 1 has long been a day that baseball fans have circled on their calendars, as rosters expand from 25 to 40 players. For many years, that meant that highly-regarded prospects would come up to the majors for a late-season trial run, often contributing off the bench for contending clubs and getting extended playing time in low-pressure games for non-contenders. But due to a variety of factors in recent seasons — premium prospects rising through the minors and often debuting earlier than in the past, other premium prospects being kept in the minors longer than they should be as front offices try to game MLB’s service-time rules, and the league becoming more top-heavy, making it more feasible for contenders to acquire proven veterans from non-contenders at the trade deadline and beyond — we’re seeing fewer intriguing September call-ups than in the past.
Though a few intriguing players have been afforded opportunities thanks to rosters expanding in September — veteran infielder Brandon Phillips, who’s resurrecting his career with the Red Sox, plus prospects such as the Nationals’ Victor Robles, the Padres’ Francisco Mejia, the Tigers’ Christin Stewart and a slew of young Braves who had made cameo appearances earlier in the season — this year’s September call-ups to date have mostly been extra bullpen arms or role players who had spent time in the big leagues earlier this year.
Listed below are 10 players who probably should have received major-league opportunities this month but, for whatever reason, were kept in the minor leagues due to service-time concerns, clogged 40-man rosters, or other peculiar decisions by front offices. (For the record, I’m giving a pass to teams that made the Triple-A playoffs here in the perhaps-misguided hope that they’ll call up their best Triple-A players if it makes sense once their minor-league playoff runs are complete.)
Peter Alonso, 1B, Mets
At least the Mets didn’t leave anyone hanging with their decision on Alonso. Radio broadcaster Howie Rose announced back in June that the 23-year-old Alonso wouldn’t get called up this season “no matter what,” and the team confirmed as much in late August. The decision to postpone his major-league debut to 2019 or later is a business decision — one that is just slightly less egregious than the ones involving Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez — that will allow the Mets to keep an extra 40-man roster spot open and delay Alonso’s service clock during a season where they’re not competing anyway. As teams almost always do in these types of sitautions, the Mets attempted to save face by expressing concerns about his defense; co-interim GM John Ricco told media members that Alonso’s defense “continues to be something he needs to be working on.” Despite the relative ease of the position — one that the Mets have largely taught both of their current primary first-base options, Wilmer Flores and Jay Bruce, to play at the major-league level — the front office obviously feels that it’s a spot where Alonso is not yet reliable.
Alonso, who saw action for the Mets’ Double-A and Triple-A affiliates this season, tied with Reds A-ball slugger Ibandel Isabel for the minor-league home run crown with 36 (15 in Double-A, 21 in Triple-A). After posting a ridiculous .314/.440/.573 line at Double-A Binghamton, he wasn’t quite as dominant but was still great at Triple-A Las Vegas, hitting .260/.355/.585. He’s ranked as the No. 61 prospect in baseball, the No. 2 first base prospect overall, and the Mets’ No. 2 prospect by MLB Pipeline. And he’d obviously have the potential to impact a Mets offense that ranks 12th in the NL in runs (596), 11th in homers (148), 14th in batting average (.237), and 12th in OBP (.312), slugging (.390), and OPS (.703).
The decision to send Alonso home for the year would be more understandable if the Mets were giving an earnest tryout to 23-year-old Dominic Smith, who was regarded as the top first base prospect in baseball as recently as last season. Instead, however, Smith has shuttled between Triple-A and the majors all year. Smith — who, to his credit, has slimmed down quite a bit this year but had never played the outfield professionally prior to 2018 and isn’t really built for the position — has made seven of his 19 MLB starts in left field this year. Meanwhile, the Mets have been rolling primarily with Flores, a career utility infielder, at first base for the last few months and have recently incorporated Bruce (who, ironically, has been almost exclusively an outfielder over his 11-year career) into the mix as a platoon option. It’s pretty clear that that first-base platoon isn’t going to propel the Mets back to NL East dominance, so unless they’re going to openly tank next year, it seems foolish not to take a look at Alonso, who should have a chance to be their Opening Day starter at the position next March. Sending him home for the year certainly doesn’t positively impact the organization’s relationship going forward with Alonso, who told MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo that the decision was “really disheartening and disappointing.”
Rusney Castillo, CF, Red Sox
To be clear, it’s understandable why Boston didn’t call up the 31-year-old Castillo — and why he’ll essentially be in baseball purgatory for the remainder of his prime. Castillo, a Cuban defector who signed a seven-year, $72.5 million contract with the Red Sox in 2014 under the watch of former GM Ben Cherington, still has two years and roughly $37.8 million remaining on his deal after this season. Though the Red Sox outrighted him off the 40-man roster in 2016, after he had posted a solid but unspectacular .262/.301/.379 slash line in 337 big-league plate appearances, that was under the old CBA — when outrighted players’ salaries no longer counted towards the major-league payroll in seasons after they were moved off the 40-man roster. Under the new CBA, outrighted players’ salaries continue to count towards the payroll (and thus the luxury-tax threshold) through the end of the deal, so if the Red Sox bring him back up and he fails to produce, they’re stuck with him counting towards the payroll through the end of the 2020 campaign. That’s highly unfortunate, because Castillo won the International League batting title with a .319 average while stealing 13 bases and posting an impressive 15.7% strikeout rate that made up for his less-than-ideal 5.7% walk rate. Sure, Castillo isn’t perfect — he doesn’t have a lot of power and he doesn’t walk as much as he should — but he obviously can make contact and is above-average as a baserunner and a defensive center fielder. It’s sad that he’s done pretty much everything he can to get back to the big leagues, and yet he’s being punished by his no-brainer decision to accept a huge contract from a GM that has since been replaced.
Josh Fuentes, 1B/3B, Rockies
The 25-year-old Fuentes certainly doesn’t have the profile of your typical big-leaguer. He played just one year of varsity baseball in high school, walked on to play JuCo ball at Saddleback College in California, transferred to play at the NAIA level at Missouri Baptist, and then signed with the Rockies organization as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He rose above all that adversity, however, and was one of the best hitters in the Pacific Coast League this year, winning the league’s MVP award. He ranked sixth among qualifiers in batting average (.327), 10th in slugging (.517), and 11th in OPS (.871) while hitting 14 homers in 586 plate appearances. Yes, Fuentes could stand to improve on his strikeout (17.6%) and walk (3.6%) rates, and his production was undoubtedly boosted by playing his home games in Albuquerque. But consider his 2017 numbers at Double-A Hartford in the Eastern League, one of the most pitcher-friendly leagues in affiliated baseball: a .307/.352/.517 slash line with 15 homers in 450 plate appearances. That followed a 2016 season during which he posted a combined .307/.366/.505 line with 13 homers between Low-A and High-A. It should be clear by this point that while he has some areas in which he can continue to improve, Fuentes is a really good contact hitter with enough power and defensive versatility that he has a chance to succeed as a bench player in the majors. He’s Rule 5-eligible this winter, so the Rockies will need to add him to the 40-man roster if they want to protect him. In fairness, they have a full 40-man right now and will be better equipped to add him when free agents come off the books after the season. On the other hand, it would’ve been justifiable for the Rockies to add Fuentes rather than acquiring Drew Butera from the Royals — or after acquiring Butera, they could’ve DFA’d fourth catcher Tom Murphy, who is out of options after this season.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B, Blue Jays
Heading into this season, it would’ve been totally understandable if you didn’t expect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to contribute in the big leagues this season. On one hand, he did post pretty good (not earth-shattering) numbers in a season split between Low-A and High-A in 2017 and delivered a moment that would arguably go on to be the most exciting of the 2018 Blue Jays season when he hit a walk-off homer in a late-March exhibition game at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. But on the other hand, he turned 19 years old just before Opening Day, the Jays already had an established third baseman in Josh Donaldson, and (as his 2017 stat line indicates) Guerrero had never played above A-ball prior to this season.
Despite those obstacles, Guerrero did everything in his power to reach the big leagues this year. Through 61 games at Double-A New Hampshire, he hit a ridiculous .402/.449/.671 with 14 homers. Though he missed nearly six weeks with a knee injury, he returned by mid-July and was promoted to Triple-A Buffalo for the last month of the season, where he hit .336/.414/.564 with six home runs. He finished the year with a combined .381 batting average, a .636 slugging percentage, a 1.073 OPS, and a 194 wRC+ that all ranked first among full-season affiliated minor-leaguers, a .437 OBP that ranked third among that group, and a 9.3% strikeout rate that is absolutely unheard of for a 19-year-old power hitter in today’s game — particularly one who is the son of perhaps the most famous free swinger in major-league history. With the in-season graduations of Shohei Ohtani and Ronald Acuna Jr. from “prospect” status, Guerrero is now ranked as the No. 1 prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline.
With his ridiculous minor-league success this year, you’d think that the 19-year-old would be promoted to the majors for the last month of the season, particularly since the Jays traded Donaldson to the Indians on August 31. With utility infielder Aledmys Diaz and longtime catcher Russell Martin currently splitting time at third, one would think Guerrero would have the potential to provide a major upgrade. Unfortunately, Guerrero won’t make his big-league debut this year because the Blue Jays are delaying his service-time clock — or, if you listened to Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro on MLB Network Radio earlier this month, because “the best thing for him developmentally is to play in Arizona and continue to develop.” But considering that many front offices are wary of having position players debut right off the bat to open the regular season — and rightfully so, as hitters tend to press quite a bit while dealing with chilly March and April weather, and rookies already press enough while trying to prove themselves — that means that Guerrero’s big-league arrival may be pushed back to some time beyond Opening Day next season, which would be unfair to Blue Jays fans who have watched their team go from an ALCS participant to an absolute trainwreck over the last two years.
Eloy Jimenez, OF, White Sox
As much as Yoan Moncada was hyped as a prospect, it now seems pretty clear after 829 major-league plate appearances that he’s not the type of hitter who’s going to be the anchor of the lineup for a competitive White Sox club. On the other hand, 21-year-old Eloy Jimenez very well might be that guy, and with a window possibly opening up for the White Sox to rule the AL Central as soon as next season, it’d make sense for the Sox to see what he can do with a big-league opportunity in September. Jimenez, who is rated as Chicago’s top prospect and the No. 3 prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline, absolutely deserves that opportunity — after all, he posted a combined .337/.384/.577 slash line with 22 homers in 456 plate appearances between Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte this year, taking the unusual step of getting better after being promoted and hitting .355/.399/.597 in Triple-A.
There’d be absolutely no stress involved in calling up Jimenez — he’s already on the 40-man roster, and even if he wasn’t, they have an open spot available anyway. Unfortunately, because the White Sox know they can delay his free agency another year by sending him home for the rest of the year and then keeping him in the minors until mid-April of next year, they chose not to bring him up this month. As is usually the case in these types of situations, GM Rick Hahn criticized Jimenez’s defense (which, to be fair, has not always received rave reviews) and insinuated that it’s not yet major-league ready, saying that “we’re not developing a 21-year-old DH,” as the Chicago Sun-Times’ Daryl Van Schouwen wrote earlier this month. The White Sox can further cover their tracks by saying that they kept the roster rather small in September, also sending home notable players such as Charlie Tilson and Carson Fulmer rather than bringing them back. With Jimenez having such a pivotal role in the team’s future plans, though, it’s hard to really understand how it’d be harmful to take a look at him in totally inconsequential September games — especially with Jose Abreu injured, they could even use him at DH for now and have him work on his defense in winter ball and next year’s spring training.
Like with Guerrero (and guys like Ronald Acuna Jr. and Kris Bryant before them), the lack of a September call-up for Jimenez opens up the possibility that he won’t break camp with the big-league club next March — and in this case the service-time issue all but insures that he’ll start next year in Triple-A — further delaying a major-league debut that White Sox fans have already had to wait too long to see.
Richard Lovelady, LHP, Royals
The 23-year-old Lovelady, a 10th-rounder in the 2016 draft, ranked second among Pacific Coast League pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched in ERA (2.47), third in opponent batting average (.200), and best in WHIP (1.01) this year while posting an impressive 24.7% strikeout rate and a respectable 7.3% walk rate. All of this is even more notable considering that Lovelady posted a stellar 1.62 ERA and 0.95 WHIP with 77 strikeouts and 17 walks over 66.2 innings between High-A and Double-A last year. Ultimately, Lovelady’s quick rise through the minors might be hurting him most, as he’s not Rule 5 eligible for another year — thus meaning he doesn’t need to go on the 40-man roster this offseason — and with the Royals being non-competitive, there’s not that much they can deduce from his performance this September that they couldn’t also see in spring training or more minor-league games next year. On the other hand, Kansas City may have a bit of a 40-man crunch, but with nearly a half-dozen guys on the roster right now who have little or no role and are very unlikely to contribute to the next competitive Royals team (Jason Adam, Brandon Maurer, Burch Smith, Paulo Orlando, and Bubba Starling come to mind), it wouldn’t be that hard to clear a spot for Lovelady, who is more than deserving. It’s not as if Kansas City has a shutdown lefty right now anyway — Brian Flynn has generally been solid and Tim Hill has had his moments, but Lovelady has much more upside. The logistical reasons for not bringing him up right now are somewhat understandable, but if he’s still doing this by early next season and doesn’t get a shot in the big leagues, it’ll be more troublesome.
Austin Riley, 3B, Braves
From a level-headed, long-term-focused point of view, it’s understandable why the Braves didn’t call up the 21-year-old Riley for the stretch run. He only has 75 games of Triple-A experience, he isn’t on the 40-man roster yet and doesn’t need to be added this offseason to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft, and he probably wouldn’t receive much playing time down the stretch with Johan Camargo serving as Atlanta’s everyday third baseman and playing well. In addition, if they want to deal for a big-name controllable piece like Carlos Martinez or J.T. Realmuto this offseason and want to float Riley as a trade chip — which wouldn’t be the craziest thing in the world with as good as the 24-year-old Camargo has been this year — then it’d make him more attractive to other clubs if Riley isn’t taking up a 40-man roster spot.
On the other hand, Riley is a premium prospect (ranked No. 43 overall, No. 4 among Braves prospects, and No. 3 among third basemen by MLB Pipeline), he now has 156 games under his belt in the upper minors and doesn’t have a whole lot left to prove, and he’s been really good this year, posting a combined .294/.360/.522 slash line with 19 homers in 108 games split between Double-A Mississippi, Triple-A Gwinnett, and a six-game rehab assignment in rookie ball. While plenty of hitters experience a drop-off after making the jump to Triple-A, Riley was just fine playing against a bunch of older players, posting a .282/.346/.464 line with 12 homers over 324 plate appearances.
It’s no sure thing that he’d immediately be an impactful hitter in the majors, particularly since he’d mostly be coming off the bench, but over the final month of the season, he could’ve be a fairly major weapon as a pinch-hitter and would’ve be a welcome addition to their current right-handed pinch-hitting contingent of Charlie Culberson, Lane Adams, Adam Duvall, and whichever two catchers are sitting out between Tyler Flowers, Rene Rivera, and Kurt Suzuki. Of course, there’d also be the hassle of adding Riley to the 40-man roster for September, but if they were going to add him they theoretically could have held off on re-acquiring Preston Tucker or calling up Adams or Ryan Flaherty. With the Braves having a really good chance to represent the NL in the World Series this year, they might as well have their 25 best players on hand as the playoffs begin, and there’s a possibility that Riley is one of those 25 right now.
Tyler Rogers, RHP, Giants
This year, Rogers — the twin brother of Twins lefty Taylor Rogers — has the best ERA (2.13) among Pacific Coast League pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched. Last year, he ranked second among that group with a 2.37 ERA. Oh yeah, and he has one of the most deceptive deliveries in professional baseball:
In fairness, the Giants do have a pretty deep bullpen, but with Rogers having done about as good of a job as possible of preventing runs in one of the most hitter-friendly leagues in the world over the past two years, it seemed like a given that he’d finally get a shot in the majors this September. Then again, San Francisco does have a 40-man roster crunch. It’d be a real shame if they were to lose (checks…) 30-year-old lefty Josh Osich, who has a 6.67 major-league ERA over the past two seasons and didn’t get a call-up this September, or second baseman Miguel Gomez, who posted a .648 OPS in Triple-A this year and was the only one of 10 healthy infielders on the 40-man roster not to get a call-up. They could have even made a move as simple as placing outfielder Steven Duggar, who had season-ending shoulder surgery, on the 60-day DL, but clearly they didn’t want to deal with any more offseason DFA drama than they already have to. Rogers’ strikeout and walk totals aren’t totally ideal (he had 7.98 strikeouts-per-nine and 3.06 walks-per-nine over 67.2 innings this year), but with him having been so great at keeping runs off the board for a couple years now, there’s really no downside to taking a look at him now that he’s 27 years old. The Giants’ front office has passed him over time after time — he hasn’t even gotten an invitation to major-league spring training yet — and at this stage, the only logical explanation for his lack of opportunity is that the powers that be must just not like him all that much.
Frank Schwindel, 1B, Royals
Schwindel, a converted catcher who was taken in the 18th round of the 2013 draft, certainly hasn’t taken the most traditional path to prospect status. The St. John’s product struggled in his first tours through High-A and Double-A, but he’s now hit at least 20 homers in each of his last three minor-league seasons, and since being promoted to Triple-A in May of last year, he has posted a stellar .302/.338/.516 slash line with 41 home runs in 962 plate appearances. He won the Royals’ minor-league Hitter of the Year Award last fall, and this spring he tied for the combined lead among Cactus and Grapefruit League players with seven home runs while posting a more-than-impressive .366/.381/.976 slash line over 42 plate appearances. Sure, spring numbers don’t mean that much, but combined with his gaudy Triple-A numbers, they’re hard to ignore. As the front office looks to find players who can contribute to the next good Royals club, there’s really no reason that they shouldn’t be taking a look at Schwindel. Sure, Ryan O’Hearn has entrenched himself at first base recently and the Royals have a lot of other young hitters to evaluate, but there’s little reason to believe they couldn’t get Schwindel at least a couple starts per week at DH over the last month of the season. As stated above with Lovelady, the Royals have quite a few players who they could rather easily move off the 40-man in order to make room for him, and while they may want to keep spaces available to protect minor-leaguers from the Rule 5 Draft this winter, Schwindel — who will be Rule 5-eligible for the second straight year — seems to have a better chance at being an impactful big-leaguer than most if not all of the pending Rule 5-eligible players in the Royals’ system anyway. With Jorge Bonifacio having disappointed for most of this season, Schwindel might be the best fit for the Royals’ DH position next year, and if that’s the case, it’s unfortunate that they’re not taking advantage of the opportunity to evaluate him this month.
Mike Tauchman, OF, Rockies
Tauchman wasn’t too impressive (.094/.194/.125) through 37 plate appearances in a pair of big-league cameos earlier this year, and the Rockies currently have seven outfielders on their active roster. Otherwise, though, it’s a mystery as to why Tauchman didn’t get a September call-up, as he’s already on the 40-man roster and was one of the best players in the Pacific Coast League this year (though it’s worth noting that he played his home games in a ballpark that is about as hitter-friendly as Coors Field). Among qualifying PCL hitters, Tauchman ranked seventh in batting average (.323), third in OBP (.408), and fourth in slugging (.571), OPS (.978), and wRC+ (153). He ranked eighth in walk rate (12.7%), tied for 10th in home runs (20), stole 12 bases, and saw action at all three outfield positions. The 27-year-old Tauchman, who also tore the cover off the ball at Albuquerque last year, isn’t getting any younger, and with Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Holliday, and Gerardo Parra all expected to hit free agency this winter, it would’ve been nice for him to get some more time with the big-league club down the stretch. He may not have gotten a ton of playing time with the Rockies being in the division and wild-card races, but getting more comfortable around the major-league team — and getting to spend time around the accomplished veteran outfielders listed above — may have boosted his chances to effectively contribute next season.