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Who will get called up when rosters expand?

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Don’t expect to see Bobby this September.

Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Major League rosters can expand on Wednesday, but you shouldn’t expect top Royals prospect Bobby Witt, Jr. to be suiting up in Kansas City any time soon, and it has nothing to do with how the phenom is hitting.

For starters, teams can no longer expand rosters all the way to 40. Under the old rules, teams could call up several minor leaguers to give them a “cup of coffee” at the big leagues. But this led to a parade of relievers, and September games - which have a huge impact on who makes the post-season - are played under different conditions than the previous five months. So MLB capped September rosters at 28 this year. Assistant General Manager J.J. Picollo recently told Lynn Worthy of the Star that things will “operate just like it did in April, May, June, July and August,” with players coming up on a “need basis.”

Second, the minor league season extends much later into September than usual, and the Royals may not want to break up their Omaha club while their season is ongoing. The minor league season was pushed back due to COVID-19, and Omaha won’t end their regular season until October 3. The Double-A season will end September 19, with a best-of-five-game series post-season to follow.

There are also Rule 5 considerations. The Royals will have to add a significant number of players to the roster this off-season to protect them from the Rule 5 draft, but Witt is ineligible to be selected. Therefore he does not need to be added to the roster, and if he is, that is one less roster spot for another player.

Then there are the impending labor negotiations. The Collective Bargaining Agreement ends this December, and with owners and players feuding, there is a chance of a work stoppage next year. Adding Witt to the big leagues this September makes him a member of the MLBPA, and if there is a work stoppage, he won’t be allowed to continue playing. There may be service time considerations as well, although the Royals have typically not manipulated service time, and even if they did, they could simply keep Witt in the minors longer next year.

If Witt isn’t called up, who is likely to get the call this September? Here are the most likely candidates.

Players returning from injury

Remember Adalberto Mondesi? The uber-talented shortstop who can’t seem to stay on the field? The 26-year old switch hitter has been in Omaha on rehab assignment since early August, and has come on strong in the last week, going 7-for-18 with two home runs. It seems likely he’ll be added back to the active Major League roster very shortly, possibly as soon as tomorrow. How long he can stay on that roster remains to be seen, but the Royals would love to see him finish strong as he did in 2020, when he hit .376/.424/.706 with 6 home runs and 16 stolen bases in his last 22 games.

Lefty Jake Brentz went on the Injured List last Monday with a shoulder injury and could be ready to return in September. Greg Holland has been out two weeks with a shoulder impingement, and there has been no word on when he might return.

Ronald Bolaños suffered a right flexor strain in June, but has been rehabbing with Double-A Northwest Arkansas. The 25-year old right-hander showed flashes of brilliance in the pen for the Royals early this season, but they may play it safe with him and keep him in the minors.

The Royals have been without reliever Jesse Hahn since the first week of the season and are hoping he can return, but the impending free agent may have already pitched his last inning in a Royals uniform.

Brad Keller suffered shoulder discomfort last week in Seattle, with the expectation he could miss a significant amount of time. Lefty Richard Lovelady suffered a UCL sprain that won’t require surgery, but will likely keep him out the rest of the season.

Catchers

It seems likely the Royals would call up a catcher this September, to allow more flexibility with the lineup so that Salvy can DH. Dayton Moore has already said the team will “have to give strong consideration to a catcher.” Sebastian Rivero has drawn good reviews with his defense and has held his own with the bat in Triple-A, hitting .261/.325/.384. He has also already appeared in eight MLB games this year, and with the great depth in catching at Omaha, the Storm Chasers would still be in good shape without him on the roster.

Bobby Witt, Jr. may not get called up, but what about top catching prospect M.J. Melendez? The 2017 draft pick will need to be added to the 40-man roster this winter anyway, so why not give him a taste of big league action? The catcher has totally turned his career around with 30+ home runs this season, becoming one of the top 100 prospects in baseball, according to Baseball America. But he would create a big hole in Omaha’s roster, and adding him to the MLBPA ranks may be a consideration for the Royals as a work stoppage remains a possibility.

More arms on the 40-man roster

Jakob Junis seems like the most likely pitcher to return in September, or possibly even today as the Royals need a starter to replace Keller. The right-hander was lit up in an outing for Omaha back in June, was shut down for a bit, and has pitched 7 13 shutout innings since returning to the Storm Chasers in late August.

Jackson Kowar had a forgettable debut with the Royals, but has dominated minor league action with a 3.46 ERA and leading all Triple-A pitchers in strikeouts. The Royals may want to keep him in the minors to complete his season with Omaha, but he looks MLB-ready and coming out of the pen may help him ease into the big leagues, or he could replace Keller in the rotation.

Daniel Tillo is recovering from Tommy John surgery and has not given up a run in his last seven outings for Northwest Arkansas, but the Royals will likely bring him along slowly. Angel Zerpa has had some struggles for the Naturals and the 21-year old lefty doesn’t seem ready for big league action yet.

40-man roster bats

The Royals could also call up a bat - Ryan McBroom is 15th among all minor leaguers in home runs with 24. Kyle Isbel struggled in April with the Royals, and did not perform well upon his demotion, but has come on strong to hit .306/.405/.508 with 8 HR in his last 54 games. Lucius Fox is still on the 40-man roster, but the infielder the Royals got from Tampa Bay for Brett Phillips has struggled with the bat this year, hitting under the Mendoza Line.

Possible 40-man roster additions

The Royals do have an open spot on the 40-man roster, which could give Dylan Coleman and opportunity. The former “player to be named later” in the Trevor Rosenthal trade has opened eyes with a fastball hitting triple digits and 41 strikeouts in 25 innings for Omaha. Kansas City native Grant Gavin has struck out 67 hitters in 58 1/3 innings in relief for the Storm Chasers, and has generally posted good numbers throughout the minors. Gabe Speier has a tremendous strikeout-to-walk ratio of 51-to-8 to go with a 2.95 ERA and can give the Royals a lefty in the pen.

Jon Heasley will need to be added to the 40-man roster this winter anyway, so the Royals may give him a taste of big league action after a 3.45 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 91 1/3 innings for Northwest Arkansas. Carlos Sanabria and Foster Griffin are other possibilities that have pitched well in Omaha.