FOR ALL the deals that are actually made at the trading deadline and all the chatter about possible deals in the last week of July, sometimes the very best transactions during this time of year are intraorganizational. Joba Chamberlain, an August call-up last year, dominated the American League out of the Yankees' bullpen. The Rockies promoted Franklin Morales last Aug. 18 and watched him reel off 17 straight shutout innings in September. Colorado went 6--2 in his eight starts on its way to the playoffs and, eventually, the World Series.
This year a handful of prospects—beyond just Rays lefthander David Price—are prepared to make that same jump and influence the pennant race and, perhaps, beyond.
Francisco Liriano, Twins. He's not a rookie, but the lefty, who was 12--3 with a 2.16 ERA in 2006 before undergoing Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow, is ready to regain the spotlight—if only Minnesota general manager Bill Smith would let him. Whether because of an egregious error in evaluating Livan Hernandez or decisions of a financial nature, the Twins have continued to start Hernandez (a 5.31 ERA and fewer than a strikeout every two innings, despite his 10--7 record through Sunday) even as Liriano (10 straight victories) destroys Triple A hitters in the International League. According to Baseball Prospectus's projections, replacing Hernandez with Liriano would save the Twins 15 to 20 runs down the stretch, making them two games better in a division race that may well be decided by less than that.
Mat Gamel, Brewers. Like Ryan Braun before him, Gamel isn't much of a third baseman, but he can hit. With the Brewers pushing hard to win now and with a lineup a bit heavy on the right side, his lefty stick has to look good to Brewers manager Ned Yost and G.M. Doug Melvin. Gamel was leading the Double A Southern League in hitting with a .361 average at week's end, and his high on-base percentage (.418) and doubles power would help balance a lineup that relies heavily on the long ball. The Brewers lived with Braun's glove a year ago and nearly reached October; perhaps Gamel will push them over the top this year.
Jeff Niemann, Rays. The 2004 first-round pick has battled assorted injuries as a pro, even missing time earlier this season with shoulder trouble. With more experience at higher levels than Price, it's Niemann, 25, who could be used to replace a struggling or injured Tampa starter over the season's final two months. He's pitched well lately at Triple A Durham: a 1.59 ERA with 34 strikeouts and just 10 walks in 34 innings in July.
Dexter Fowler, Rockies. Despite barely playing .450 ball through Sunday, the Rockies were just six games out in the NL West and have a very soft schedule left. With Willy Taveras and his .305 OBP killing the team in the leadoff spot, Fowler might be the answer for a sputtering offense. He's a true centerfielder who draws walks—61 in four months at Double A Tulsa—and runs the bases well (20 stolen bases), and at age 22 he has the polish to make a two-level jump.
Jon Niese, Mets. The back end of the rotation has been problematic for the Mets, who last Saturday called up Brandon Knight, a 32-year-old with a career 9.99 ERA who hadn't pitched in the majors since 2002, for a spot start. Niese, a southpaw who has allowed just five homers in 124 1/3 innings at Double A Binghamton, has a deceptive delivery and gets very good movement on his average fastball. While not a top-tier prospect, his command and guile could give him a leg up on the NL in a late-season cameo, and allow Pedro Martinez additional time to heal his aching body for the postseason.
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