Baseball has the longest developmental curve of the four major North American sports, which means that from the point at which an amateur player turns pro, it takes years and years for him to grow into a big league–quality player.
In the context of a pennant race, that means such a player could emerge, as if conjured from a different dimensional realm, and wind up playing a huge role in a contender’s hunt for a playoff spot, or in the playoffs themselves. Particularly successful or noteworthy late-season call-ups develop their own folklore: 20-year-old Rafael Devers mashing for the 2017 Red Sox; Brandon Finnegan pitching in the College World Series in 2014 and then going on to pitch in the World Series four months later; or most famously, a 20-year-old reliever named Francisco Rodríguez entering the 2002 playoffs with five career MLB appearances and leaving it with five postseason wins and a World Series championship.
Who is that player this year? Which rookies could burst into a contender’s lineup or starting rotation and swing a pennant race or a playoff series? Here are three who have a chance.
Brendan McKay, LHP/1B, Tampa Bay Rays
McKay, the no. 4 pick in the 2017 draft, joined the Rays for the first time at the very tail end of June and immediately showed that he belonged, taking a perfect game into the sixth inning in his major league debut and allowing just 10 hits, three runs, and a walk over his first three big league starts, totaling 13 strikeouts in 16 innings pitched along the way.
Brendan McKay, 94mph Fastball and 81mph Curveball, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/bsH2rOzjg3— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 13, 2019
But the former Louisville Cardinal isn’t just a promising left-handed pitcher, he’s also the second high-level prospect in living memory, after Shohei Ohtani, to be developed from the start as a two-way player. In addition to three starts on the mound, McKay made one start at DH, where he went 0-for-4, before returning to the minors this past weekend.
At this point in his career, McKay is most useful as a starting pitcher, and the Rays certainly need all the pitching they can get if they’re going to hold off their pursuers for the AL wild card. In fact, Tampa Bay’s rotation sets up perfectly for a promising rookie like McKay.
Charlie Morton has been one of the best pitchers in the AL this year, and after a few bumps in the road, defending Cy Young winner Blake Snell appears to be settling in nicely for the stretch run. One rotation spot goes to the Ryne Stanek–fronted opener Megazord, and another to emerging second-year man Yonny Chirinos, who’s toting around a 3.11 ERA and a streak of seven straight quality starts dating back to June 7. But ace-in-the-making Tyler Glasnow is on the shelf indefinitely with a forearm strain, leaving an open rotation spot for McKay to slide into.
That means that when McKay returns to the big leagues, which the Rays say he will do relatively soon, he’ll be in line for regular playing time at a position where he can make a difference, but he won’t be expected to carry the entire team on his back. He’d have as much responsibility as he proves he can handle, but no more. That’s a great situation for a player as talented as McKay to develop in, not unlike (in importance if not position) the one a young Carlos Correa filled when he was called up to the Astros for the first time in 2015.
The big short-term question surrounding McKay is how much he can contribute as a hitter. His arm is much more advanced than his bat, which means he needs regular reps at the plate in order to develop into the hitter he might one day become, and those four plate appearances he got at DH with the Rays are his only game action at the plate at any level since June 26. If McKay can provide value as a fill-in DH or lefty pinch hitter late in games, he’d be a game-changer with the short benches of modern baseball.
Kyle Tucker, OF, Houston Astros
Tucker was the Astros’ other top-five pick in 2015, the year they drafted Alex Bregman, and so far he’s played less like Bregman than someone who’ll be faintly remembered as the answer to a trivia question. After earning the semi-ironic nickname “Ted” (after Ted Williams) in spring training 2018, Tucker was more like Bad Williams during his cup of coffee with the Astros last year. In 28 games with the Astros in 2018, Tucker, ostensibly a power-hitting corner outfielder, hit .143/.236/.203 with zero home runs.
One weird thing about the Astros’ return to contention in the past five years is that they’ve developed tons of players who hit like corner guys at tougher defensive positions, but almost no actual corner outfielders or first basemen. In addition to their core up-the-middle guys—Correa, George Springer, José Altuve—Bregman and the since-departed Marwin González are natural shortstops, and while both have filled in for Correa at one time or another, both were mostly farmed out to the infield corners or left field. First baseman Yuli Gurriel is a natural third baseman, who moved across the diamond in 2016 to accommodate Bregman. Springer played mostly right field his first three years in the majors, but only because better defensive center fielders—Jake Marisnick and Carlos Gómez—were available. Houston has mostly filled in its slugger spots with displaced infielders and free agents like Josh Reddick and Michael Brantley, and it’s worked because their middle infielders hit like first basemen. In the meantime, their actual high-end corner prospects, like AJ Reed, Colin Moran, and J.D. Davis, are for the most part no longer with the organization.
Yordan Álvarez, who hit the majors for the first time all of five weeks ago, might be the Astros’ first successful homegrown slugger at a low-end defensive position. Tucker was supposed to be that guy, but he quite literally whiffed in his first chance. Now, though, he’s slugging .571 at Triple-A this year and angling for another call-up. While Tucker’s numbers in his first big league season were scary bad, Tucker is still only 22, and 28 games is a tiny sample. It’s not unusual for players to struggle in their first call-up and go on to have productive careers—Bregman, for instance, started his big league career with a 2-for-38 skid before he figured out major league pitching.
Evaluators are still high on Tucker: Baseball Prospectus ranked Tucker 10th on its midseason top 50 prospects list. And in a bid to make himself more useful on a cramped roster that already has one DH in Álvarez, the career outfielder has been working out at first base.
The Astros don’t need another bat, necessarily—they have nine players on the active roster with an OPS+ of 100 or better, plus Correa and Aledmys Díaz on track to return from the IL relatively soon. But Tucker is such a talented hitter that he could displace Reddick or Gurriel from the lineup, and soon. If nothing else, he’d be one of the scariest pinch hitters in baseball. If Tucker makes good on his second chance at regular big league playing time, the Astros could end up adding as impactful a bat as any traded at the deadline in two weeks.
Luis Urías, 2B, San Diego Padres
The Padres are fourth in the NL West and three games under .500, but this is the National League in July 2019: If you can get 25 dudes to dress alike, you’re in the pennant race. And sure enough, San Diego is just three games out of the second wild-card spot.
Between Manny Machado and Fernando Tatís Jr., San Diego’s greatest strength is the left side of the infield, but apart from that, they’re like a mirror image of the Astros, with oodles of slugging first-base/corner-outfield types but little strength up the middle. One potential area for improvement is at second base, where 37-year-old Ian Kinsler (.217/.278/.365) has split time with career utilityman Greg Garcia (.260/.345/.398). Second base has been earmarked for Luis Urías, who became San Diego’s top position-player prospect when Tatís graduated to the big leagues.
The 22-year-old Urías got a late-season cup of coffee in 2018 and earned a spot on the major league roster in April, but underwhelmed, hitting .083/.241/.125 in 11 games. The Padres sent him back to Triple-A and he hasn’t appeared in a big league game since April 20.
But back at Triple-A El Paso, Urías has left a trail of fire across the desert. In fact, just a week after his demotion, Urías hit five home runs in two games.
For the season at Triple-A, Urías is hitting .316/.400/.595, with 18 home runs, more than half of his career total across parts of six minor league seasons. Some of that is the result of the Pacific Coast League—an extremely hitter-friendly circuit to start—transitioning to the rocket-powered MLB ball this year, but the larger point is that Urías simply has nothing left to prove at the minor league level, much like Tucker and McKay (at least on the mound).
There are numerous other young prospects, particularly pitchers, who could come up and catch lightning in a bottle the way K-Rod did, but these three players are uniquely suited for a call-up. All of them are not only on 40-man rosters but, because of their prior MLB experience, have already started their service time clocks, reducing if not eliminating the off-field reasons for any team to keep them down. And because all three have proved themselves against minor league competition, a spot in the big league lineup is not only good for their teams in the short term, but also good for the players from a long-term developmental standpoint. So look for all three of these players on big league rosters before season’s end, and if all goes well, you could find one on a commemorative DVD sometime this winter.