I remember several years back looking down the Cardinals' bench just before game time. It was about a week after the Sept. 1 roster expansion, when big-league teams can expand their rosters from 25 players to 40 players, and it was loaded with bodies. Usually you see a few middle infielders chatting together, then a space, then two to three starting pitchers in jackets sitting on the rail, then a space ... but players were milling about left and right like it was a tiny Grand Central Station. Suddenly that giant big-league dugout looked small.
Then my eye caught Larry Walker, who happened to have the day off that night. He was sitting close to the rail, watching the hubbub through his periphery like a bum on a park bench. One player even bumped into his chair ... finally his eyes caught mine, and he gave this slow, dramatic, telling eye roll. Yup, the kids have arrived.
And they'll be arriving soon enough this season. As in next Monday, Sept. 1. The roster expands to 40 players, but here are two important things to note about that deadline: 1) They don't all arrive right away; and 2) These guys aren't all kids.
The minor league playoffs begin early in September and can last until the middle of the month. In most cases, franchises allow their prospects to finish what they started on their minor league teams. Unless an injury or other emergency situation warrants an immediate call-up, franchises figure a prospect would benefit more from the playoff experience rather than two weeks' worth of sitting on the bench, with the occasional pinch-hit appearance or start. Granted, not all teams make the minor league playoffs, but the point here is that players trickle in rather than in a steady boom.
As for them not all being kids, I usually can put a September call-up in one of three classes: 1) A prospect the team wants to get a cup of coffee; 2) organization-filler players who can help provide depth (usually in a bullpen) or play a specialized role (pinch runner, versatile middle infielder, lefty pinch hitter); and 3) journeyman players the team wants to reward for a fine season in the minors.
No. 2 we might as well disregard right now, and while No. 3 has been known to provide a useful player or two, the demand for these guys certainly isn't great, even after their call-ups. But No. 1, those guys can help. Ever since I lost in the 1998 fantasy playoffs (spanning two weeks) in a head-to-head league because the other guy had a young September call-up named J.D. Drew (.417 average, five homers, 13 RBIs in 36 at-bats), I have been on the alert.
With that, I offer the top-10 hitters I hope to see called up in September (yup, hitters, so no David Price) who are worth a look at in mixed leagues. These guys have what I consider to be better than a 50 percent chance of being called up and they could make an impact right away:
1. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles: I haven't gotten any indication the O's are actually planning to bring him up, but he appears to be a legit candidate to start for the team out of spring training next season. Put two and two together and you'd think the O's would want to get Wieters some big-league at-bats to see how he reacts. One thing is for sure, given his minor league numbers, he has proved he is ready for the chance.
2. Mat Gamel, 3B, Brewers: Readers of this column and participants in my weekly chats know I'm completely salivating over this guy. I know the comparison is overused, but I can't help but think of Ryan Braun when I evaluate this guy -- hits for average (.329 average in Double-A), has big-time gap power (35 doubles, 19 homers), has the same type of build (he's 6-foot, 205 pounds) and can't play defense. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but I believe the Brewers give him a chance to play some in September, and Gamel has the skills to make the most of it.
3. Cameron Maybin, OF, Marlins: He was rumored to be the team's center fielder out of spring training, but that didn't work out, and he proceeded to struggle after being shipped to the minors. But he has hit well in August and has his average up to .278, with 13 homers and 20 steals, at Double-A Carolina. If he gets the call, which is no gimme, I could see him platooning in the outfield and stealing bases for you.
4. Joe Koshansky, 1B, Rockies: If Todd Helton were healthy and/or the Rockies were competing for this season, Koshansky wouldn't interest me this season. But neither scenario is in play, and I really like the kid. His Triple-A numbers (.297-29-113 in Triple-A) speak for themselves, though he does play at a hitters' park, but I'm telling you: This 6-foot-4, 225-pounder has legitimate major league pop. And it's not like his major league park isn't favorable, too.
5. Brandon Wood, SS/3B, Angels: Ever so steadily and quietly, Wood is showing signs of his actual prospect status in Triple-A after past failed call-ups with the Angels. He's hitting .294 with 30 homers and 82 RBIs for Salt Lake and even showing improved discipline. If the Angels put it on cruise control, Wood could get another chance, as could first baseman Kendry Morales (.337-14-58 in Triple-A).
6. Andrew McCutchen, Steve Pearce, OF, Pirates: Yup, I'm connecting both players because it's likely both are called up and because I'm really not sure which one of 'em, if either, will hit. Honestly, I'm not enthused by either prospect, but they're at least big names who are major league ready.
7. Jamie D'Antona, C, Diamondbacks: Any catcher who hits .359 with 19 homers in, well, any league deserves attention. D'Antona did that in Triple-A, and teams like to use third catchers in September, especially if they can hit.
8. Dallas McPherson, 3B, Marlins: This one is more for novelty's sake. I was such a McPherson fan ... but that light bulb was about burnt out until he picked it up in Triple-A this summer. Sure, he has struck out 160 times, which is awful, but 40 homers (one every 10.8 at-bats) has my eyebrows raised again. I'd like to see the Marlins at least give him a look, and if nothing else, he'll be mighty fun to watch.
9. Jordan Schafer, OF, Braves: Schafer was suspended for the first 50 games of the season because of HGH use, and he was downright awful for a month-plus after he returned. But he has been tearing it up in August, and that might be enough for the Braves to want to look at him. Schafer has all-around (five-category) fantasy tools, but I think they'll take a few more years to develop.
10. Nelson Cruz, OF, Rangers: All right, so he's no September call-up; the Rangers called him up on Monday after he hit an amazing .342 with 37 homers and 99 RBIs in Triple-A. He immediately jumped into the Rangers' lineup, doubled in his first at-bat and then homered to the opposite field in his second at-bat. I believe Cruz does have something left for the major leagues, but I fall short of recommending him in 10-team mixed leagues. I'd probably draw the line at 12-team mixed leagues with at least five reserve options (or deeper leagues, of course).
Due to the length of the lead, several categories, such as "Fortunes Rising/Falling" and "Position Watch" will be omitted this week. They should return next week.
Pickups of the Week
Mixed: Jayson Werth, OF, Phillies: The only thing holding him back before was his semiplatoon with Geoff Jenkins in right field. Now Jenkins is on the DL, and trust me, you want any Phillies starter for the final five weeks.
AL-only: Jose Bautista, 3B, Blue Jays: Why not? At least he'll play regularly, and I'd like to see what he can do at Rogers Centre, a favorable park for hitters, versus PNC.
NL-only: Nyjer Morgan, OF, Pirates: He was playing the past few days mostly because Nate McLouth (illness) was out, but has seven hits in his last 14 at-bats and should get a spot start or two before the prospects arrive.
Stat Talk (courtesy of ESPN Research)
Coming into Monday, Mark DeRosa has a better AB/HR ratio than such players as Brandon Phillips, Justin Morneau, Carlos Beltran, Corey Hart and Derrek Lee. How's that for a light-hitting utility player?
I mentioned PNC Park earlier. Well, the Pirates have hit 10 points better there than on the road for the season, but they've been downright futile there of late. They've lost five of their past six games at home, averaging 2.3 runs per game in the process.
5x5 Watch: SBs
After stealing three bases last week, Rajai Davis is up to 21 steals this season. That's despite having just 138 at-bats, and despite the fact that he plays for the A's, traditionally a team that doesn't steal bases. He's the only player with fewer than 250 at-bats who has 20-plus steals, and he has more steals than such "speed demons" as Ryan Theriot, Rickie Weeks and Nate McLouth. Just sayin'. I'd love to see this guy someday get regular playing time.
Tip of the Week
By now many of you 5x5 owners have resorted to looking at categories where you can make up ground quickly, and then making corresponding moves to do so. Be sure to not only look at what categories you are tightly packed in or beneath a cluster of teams, but also look at which teams you trail. It seems to me this time of year there are at least 2-3 teams in each league who have bagged it for this season, especially in keeper leagues. Many of 'em have quit trying to improve their teams, and/or they still have injured or benched players on their rosters. If any of those teams lead you in the cumulative categories (home runs, RBIs, runs and steals for hitters; wins, saves and strikeouts for pitchers), you might have a better shot at catching them in certain categories than the "try-hard" teams in other categories.
Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.