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September Is The Time To Experiment

Could the Astros gain some value on the margins to close out the season by utilizing a top prospect in a variety of ways?

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Houston Astros Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

One of my favorite months of the season is, ironically, September. For one, there is a bit more intrigue around the game as rosters expand. Strategy becomes a bit more complicated, which I enjoy for some reason. Although the rule changes in 2020 altered the strategy of September promotions, some of it warranted, it remains fun to see how the new faces are utilized. After all, the next thirty games or so offer glimpses into the future with a couple of top prospects making their debuts and a few feel-good stories about career minor leaguers finally reaching the big stage, which is part of the draw of the month for me. I am a sucker for a good story that tugs at the heartstrings. It also represents an ideal time to experiment, especially for contenders like the Astros, who are virtually guaranteed another postseason appearance at this juncture of the campaign.

But when I mention experiment, I do not necessarily mean anything considered radical. For example, I wouldn’t bench any regulars for an indefinite period for the sake of rest or needlessly tinker with positional versatility unless injuries were involved. An occasional off day here or there to help keep them fresh is fine, but too much rest feels counterproductive. After all, baseball players are creatures of habit and routine. While the goal is to remain as healthy as possible for the postseason, there is a balancing act to maintain with the roster at large. You’re not benching Jose Altuve to rest for ten days in September primarily to see what David Hensley could do at second base. But there is room for tinkering on the margins, primarily if an arm or a bat can provide some value for October.

From what I can recall, the most famous example of a top prospect making an impact in September and that subsequent October was David Price when he made his debut for the Rays in 2008. While he didn’t start any games in the postseason, his performance — 1.59 ERA in 5 23 innings — was among the most interesting topics that year. Tampa Bay, an organization, long known to buck conventional wisdom, was rewarded with experimenting as Price did help the club advance to that season’s World Series.

The Astros in 2022 have a similar opportunity with their top pitching prospect Hunter Brown joining the active roster for September. The context was slightly different for the Rays with Price than for Houston with Brown, but the overall point feels relevant. Consider the next four weeks as a similar audition for the 24-year-old right-hander, who has continued to improve in his three minor league seasons dating back to 2019. With Sugar Land this year, Brown has posted a 2.55 ERA/3.30 FIP in 106 innings, which is impressive considering how the PCL is geared to benefit hitters more than pitchers. More important, however, is that Brown has also struck out over a third of all the batters he has faced this season. If it weren’t for the pitching depth on the active roster, those results would’ve promoted Brown to the Astros much earlier.

For September, I don’t envision Brown starting, at least in the traditional sense. Even if he does start a game or two, especially if the Astros want to maintain a six-man rotation in Justin Verlander’s absence, it would be more of an opener situation. More of a two- to three-inning start, if you will. For as much promise as he possesses, the only way Brown is starting an actual game in October is if something goes awry with injuries. Never say never, but the probability is extremely low.

Instead, we will likely see Brown get some exposure in shorter spurts for the next four weeks for the Astros to fully determine if he could become a dependable option for the bullpen, especially with his swing-and-miss potential. Use him in various situations to gauge how he reacts and how his stuff looks up close. There is some precedent here as Bryan Abreu made the postseason roster in 2019 based on his swing-and-miss potential, even if it ultimately conveyed into one forgettable appearance. But there is value to gain from a pitcher who can reach the upper nineties with his fastball, like Brown, to give the Astros another advantage on the margins. Those gains on the margins in a close series could ultimately make all the difference between advancing or returning home earlier than expected.