By: Dan Grant
For baseball fans, September is an exciting part of the season. If you’re lucky enough to support a team making a push in a close race, every game is a nail biting, stomach churning affair, and every decision is dissected with the weighted importance of a mad scientist attempting to create cold fusion. If your team is out of it, there’s always the schadenfreude of being the spoiler against a division rival, and/or the chance to see next years prospects get their first extended taste of big league action. It’s a fun time of year, all around. Unless you’re a Padres fan. But then, you still get to live in San Diego, so cheer up, jerk!
ANYWAY, something I’ve noticed this past season, is that there has been growing discontent with the way that teams are able to expand their rosters come September 1st. For the uninitiated — teams must carry 25 active players during the season. There are of course exceptions for injuries, bereavements, paternity etc… and when these happen, teams are permitted to call up replacement players from their minor league affiliates. I won’t get into the rules and regulations that govern that process, because I don’t want you to fall asleep and smash your face off the keyboard, but suffice it to say, teams use far more than 25 players in a given season, they just can’t use them at once. Until September 1st that is, when the roster limits are inexplicably increased to a whopping 40 players. Until the playoffs, when it goes back to 25 again.
It’s been said before, but I mean, this doesn’t make a lick of sense. Playing under one set of rules for five months, taking a five week break from those rules, and then going back to the old rules? For what purpose? Not only that, but when you change the rules and expand rosters, you’re doing it during the most important part of the schedule. Yes a win in April is as important as a win in September, in a vacuum — but tell that to the teams fighting for Wild Card positions right now. It’s asinine that those races are being decided using players that have no business even being in the big leagues.
So how the hell did we get here?
You see, September roster expansion comes from a different era. It began as a way to reward players from the minor leagues after their season was over. They were called up to the big club, got to wear the uniform, and interact with the Mantles, Williams and Musial’s of the world. If your team was a bottom feeder, maybe you gave a guy a perfunctory at bat here and there, but you certainly weren’t using these players each and every game. Remember, this was the era of a 4 man starting rotation, where starters would regularly throw complete games and relievers would pitch two or three or even four innings at a time, and your regular position players played just about every day.
As baseball has evolved, pitching has become far more specialized. Starting pitchers are now on all kind of workload restrictions — pitch counts, innings limits, etc. — while relief pitchers rarely pitch more than an inning, or two at the very most. This has to do with better medical science, data and myriad other things. The bottom line, is the game is played differently now. Teams looking for an edge in September have exploited the loopholes of the current system, to the point that it’s now a joke.
Teams typically will carry 12 or 13 pitchers during the normal regular season — five starters and seven or eight relievers. Just last week? The San Francisco Giants were carrying twenty-three! Five starters and a bloated eighteen relief arms. Giants manager Bruce Bochy loves playing match-ups, and he’ll often use his relievers one or two batters at a time, using four in a single inning in a victory last week. For him, roster expansion is like being a kid at Christmas.
Watch this video of the bullpen emptying during an altercation with the Dodgers earlier this week. It’s like a damn clown car!
That’s the thing — if you play your cards right, this kind of specialization can be effective. It’s why teams do it. The problems however, are twofold. The aforementioned non-sensical changing of the rules, plus the fact that it’s incredibly boring for fans to have to watch an inning like the one Bochy orchestrated. Four separate relievers warming up, and then coming in, and then throwing more warm-up pitches and then facing a single batter — repeat. I mean, for a league that’s so concerned about pace of play, why is this travesty being allowed to continue at all? ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it’ is a dumb excuse at the best of times, but especially so in this instance.
With that in mind, I think I’ve come up with a different way to do things. It’s a work in progress, but it’s something that I think makes sense, if you accept the fact that rosters need to be expanded at some point during the year, for the health of the players. I’ve read in multiple places that rosters should just be permanently expanded — I’ve seen the numbers 27, 28 and 30 thrown around — and have done with it. That would be fine! However, roster expansion defenders (few and far between though they are) will argue that the September expansion rewards teams like the Cubs, who already have their division locked up, by allowing them to rest their players as they see fit. They’d also say it aids teams like the Blue Jays and Tigers, who are playing every game like it’s Game 7 of the World Series right now, by allowing for replacement players in blowouts. This is fine, but still stupid. These games are the most-watched in baseball, and trotting out an endless parade of no-names just doesn’t hold water for me. At least not in September.
If you’re interested, I have a solution.
OK, thanks String!
Expand Rosters, but in April instead of September
Wild stuff, I know. But hear me out.
Every spring training we all fall in love with the battles in camp. Whether it’s for the 5th starter position, the last spot in the bullpen, or something more significant, we get to know players we’d never otherwise hear about. Rule 5 picks, veterans looking one last kick at the can, young upstarts that come out of nowhere — these are just some of the best things about spring baseball. If for the sake of this exercise we accept that roster expansion does have at least some health benefit for the everyday players (I am not convinced of this, but let’s go with it). Why not reward those valiantly battling for a roster spot right away? 40 is still a stupidly large number to me, but what if we let teams carry up to 32 players out of spring training? Young pitchers would get a chance to experience big league hitting, everyday players with nagging injuries would get a chance to rest here and there and ease themselves into the season, and management would get a chance to see how candidates hold up at the big league level, when the games actually count.
So let teams carry 32 players until the end of April, 28 until the end of May, and say they have to be down to the normal 25 by the All-Star break in early July. These are completely arbitrary dates and numbers that could be tweaked any number of ways, but it would still allow teams to give their guys extra rest early in the season, so that they could work up the grind of the all-important games to be played in August and September.
If you insist.
This would, of course, create some other challenges. The minor league season currently runs from April to the end of August, and this would need to be shifted to accommodate things. But is that really such a big ask? It’s not like many of these minor league baseball parks are being used in the off-season anyway, so asking them to hold their season from May-September instead of April-August seems pretty reasonable to me. That’s right, I just changed the yearly schedule of thousands of employees! I’m drunk with power!
There’s another potential added benefit. If the minor league season ended in late September, the Arizona Fall League would presumably get pushed back as well. For the unfamiliar, the AFL is where teams usually send their best and brightest prospects, to see how they compete against the best of the best. Currently it lasts about 6 weeks, starting just after the big league regular season ends in the first week of October. If we shifted the start date of the AFL to just after the World Series, and had them play until mid-December, and televised it, would that not immediately become appointment viewing for baseball junkies?
So there you have it. September roster expansion solved. I’m sure there are other issues I’ve overlooked, or just didn’t care to talk about (major league service time dates come to mind), but screw that. No more stupid no name reliever and fifty pitching change games down the stretch, teams still get to protect their players health, and we now get to watch baseball until Christmas. You’re welcome.