With September upon us, major-league rosters expand to 40. Many teams, especially those out of contention, use this period to audition young players for jobs in the following season. Sometimes, youngsters take on important roles even with contending teams; witness the importance of Francisco Rodriguez in the post-season last year for the Angels.
This is not a "top prospect" list; my focus here is on players who could see action this fall, and who could realistically end up as major contributors in 2004, but who haven't received a lot of attention. Each of them has a "hook" that makes them interesting.
We'll have additional coverage of September callups in our Down on the Farm mailbag, so send in your questions.
Jason Stanford, LHP, Cleveland Indians
A UNC Charlotte product, Jason Stanford was signed as an undrafted free agent in 1999. A 6-foot-2, 200-pound left-hander, it's rather strange that he went undrafted since he has good velocity for a southpaw and didn't go to some obscure school in the boondocks. Stanford works with a fastball/curve/change arsenal and all of his pitches are pretty decent. He throws strikes and posted a 10-4 record with a 3.43 ERA this year for Triple-A Buffalo, outpitching more-heralded prospects like Brian Tallet. His K/BB ratio was 108/25 in 126 innings. The walk rate is very low, while the strikeouts are decent. He projects as a Brian Anderson-style starting pitcher, not someone who is going to dominate often, but steady and reliable, once he adjusts to major-league conditions.
David DeJesus, OF, Kansas City Royals
Out of Rutgers, David DeJesus was drafted in the fourth round in 2000. His career has been slowed by injuries, particularly to his shoulder and elbow, but he's played very well when healthy and should get a shot at a job next spring, especially if Carlos Beltran is traded. In 57 games this year at Triple-A Omaha, DeJesus hit .292 with a .405 on-base percentage and a .455 slugging percentage, with eight steals. He has outstanding strike-zone judgment, with solid gap power, and holds in well against left-handed pitchers, obviously a good thing in a left-handed hitter. DeJesus is also a fine defensive outfielder, and can play center. He's intelligent, hustles, and plays with spark.
Graham Koonce, 1B, Oakland Athletics
Graham Koonce is a minor-league veteran, 28 years old, so he's not the same sort of "prospect" as the other guys listed here. But he's very interesting and a good example of the kind of "free" talent floating around the minor leagues. A left-handed hitter with no speed in his legs but some juice in his bat, Koonce is a walk machine with plus power and fits perfectly into Oakland's offensive philosophy. He hit .277 with 34 homers, 98 walks, and a .404 OBP this year at Triple-A Sacramento and is expected to get a shot in the majors this month. His minor-league career is filled with similar numbers: lots of walks and power. He's unlikely to hit higher than .250 at the major-league level, but if he's given adjustment time, he should produce a solid OBP and significant power. If he can manage to time a hot streak just right, he could put himself in position for a job next year. In any event, I like rooting for guys like this.
Jason Bay, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jason Bay was a key prospect in the deal that sent Brian Giles from the Allegheny to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Bay should play every day in Pittsburgh down the stretch, and is penciled in as a regular outfielder for next year. Bay has both power and speed potential, and should hit for a decent batting average. He'll also provide a solid OBP. While Bay won't be quite as good as Giles, he'll bring strong skills to the ballclub, and should make a nice fantasy investment, capable of contributing across many categories.
Johnny Estrada, C, Atlanta Braves
Acquired from the Phillies for Kevin Millwood last winter, Johnny Estrada isn't really a "prospect" technically, since he played half a season for the Phillies in 2001 and is no longer an official rookie. But most people still think of him as a prospect, so we'll go with that for now. He is an excellent defensive catcher and put in a solid year at Triple-A Richmond, hitting .328 with a .393 OBP and a .494 SLG in 106 games. He slammed 29 doubles to go with 10 homers. While he drew just 25 unintentional walks in 354 at-bats, he struck out just 30 times. I love the low strikeout rate. Being a switch-hitter gives Estrada's managers extra flexibility when it comes to lineup management and his glove is good enough to play every day. Estrada's main negative is his age: at 27, he is quite old as prospects go, and is probably as good now as he'll ever be. But that's still pretty good, and he should have a long career.
Jeremy Griffiths, RHP, New York Mets
A third-round pick from the University of Toledo in 1999, Jeremy Griffiths outpitched the more-heralded Aaron Heilman this year at Triple-A Norfolk. The right-hander went 7-6 with a 2.74 ERA in 19 starts, with a 78/26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 115 innings. His strikeout rate isn't remarkable, but his command is sharp. When he does a good job keeping the ball down, he can dominate a game, but will struggle when his pitches are up. Somewhat intimidating on the mound at 6-foot-6, he doesn't have a blazing fastball, but mixes it well with his slider and changeup. He hasn't received a lot of attention, but a good performance in September will put him in line for a rotation spot next spring.
Terrmel Sledge, OF, Montreal Expos
While the Expos waste time with Endy Chavez and his .658 OPS, Terrmel Sledge has spent the year at Triple-A Edmonton, doing what he always does: hit the heck out of the ball. A left-handed hitter with speed and a pretty good outfield glove, Sledge has hit .325 with a .398 OBP and a .546 SLG this year. He's got 25 doubles, 22 homers, 92 RBI, 61 walks, and 12 steals to his credit. He controls the strike zone. He's a proven .300-plus hitter at every level of minor-league baseball and turned on the power production this year. At 26, he's definitely ready for a major-league trial. Usually, a guy like this is overlooked because he "lacks tools" and doesn't impress scouts, but Sledge is a decent athlete who has a lively body and a good work ethic. It's truly puzzling why he hasn't received a chance yet. If the Expos don't give him one soon, expect them to be deluged with trade inquiries regarding Sledge this winter.
Ryan Wagner, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
I'm cheating a bit with this one, since Ryan Wagner has been in the majors already for several weeks. But I haven't written much about him yet, and he's certainly doing a lot to establish himself for next season. Drafted in the first round this year from the University of Houston, Wagner zipped through the minors very quickly, and has already appeared 16 times in the majors. He's pitching great, too, with a 1.66 ERA so far and 25 strikeouts in 22 innings. His command still needs some work, but his fastball/breaking ball combination is devastating, and he has what it takes mentally and physically to be a dominant closer. Wagner's rise has been incredibly rapid, and there's always the risk of backsliding, especially for a pitcher who doesn't have perfect command. But the rebuilding Reds offer plenty of opportunity for guys with talent and Wagner has that in droves. If by some chance this guy is still available in your fantasy league, grab him now. The chaos in Cincinnati has deflected attention from Wagner's rise. If he's handled properly, and has a bit of luck, he's going to be awesome. In many ways, he already is.
Matt Riley, LHP, Baltimore Orioles
Remember him? Matt Riley was a top prospect four years ago. At one time, he looked like the best southpaw pitching prospect in the game. But he didn't endear himself to management with immature behavior in the spring of 2000. Then he blew out his elbow and had to have surgery. He had horrific problems with his command in 2002, but this year he's made a remarkable recovery. He started with a 3.11 ERA and 73/23 K/BB in 72 innings at Double-A Bowie, then followed that up with a 3.13 ERA and a 78/28 K/BB in 70 innings at Triple-A Ottawa. He's still just 24. Although Riley doesn't throw as hard as he once did, his command is much better. He also seems more emotionally mature and appears to have taken the death this spring of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, his friend, as sort of a wakeup call. With Ottawa making the International League playoffs, Riley may not see much action for Baltimore this month, but his story is worth tracking closely.
Cody Ross, OF, Detroit Tigers
Drafted out of high school in New Mexico, 1999 fourth-round pick Cody Ross has put up steadily productive numbers at every level of the Tigers' farm system. A right-handed hitter, he is short (listed 5-11) and doesn't have overwhelming physical tools. But he has good baseball skills, does a lot of things right, and has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. Ross hit .287 with 35 doubles, 20 homers, and 15 steals this year for Triple-A Toledo. He could use additional patience (just 32 walks), but his strikeout rate is not bad, and he drew a decent number of free passes in the low minors. He hustles and has an intense approach that will be welcome in a moribund Detroit lineup. Ross could be a regular next year.
John Sickels is the author of the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book, which can be ordered from his Web site, JohnSickels.com. His biography of Bob Feller will be published this fall by Brassey's. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com.