A baseball era is ending this season. The annual growth of the active roster from 25 players to 40 in September, a chance for minor leaguers to get their first taste of the big leagues that in recent years became untenable to some with the way bullpens are used, has been around for more than a century. The Society of American Baseball Research found the 40-man roster maximum dates to 1910, but this is its final year, at least for now.
Starting in 2020, teams will carry 26 active players per game until Aug. 31, when it rises to just 28. It’s part of a slew of new rules agreed to before this season — including the single trade deadline that took effect this year, the injured/disabled list going back to 15 days, and a three-batter minimum for pitchers — to kick off what could be explosive negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement.
That will get plenty of discussion before the current CBA expires on Dec. 1, 2021. It’s also a far more complex idea than ending the swollen September rosters: Look no further than last year, when Alex Cora used at least eight pitchers in four different nine-inning September games, including nine on Sept. 21 in Cleveland. (He went through five just in the final three innings.) The sport’s become littered with such games in recent years, peaking with the Giants using 11 on the final day of the 2015 season against Colorado, when both were merely playing out the string.
On Sunday in Anaheim, the Red Sox called up a half-dozen players, including pitchers Hector Velazquez, Ryan Weber, and Travis Lakins. Cora immediately used all three in relief of David Price.
As pitchers used per game continues to rise alongside time of game and gripes about pace of play, expanded rosters became an annual target of complaint. Their swan song is hardly an overly somber one.
This is final year of September baseball as we know it, thank goodness. Beginning next year, only 28 players can be active in the final month. So enjoy routine 4-hour games with teams carrying 15-man bullpens one final time this month.
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) September 1, 2019
It will limit end-of-the-year tastes of the big leagues for a lot of fringe players, however. The likes of Bobby Dalbec, Boston’s No. 3 prospect who’s been rumored as a possible callup this month, figure to still get their chance. Others perhaps never will.
Whether Dalbec, the third baseman who hit 27 homers between Double- and Triple-A this year, actually reaches Boston in 2019 is an open question. (The Globe‘s Alex Speier, the authority on such things, threw the brakes on the idea late Monday.) That hardly makes him the exception, as the Red Sox haven’t much used September as a staging ground for their stars in the making. They’ve been much more likely to bring players up during the year or break camp with them in the spring.
Regardless, I figured we could take a stroll through recent history and recall some of the more notable Red Sox to get a September preview, and what those first weeks in the majors suggested about the careers they’d go on to have.
Yoan Moncada, 2016
Moncada and reliever Robby Scott are actually the last two Red Sox to make September debuts in the majors, on Sept. 2 three years ago. One was far more notable than the other: Moncada, the Cuban prospect the Sox paid more than $62 million (including spending penalties) to acquire, was the team’s top prospect and came up with the thought he could immediately help a contending Red Sox team struggling for production at third base.
Moncada made two starts that first weekend in Oakland, producing a pair of two-hit games. That, however, ended up the high point of his Red Sox career. Moncada got nine more plate appearances in the next seven games and struck out in all of them, as well as forgetting how many outs there were when John Farrell used him late in a game as a pinch runner.
“This is a great learning experience for Yoan,” the manager told reporters before the gaffe on the bases. “While he probably got a boost of confidence coming to the big leagues, you get challenged a little bit and got to take a step back to rebuild that.”
Moncada got just one more at-bat after that, didn’t play at all after Sept. 12, and was traded to the White Sox in December as one of the centerpiece prospects in the deal to acquire Chris Sale.
“If he’s not a tremendous player, I’ll be very surprised,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said of Moncada after the trade, “but you have to give to get.”
Moncada led the majors in the strikeouts with 217 in 2018, his first full season at the highest level, but has a chance to be a top-10 third baseman by fWAR this year. His .520 slugging percentage leads the White Sox, with 22 homers and 49 extra-base hits.
Rusney Castillo, 2014
Matt Barnes made his debut early in September 2014, the No. 1 draft pick three years prior allowing an inauspicious 11 hits in five appearances. Two years later, he was a Red Sox regular, and is finishing a fourth year as a key part of the bullpen. (Some would say too key, but that’s a story for another day.)
Castillo, however, was of a far higher profile then. Signed to a $72.5-million, seven-year contract that Aug. 23, the Cuban outfielder was hopefully going to be Boston’s version of Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, or Jose Abreu. As he debuted in the Gulf Coast League, Nick Cafardo mused in the Globe that Castillo could soon displace young Mookie Betts, who’d debuted as Boston’s center fielder in June.
“Betts keeps impressing with the energy he brings to the team, his talent, and the big surprise he gives everyone when he hits a baseball,” Cafardo wrote. “There’s got to be room for both.”
We know now there wasn’t. But in 2014, after 11 minor-league games shook off some of the rust of 18 months without playing competitively, Castillo was called up in mid-September and supplanted Betts, who moved to second base. Castillo hit .333 in 10 games before the end of the year, showing some power and plenty of athleticism before going on to make the All-Star team in the prospect showplace Arizona Fall League.
That was his Boston high point. Castillo, his gold mohawk, and his Porsche (purchased after he signed) failed to make the team the following spring training, in which he was hampered by an oblique injury and Betts established himself as a star in the making. Summoned from Triple A in late May, he hit .230 and was back down a month later. Finishing the 2015 season with a .647 OPS in 80 games, his contract quickly became an albatross that locked him into Pawtucket, where he’s been the Player of the Year each of the last two seasons.
The oldest player on the PawSox in 2019, Castillo can opt out of the final year of his deal this winter, leaving $13.5 million on the table to pursue another shot at the majors elsewhere. A far cry from the optimism of five years ago.
Craig Hansen, 2005
Sometimes, a bad debut September isn’t the harbinger for a disappointing career. We well remember Dustin Pedroia — who doesn’t technically qualify because the Sox debuted him 10 days before rosters expanded in 2006 — hitting .191 in his 31-game cameo before flipping the switch the following May on his way to Rookie of the Year and stardom.
Sometimes, it is. As it was for Craig Hansen, the fireballing prospect out of St. John’s that Boston took with its slew of early picks in the 2005 draft. Hotshotted to the majors in the hopes his wicked slider, which pre-draft scouting called the best breaking ball in the draft, would help solidify a faltering bullpen, he got four swings-and-misses on 19 pitches on Sept. 19, 2005, in his MLB debut.
“His stuff speaks for itself,” manager Terry Francona told reporters about the 21-year-old that night at Tropicana Field. “The kid is going to have a good, long career.”
Hansen had neither. He made just three more appearances that September, squandering a two-run lead in Baltimore and unable to clean up another pitcher’s mess in Toronto, and didn’t get back to the majors until June 2006. Hansen had a 6.63 ERA that year, allowing 16 runs in his final 10 games, and was an afterthought by the time Boston shipped him to Pittsburgh as part of the Manny Ramirez-Jason Bay megatrade at the trade deadline in 2008.
“Confidence plays a huge role out there,” he told the Globe in July 2007, looking back on his early days. “If you’re not confident, the hitter can see that, all the players can see that. When a guy’s struggling at the plate, when you see him walk up to the plate, you just know.”
Hansen, however, wasn’t the only prospect the Sox debuted late that month. Hanley Ramirez, a looming name on the rise for much of the time since Boston signed him in 2000 and their top prospect when that year began, made his MLB debut on Sept. 20. He got only two at-bats, striking out in both, and was among those sent to Florida that November for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. We’d have to wait another decade to finally see him slug a ball over the Green Monster in a Red Sox uniform.
Fred Lynn, 1974
One half of the Gold Dust Twins is the gold standard when it comes to Red Sox starring as September call-ups.
Lynn and Jim Rice tore up the International League with the Pawtucket in 1974, hitting 46 home runs between them, with the 21-year-old Rice batting .337/.391/.579 and being summoned to the big club in mid-August. Primarily a designated hitter, he struggled relatively, posting a .680 OPS in 24 games. Not so for the 22-year-old Lynn. Called up on Sept. 4, he made three late-inning appearances before getting his first start on Sept. 15 at Milwaukee’s County Stadium.
His first MLB hit was a line-drive home run off the right-field foul pole (after which Rico Petrocelli was promptly hit by pitcher Jim Slaton). Lynn ripped a double down the right-field line off Slaton an inning later and never slowed. He’d make 11 more starts that month, including a four-hit game on Sept. 18, and batted .450/.521/.750 in those games with two doubles, two triples, and two home runs. The only first-year Red Sox player with a better OPS (minimum 50 plate appearances ) than Lynn’s 1.188 in 1974 was Ted Williams in 1939.
“Someone asked Lynn the other day, ‘Where do you think you will be next year?,’ noted the Globe’s Clif Keane during Lynn’s hot month. “And Lynn, who bats and throws left, replied: ‘I think I should be playing center field for the Red Sox.'”
He was, winning the Rookie of the Year and MVP in 1975 and making nine straight All-Star teams, the last three with the California Angels after the Sox — staring down the possibility an arbitrator would imminently declare Lynn a free agent — traded him in January 1981 for “fragile outfielder Joe Rudi, tender-armed lefthanded pitcher Frank Tanana, and undistinguishable minor league hurler Jim Dorsey,” to use the Globe‘s words.