Rosters Expand on September 1st. I hear that every year, and I picture in my mind a dugout that’s so full that the end of an inning is like the music stopping in musical chairs. A team can bring up 15 players, which might mean that its manager can send in pinch-runners to his heart’s delight.

In reality, the dugout doesn’t get very crowded. If you’re lucky, your favorite team might bring up a handful of players. If you’re really lucky, some of them might be future stars. Unfortunately, if your team is in contention, you won’t get to see much of those stars, as the regulars are going to stay regulars and those future stars won’t get the experience they need. At least you get to watch your team win.

For the teams that are out of it, however, September is the time you can feast your eyes on the stars of tomorrow. A Royal or Devil Ray might get 80 at-bats whereas an Angel or Yankee might only get 20. That’s a big difference when you’re scouting for your fantasy league for next season.

So we’re not here to talk about Justin Upton (who the Diamondbacks are already playing nearly every day) or Brandon Wood or Cameron Maybin or Adam Jones. Enough ink has been spilled on those guys already. No, we’re here to talk about those prospects that are on teams that may already be packing it in. They may play full time, and if they pass the audition in 2007, they could have a starring role in 2008.

The Devil Rays got a two-week jump on roster expansion and called up Joel Guzman on August 19th. Guzman has seemingly been around forever, but he’s not yet 23. He was signed as a can’t-miss shortstop prospect at 16 and was the Dodgers‘ minor league player of the year in 2004. Since then, his skills have stagnated: a 22-year-old in his second season in Triple-A should not have a .242 batting average and a 116:23 K:BB ratio. Evan Longoria and Reid Brignac are the future stars who will hopefully hold down the left side of the infield for Tampa Bay over the next decade, but neither is likely to be called up. That leaves Guzman, who the Rays envision as a player who can back up at all four infield positions and be the occasional DH. If he makes a splash in the early going, he could force his way into regular playing time.

Edinson Volquez was set to make his 2007 Rangers debut on August 21st, but he overslept and missed a scheduled side session in Oklahoma City. If all goes well, he’ll still make four or five starts in September for the Rangers. He did not pitch well during his first two stints in the majors in 2005 and 2006 (46 innings, 77 hits, 27 walks, 26 strikeouts, 9.20 ERA, 2.26 WHIP), but he’s been lights out in Double-A and Triple-A in 2007. An early-season demotion to Single-A Bakersfield was a wake-up call to the once-promising Volquez, who rebounded from that experience to go 14-2 with a 2.55 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 19 starts in the upper levels of the Rangers’ system. More importantly, he has his control back. In 109 innings between Double- and Triple-A, he has 128 strikeouts and only 40 walks. Elsewhere for the Rangers, Eric Hurley is not yet on the 40-man roster, but he may join Volquez in the big league rotation in September. After a strong showing for Double-A Frisco, Hurley was promoted to Triple-A two months ago. He’s held his own at both levels, combining for a 3.87 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and a more-than-respectable 134:53 K:BB ratio in 158 innings. Hurley (who turns 22 in September) and Volquez may be the two best prospects in the Texas system, and the Rangers could soon be in the enviable position of finding room in the rotation for both of them.

The Reds have a trio of potential call-ups with bright futures. Homer Bailey started six games for Cincinnati earlier in the year, and is now working his way back from a groin injury he suffered after he was sent down to Triple-A. His three good starts and three bad ones resulted in a 2-2 record with a 6.99 ERA and 1.76 WHIP. If he gets healthy and takes care of his control problems, he could have a few nice starts in September, but his first rehab start didn’t go well; it would not be a surprise to see the Reds shut him down this season. The top two Cincinnati hitting prospects, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, are both having outstanding years. Votto is on his way to his second straight 20-20 season–if Cincinnati doesn’t call him up first–and is hitting .297/.384/.483 for Triple-A Louisville. Despite a recent slump, Bruce has excelled at three levels–he’s hitting .320/.377/.587 overall, with 25 home runs and 88 RBI. If Bruce doesn’t get the call this year, it will be because they want him to work on his strike zone judgment; he has 46 walks and 131 strikeouts. It would not be out of the realm of possibility to see Bruce and Votto both in the lineup regularly in September, but Votto’s path to the majors–for this year anyway–looks clearer. He has only Scott Hatteberg standing in his way at first base. Bruce would probably have to force Adam Dunn or Ken Griffey out of the lineup, which is less likely. He could be a very solid fourth outfielder, however, and with the Reds unlikely to hold onto Dunn, he could be the starting left fielder next season.

Houston called up their top pitching prospect, Troy Patton, last week. He lost, but it was a respectable debut, with only three runs given up in 5 2/3 innings. He’ll likely remain in the rotation the rest of the season. Don’t let his mediocre win-loss record fool you–in two stops this year, including the offensive-minded Pacific Coast League, Patton had a 3.51 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. His strikeout rate was a little lower than you’d like in an ace, but he gets by more on his curve and change-up than the heater.

Gio Gonzalez was almost the one that got away. The White Sox traded him for Jim Thome two years ago, and then reacquired him last year for Freddy Garcia. Although he appeared to take a step back in the Phillies organization last season, he came back with a vengeance for Double-A Birmingham in 2007. He has a 3.27 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 143 innings, along with an astounding 177 strikeouts and only 56 walks. It wouldn’t hurt Chicago to throw him into the rotation to see what he can do, as they already have the second-worst record in the league.

A little farther up the AL Central standings, Minnesota also has a nice pitching prospect ready for the majors. Kevin Slowey struggled during his first stint with the Twins earlier this year, but is expected to be called up to start on August 31. Minnesota could still be a player in the pennant race, so it’s unlikely Slowey will be able to break into their strong rotation for more than a few spot starts in September, but he could work out of the pen as a long reliever. Slowey’s Triple-A numbers look fantastic: in 130 innings he has 103 strikeouts and only 17 walks, a 1.74 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP.

Oakland’s Daric Barton doesn’t have the prodigious power that you might want from a first baseman, but he has many other positive qualities, particularly his batting eye. It’s not often you see a 22-year-old with more walks than strikeouts, but Barton has 75 walks and only 67 strikeouts this year. If he could turn his doubles power into homers–he has 36 doubles this year–he could be up with the A’s permanently. With Dan Johnson ineffective, Barton could become an everyday player for Oakland in September.

The Marlins seem like they have 100 great pitching prospects. Two of them, Christopher Volstad and Gaby Hernandez, may be ready for the majors. Volstad is probably the better prospect of the two, but was hittable in the Florida State League this year, although he posted a nice groundball-to-flyball ratio. If he keeps the ball down at higher levels where the defenses and fields are better, he could turn into the top-of-the-rotation starter Florida hopes. He’s pitched much better since he was promoted to the Double-A Southern League (in five starts, he has a 1.07 ERA and 0.89 WHIP), so it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see him get a few starts for the Marlins in September. Hernandez has spent the entire season in Double-A, compiling a 3.54 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 147 innings. Florida does not have anything to gain by continuing to throw Daniel Barone and Rick Vanden Hurk out there. The time seems right for a Hernandez–and possibly a Volstad–promotion.

All statistics through 8/27/2007.

Kenn Ruby is a contributing writer at Rotowire. He can be reached here.

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