Now more than ever, MLB teams are conscious of precisely when (and why) they decide to call prospects up to the majors. Many clubs do so with service time in mind, such as when the Chicago Cubs sent Kris Bryant to Triple-A Iowa for two weeks at the start of 2015 to ensure they would have another year of club control in 2021. Others, like the Pittsburgh Pirates, often wait until the Super Two deadline has passed before bringing their top prospects to the majors. In some instances — Detroit’s Michael Fulmer is a prime example — the prospect simply forces their way into the fold and the parent clubs reap immediate benefits.
No matter the reasons players are called to the majors, there aren’t as many top prospects to be found in the minors once the calendar flips to September. Gone are the days in which top prospects debut in September with eyes on contributing from day one the following season. More and more, expanded rosters are simply fodder for more bullpen depth and a pinch-runner or two.
While we should not minimize the impact of someone like Terrance Gore on a team’s late-game strategy, there are still a few recently-recalled prospects who could have a major impact down the stretch.
Yoan Moncada, Boston Red Sox
Arguably the top prospect in baseball — Baseball America had him first while Baseball Prospectus had him second in their midseason rankings — Moncada wowed everyone with a monster season in the minor leagues. He hit .307/.427/.496 in 61 games with Advanced-A Salem, then moved up and posted a .910 OPS in 207 plate appearances in the Double-A Eastern League. He was not long for a major league debut, but a 2017 call-up seemed more likely with the Red Sox offense humming along at a whopping 5.5 runs per game this season.
An opportunity opened up, though. Third baseman Travis Shaw’s production fell into the tank after the All-Star break; he is hitting .215 with a .291 on-base percentage since that point, but has kept his head above water with a .223 ISO. Shaw has struggled against lefties (.646 OPS) all season long, and midseason pick-up Aaron Hill has sputtered to a .208/.273/.267 line since joining the Red Sox.
Enter Moncada, a switch-hitter who has enough athleticism and arm strength to make the defensive shift over to third base. The 21-year-old has just four hits in his first 18 plate appearances, and hasn’t been handed the starting job just yet. However, the Red Sox were able to squeeze some worthwhile production out of a 20-year-old Xander Bogaerts in their run to the 2013 World Series, and Moncada could fill a similar role as they make their playoff push this year.
Jose De Leon, Los Angeles Dodgers
One of the great mysteries of the 2016 season is how the Dodgers have managed to slide into first place despite their starting rotation containing more holes than the plot of a Vin Diesel movie. Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood, and Hyun-jin Ryu all ended up on the 60-day disabled list this year, while Scott Kazmir, Rich Hill, and others have missed chunks of games on the 15-day DL as well. Left-handed phenom Julio Urias has made 13 major league starts, which is probably 13 more than the Dodgers anticipated him making at the start of the season.
With Urias like approaching an innings limit, De Leon was the next pitcher in line. Ranked by Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus as a consensus top 30 prospect heading into the season, De Leon posted excellent numbers in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. In 86 1⁄3 innings, De Leon managed a 2.61 ERA, 3.24 FIP, and 26.6 percent K-BB%. He was solid in his major league debut on Sunday as well, striking out nine without walking a batter (though he did hit one) in six innings. The Dodgers may not need a ton out of De Leon with Clayton Kershaw and Alex Wood close to returning, but every win is important as they jostle with the Giants and Nationals for playoff position down the stretch.
JaCoby Jones, Detroit Tigers
This one’s easy. Thanks to Cameron Maybin’s fragile muscles and bones (and ligaments, and tendons, and...), the Tigers have been forced to start utility infielder Andrew Romine, corner outfielder Tyler Collins, and Mike Aviles in center field this year. They have also used veteran journeyman Casey McGehee at third base with Nick Castellanos on the disabled list. No player can fill both roles at once, but JaCoby Jones has the defensive chops and athleticism to play both positions. He has already filled in ably, and come through with a few clutch hits for a Tigers team clawing for playoff position.
Jones doesn’t come as highly rated as some of the other players on this list, and it has shown at times. He looked very raw in a key at-bat earlier this week, striking out against White Sox lefty Dan Jennings with the bases loaded. Jones struck out nearly 30 percent of the time in 79 games at Triple-A Toledo this season and will likely always have some swing-and-miss to his game. For now, the Tigers are hoping he can hold his own and show more of that above-average power and game-breaking speed he flashed in his major league debut in late August.
Raimel Tapia, Colorado Rockies
Sitting 6 1⁄2 games out of the NL Wild Card and 11 games behind in the NL West race, the Rockies are not in playoff contention. However, with the Dodgers and Giants entrenched in the National League’s lone division race, the Rockies have a chance to wreak havoc. They just took two of three from the Giants, putting San Francisco five games behind the Dodgers. Including a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals from September 19-21, 12 of the Rockies’ final 25 games come against NL playoff contenders.
This is where Tapia comes in. A talented 22-year-old outfielder rated as the No. 42 prospect in baseball by Baseball Prospectus, Tapia hit a solid .328/.361/.458 between Double-A Hartford* and Triple-A Albuquerque this season. He has already made three starts in center field for the Rockies, and has seven hits in 15 at-bats. While Tapia’s overall profile is still a bit raw — he only walked in 4.8 percent of minor league plate appearances this year and his power numbers are boosted by hitter-friendly environments — his bat control, speed, and outfield range could be assets for the Rockies down the stretch.
Rob Rogacki is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and the Managing Editor of Bless You Boys, SB Nation's Detroit Tigers community. You can follow him on Twitter at @BYBRob.