September may not be the cruelest month but, if you’re a baseball fan, it can be a tricky one. Here in Chicago, this year brings the emotional complexity of autumn’s lead-off hitter to light with stark clarity.
On the South Side, you have hope (Manny!), fear (Beckham?), thrills (another winning streak!) and desperation (the bullpen!). Yes, the Chicago White Sox are, as of this writing, 4.5 games out of first place with only three head-to-head matchups against the division-leading Minnesota Twins remaining. On the North Side, you have, well, a lot of empty seats and the odd dichotomy of not wanting to bid adieu to baseball for another year and yet really wanting to put this year’s squad out of its misery.
Into this milieu, come the September call-ups. Be they hotshot prospects or long-time farmhands getting a taste of the big leagues once or again, these players, at the very least, add some new faces to the familiar ones to which we’ve grown accustomed. For the White Sox, perhaps the most notable call-up appeared well before September – that would be straight-outta-
Comptoncollege lefty fireballer Chris Sale. And, for the Chicago Cubs, September started back in May with the arrival of shortstop phenom and batting-title contender Starlin Castro.
But, restricting our attention to only those players brought forth this month, who are the most noteworthy names in 2010? Here are our Top Five:
1. Gregory Infante
Really? A relief pitcher is our city’s top call-up? Figuratively at least, yes. Sox GM Kenny Williams has steeled the rotation with the so-far excellent addition of Edwin Jackson, and he’s shored up the offense with the biggest waiver-line name in baseball this year: Manny Ramirez. What’s left for the do-or-die Sox is the bullpen.
As mentioned, Sale has been a come-out-of-nowhere producer that has many fans thinking back to Bobby Jenks in ’05. But the team still needs someone else to emerge from the relief corps – especially as Matt Thornton and J.J. Putz battle their way back from injuries. (Fun fact: Both Thornton and Putz are well over 30.)
Could Gregory Infante be that guy? Maybe. The 23-year-old Venezuelan spent most of the previous two years as a starter in the minors. But the Sox converted him to a reliever this year, which may have added a couple digits to his low-90s fastball. (He also features a plus-curveball.) In 26.1 innings thrown at double-A Birmingham this year, Infante delivered an impressive 11.6 K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) rate. Of course, he also produced a worrisome 4.1 BB/9 (walks per nine innings). So, as with all young pitchers, command will be key in whether he’s able to help the Sox get over the hump this season. In any case, look for Ozzie to turn to Infante in some high-leverage situations in the next few weeks.
2. Jeff Samardzija
"What do you do with a problem like Maria?" goes the famous line from "The Sound of Music." And so the Cubs find themselves facing a similar, if less musical, conundrum with Jeff Samardzija (a.k.a. "The Shark"). Snared by the team in the fifth round of the 2006 amateur draft, Samardzija looked like a solid flamethrower out of the pen during his initial 2008 call-up.
But even toward the end of that season, the cracks began to show. And his 2009 big league stats look pretty gruesome: 46 hits allowed (including seven home runs) in 34.2 innings pitched and a mere 5.5 K/9. He’s spent most of 2010 as a starting pitcher with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, and his 11-3 record may lead you to believe he’s figured things out. But has he? We’re not so sure.
He’s thrown 111.1 innings, which is nice, and his K/9 rose from 7.2 in Triple-A last year (89 innings pitched) to 8.2 this year. It was widely reported that the Shark added a cutter to his repertoire, which garnered him more swings-and-misses. Fair enough. Yet his BB/9 shot up from 2.7 in 2009 to 5.4 this season. That’s not good at all. Jeff may be able to overpower minor league batters with his fastball and perplex them with that cutter but, when sitting on a 3-1 count, big league hitters aren’t likely to be quite as impressed or compliant.
So keep an eye on Jeff this month. He’s likely to get at least one start, if not two. The Cubs have invested a lot of time and money in Samardzija – he got a big signing bonus and a no-trade clause – and his contract runs through next season. So it’s fast becoming put-up-or-shutup time for this Notre Dame product. Will he snag the rotation spot that he’s long desired or wind up as a Farnsworthian middle relief arm? We’ll see.
3. Brent Morel & Dayan Viciedo
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a tie! Actually, we have a four-man logjam at third base that bears further investigation. During the off-season, the White Sox traded with the Kansas City Royals for Mark Teahen with the apparent intent of making him their starting third baseman. Yet, mostly because of injuries, the (ahem) ageless Omar Vizquel has played 75 games there. At one point in the season, Dayan Viciedo got a long look at the position, but he was eventually shuffled off to the minors for more seasoning. And now we have September call-up Brent Morel, whose widely regarded as a plus defensive player at the hot corner.
Hmmm … what to do, what to do? The Morel vs. Viciedo position battle appears to be a mostly glove vs. bat dilemma. The scouting reports we’ve read nail Brent as, generally, a doubles-hitter with decent speed and some plate discipline issues. That’s not the traditional profile of a third baseman but, again, Morel can pick it. Viciedo, on the other hand, is pretty much a prototypical corner hitter: A big-time power guy and potential run producer, who also strikes out too much while not profiling anywhere near as well as Morel does defensively.
Both of these players will be trying to make the most of every plate appearance and every hot shot down the line in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, Teahen and Vizquel (who, reportedly, wants to play again next season – at age 44!) lurk in the background.
4. Tyler Flowers
Under different circumstances, Tyler Flowers would likely be the top September call-up on our list. For many months now, his name has been whispered cautiously and with a certain degree of awkwardness for Sox fans. As the heir apparent to catcher A.J. Pierzynski, one of the faces of the franchise since their 2005 World Series Champions, Tyler should expect nothing less.
But, for the time being, with the Sox in a torrid playoff race, Flowers is not expected to, um, bloom. (Ooh, sorry about that.) The team needs Pierzynski’s veteran guidance behind the plate and, though he’s had a straight-up awful season offensively, his bat does seem to be coming around a little bit. OK, make that a lot – A.J. has put up a 1.002 OPS (featuring a .564 slugging percentage) over the last 28 days.
Still, Flowers, a 24-year-old Georgia boy (originally drafted by the Atlanta Braves, of course), is an important part of the team’s future. The big question is his bat. In 412 plate appearances for Triple-A Charlotte this season, Flowers put up a marginal .334 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage in the low .400s (.434, to be exact). Sox management just doesn’t know if his bat will carry enough firepower to justify letting A.J. go in free agency. A hot September could help Kenny & Co. make the decision.
5. Bobby Scales
What can we say? We like to end things on a humorous note. Last season, Cubs utility player Bobby Scales was perhaps the feel-good story of a mostly feel-bad season. (The winning record was nice, though.) A decade-long veteran of the minor leagues, Scales finally got his call-up and, in all fairness, made the most of out of it, putting up a relatively acceptable .723 OPS in 138 plate appearances while playing all over the field for then-skipper Lou Piniella. Bobby was also a great interview off the field – affable, humorous, intelligent and charismatic.
And now he’s back. Why? We’re not completely sure. Was there really no one at Triple-A Iowa deserving a call-up? Marquez Smith anyone? This may be another example of the Cubs’ perhaps controversial tendency to "do right" by long-time, gritty players. (Koyie Hill’s seemingly constant appearance in the starting lineup may be another instance of this phenomenon.)
Many fans, the statistically minded ones in particular, may cry foul here. Why should young players who appear to have a solid future with the club, such as Tyler Colvin and Darwin Barney, lose playing time to an aged organizational vet? It’s a valid point and understandable complaint.
Then again, as mentioned, Scales appears to be a great guy who could probably do a fine job coaching in the team’s system when he’s finished playing. (Oh, Bobby will be 33 next month, by the way.) In fact, maybe that’s where the Cubs are going with this. Give Scales some time with Mike Quade et al., talking game strategy and player development. Y’know, really solidify his organizational status with one more cup of coffee. Aw, heck, why not. After all, if the 2010 Chicago Cubs are about anything at all, it’s the future.