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Late-season call-ups provide teams with a glimpse of the future. They can also have a hand in deciding pennant races. Two seasons after September call-up David Price helped pitch the Rays to the postseason, another Tampa phenom may do the same. The latest jewel of Tampa Bay's talent-rich minor league system, 23-year-old Jeremy Hellickson, was summoned to the Show in early August and filled in brilliantly in the rotation for starters Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann, who were sidelined with shoulder injuries. In four starts the righthander went 3--0 with a 2.05 ERA, 25 strikeouts and just four walks in 261/3 innings. After Hellickson shut out the Tigers over seven innings in his second career start, on Aug. 10, Detroit's Johnny Damon declared, "He's in the majors to stay."
Not quite. With Davis and Niemann set to return from the disabled list, the Rays sent Hellickson back to the minors last Friday. Hellickson will spend some time at Class A Charlotte learning to pitch in relief and then return as a weapon in Tampa Bay's bullpen down the stretch—and, the idea goes, beyond. Call it the Price Plan: In 2008 the Rays' lefthander, now a Cy Young candidate as a starter, came up in September and was a lockdown reliever, striking out 20, with a 1.84 ERA, in 192/3 innings in September and October. "Hellickson is their best starter behind Price right now," says one AL executive. "No one will want to face those two in a postseason series."
Here are four other top prospects who could have an impact on pennant races.
Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Reds After struggling as a starter in the minors, Cincinnati's $30 million Cuban import has been nearly unhittable since he was converted to a reliever in June at Triple A Louisville (11.5 strikeouts per nine innings). Chapman, 22, who recently touched 103 mph on the radar gun, still projects as a starter, but the first-place Reds could use him as a setup man to closer Francisco Cordero. "He's figured things out," says an NL scout. "He's smoothed out his mechanics, and his command is better. He's ready."
Ryan Kalish, OF, Red Sox "He looked like a young Papi out there," Boston's David Ortiz gushed after Kalish slammed his first career home run in an Aug. 6 win at Yankee Stadium. Kalish, 22, doesn't really have Papi-like power; he has never hit more than 18 home runs in five minor league seasons. But as a high on-base player who hits to all fields and plays with energy and grit—manager Terry Francona compares him with former Boston cult hero Trot Nixon—he has made an impression since being promoted to Boston on July 31. (Through Sunday, Kalish was hitting .250 with two homers and eight RBIs in 20 games.) With first baseman Kevin Youkilis and outfielders Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury out for the year with injuries, Boston, which was 5½ games behind the Rays in the wild-card race at week's end, needs the rookie to produce to stay in contention.
Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox The first player from the 2010 draft to make the majors, Sale had only 101/3 innings of minor league experience when Chicago, which through Sunday was five games behind the first-place Twins in the AL Central, called on him on Aug. 4 to bolster its bullpen. Sale, 21, was clearly ready: In 61/3 innings over his first six games he allowed just one run and two hits. Already manager Ozzie Guillen has shown he's willing to use the hard-throwing rookie in pressure situations: In his second appearance Sale tossed a scoreless seventh inning in a one-run game.
Tanner Scheppers, RHP, Rangers With a high-90s fastball, a looping curve and a parachute changeup, the 23-year-old Scheppers has the repertoire to be a dominant starter. But after the team traded for Cliff Lee in July, Scheppers was moved to the bullpen in the minors to prepare for a September role as a Texas reliever. The Rangers' bullpen is already good (their 3.92 ERA is fourth best in the AL); Scheppers could make it great.