September roster expansion is and forever will be one of the weirdest rules in all of sports. Why in the hell would you play roughly 135 games with incredibly strict and complicated roster rules to basically throw them out down the home stretch? It doesn’t make much any sense, but it doesn’t stop me from loving it any less.
The vast majority of games from here on out don’t mean a thing to at least one of the teams involved. Now, thanks to September call ups, those meaningless games last a little longer as managers make sure to use nine bullpen arms every outing. Watching paid sports writers whine on Twitter about having one of the best, most desirable jobs as Tony LaRussa makes his tenth mount visit before the eighth inning is the only thing I miss about Tony LaRussa.
In all seriousness, the strategy changes and the sheer number of players getting their first low pressure shot in the majors makes September a lot of fun for me. We at TPOP have been known to be minor league junkies and getting a first glance at prospects you’ve followed for years is always enjoyable.
This year’s crop of September call ups will have even lower expectations than normal. Many fans in favor of regime change have seemingly taken to rooting against the team. The only way prospects can fail in their first call up is by succeeding, and I’m sure they won’t mind disappointing that way.
The most important and interesting prospect joined the club a few weeks back. Mitch Keller has had the title of top prospect in the organization for about a year and a half now and he hasn’t done much to live up to the top billing since earning the title. His numbers in AAA have disappointed, he has mostly struggled at the major league level to this point. While he has top of the rotation stuff, he hasn’t shown the ability to pitch efficiently enough to work late into outings. Still, it’s going to add intrigue to every fifth meaningless game as he takes the hill for the Pirates. I still want to see whether or not he can even out and get comfortable in the majors. I want to see if he can build on his last nice outing. Even though he’s not a true September call up, I’m more interested in him than any other.
The majority of this year’s September call ups will be a who’s who of players Pirates fans could probably care less to ever see in Pittsburgh again. Think Alex McRae, Geoff Hartlieb, and Neal Huntingdon’s favorite pet project, Dovydas Neverauskas. He’s the only guy left from when NH went on the signing players from weird, non-baseball countries kick early in his tenure as general manager. I think most people would also lump Montana DuRapau into this group, but I’m not going to lie, I’d still like to see a bigger sample size on him. His stuff isn’t spectacular, but he’s dominated almost every step of his professional career with the key exceptions being his second stint in AAA and his early major league career. We’ll learn a lot about whether or not he’s a AAAA player this fall. Luis Escobar also struggled in his debut. He’s still only a few months older than Mitch Keller, even if his prospect shine tarnished a bit when he went to the pen. I’d like to see him get another crack at the bigs with his three pitch mix and big fastball. He quietly has late inning upside. I’m sure Kevin Kramer will be back, but he and Cole Tucker could end up as the only two position players to make the move from Indianapolis when rosters expand. The Pirates will likely try to play the arbitration clock control game with Jason Martin and they could do the same with Tucker. Yefri Ramirez will also likely join the club, and when the front office figures out exactly who Yacksel Rios is, he might as well.
I’m not expecting much movement, but there are always a handful of non-roster players who could get added to the 40-man to get the call up. The two way side show that is J.B. Shuck is the weirdest potential call up. Since pitching a scoreless inning of relief in the 12-4 Diamondbacks’ April beat down, Shuck has pitched 17 innings for the Indians including two brief starts. Shuck is striking out 26.8% of batters faced in Triple A. Problem is he’s walking a batter 18.3% of the time, as well. He’s likely more oddity than intriguing at this point, but he could find his way back to Pittsburgh if for nothing but the lolz.
One name who I don’t think we’ll see is Ke’Bryan Hayes. Hayes is still a strong prospect, but he didn’t exactly build on his 2018 breakout in AA. Knocking on the door at age 22 is nothing to sneeze at, but he hasn’t exactly shown he’s major league ready anywhere except standing near third base with a glove on his hand. I don’t think the Pirates will or even should start the clock on him yet. They’d just be wasting service time for when he is ready to be a solid contributor.
There are some other players off the 40 man roster who are candidates to be added. Jake Elmore doesn’t have a future with the Pirates, but he’s had an excellent season in Indianapolis. He was bad when he was up too. Still, he probably deserves another cup of coffee for being a good organizational soldier all year. Trayvon Robinson is basically the Elmore of the outfield. He too has had a good year, but the journeyman is too long in the tooth to expect many better September call up opportunities. While it’s rarely an exciting move, the third catcher often makes for a fairly liberating strategic call up. It allows the top choice catcher to pinch hit on off nights, because now there is another emergency catcher on the bench. I don’t think either Christian Kelley or Steven Baron have proven themselves worthy, but one might just get the right place at the right time promotion.
As far as other real prospects go, I don’t think we’ll see Will Craig at this point. His season followed the same trajectory as Josh Bell falling off significantly in the second half. I like the idea of a James Marvel addition. A little background on Marvel — he was looking like a top prospect while pitching at Duke before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. Uncharacteristically, the Pirates both drafted and signed him despite him being on the shelf. He may not be a major league pitcher long term, but he’s had an excellent 2019. I’d love to see him get an opportunity to show what he can do. His elbow is a ticking time bomb that likely only has so many pitches left in it. I hope Marvel gets as many in the majors as possible.
A handful of players could come off the 40 man roster to make room including some potential waiver trade candidates or players moved to the 60 day DL. I do think the 40 man is mostly set, so I’m only expecting one or two odd ball moves. Shuck feels most likely of all at this point followed by another AAAA vet. I’d love to see Marvel more than anyone though. The rest will be familiar names with middling levels of interest. Most are just filler, but there will be a handful that makes the games a little more watchable including Keller.