Lately, the baseball intelligentsia has been preoccupied by rosters. When the calendar turned to September, the usual, but growing round of articles decrying the practice of roster expansion became prevalent. Then, once that furor passed, attention turned to the roster rules governing the one-game play-in that will be contested by the two wild cards in each league. Considering the excitement taking place on the field, it seems a little mundane to focus on front office procedures, but it wouldn’t be a baseball season without some discontent.
September call ups are a baseball tradition that dates back over a century. The practice was devised as a way to navigate the delicate business arrangement that existed between the major leagues and what were then independent minor league teams. In order to avoid competing directly for talent, the two confederations agreed upon a limited major league roster that could be expanded once the minor league season came to an end. Even though minor league clubs are now affiliated with their major league counterparts, the tradition continues to this day. But, should it?
The most popular criticism of September roster expansion is the degree to which it alters strategy in the final month. After making do with a limited bullpen and bench over the first five months of the season, the September call ups give managers carte blanche to play match-ups in the late innings. Not only does this lead to longer games, a topic about which baseball always seems to be very sensitive, but some also feel it gives certain teams an unfair advantage.
Although some very interesting alternatives, such as taxi squads, have been proposed, the notion that roster expansion creates an inequity seems unfounded. After all, every team gets to play under the same rules. Granted, some organizations are deeper than others, but shouldn’t they be rewarded for that? Baseball teams have 40-man rosters for a reason, so if one team enjoys an advantage over others because of its depth, so be it. Besides, the implied advantages are usually overstated anyway. Are teams really that much better off because they can now use players who previously were not good enough to crack the 25-man roster? There will always be exceptions and extenuating circumstances, but for the most part, no organization has the kind of depth that would justify this criticism.
In addition to facing questions about its September roster policy, baseball is now drawing sidelong glances about how it will allow the leagues’ wild cards to configure their teams for the one-game contest between them. Because baseball insists on treating the play-in as a playoff, it has been forced to deem the sudden death showdown as a postseason round. As a result, participants will have the opportunity to construct their rosters for only one game. Most of the concern expressed has centered on the possibility of teams swapping out starters for relievers, but that angst seems to be misplaced. Once again, not many teams have enough relief depth to take advantage of having an expanded bullpen. Chances are, if the sixth, seventh, and eighth man out of the pen are in the game, it’s because the team’s better options have failed to do the job. Instead, a more realistic impact could stem from adding an extra catcher, pinch runner, or platoon-oriented hitter, all of which could come into play in a close game. The Yankees are an example of a team that would benefit from this configuration, so if baseball wants to prevent playing the Wild Card round under September call-up conditions, some changes may be warranted.
The easiest and most elegant solution would be to require that wild card teams use the same roster from the play-in game during the LDS. This would prevent teams from lopping off unneeded starters and reward those clubs whose concentrated 25-man rosters are stronger. Once again, there’s nothing wrong with rewarding 40-man depth, nor is the advantage significant, but there is something to be said for making a distinction between September and October. After all, allowing minor leaguers to get their first taste of big leagues has value for future seasons, but permitting them to perform a limited role in a one-game playoff is almost entirely designed for immediate gratification.
Baseball has regularly grappled with the size of its rosters. Considering the financial implications for both management and players, it’s easy to see why the topic would be such a bone of contention. However, the recent “debates” over marginal roster construction pale in comparison to what took place in the mid-1980s.
Since Marvin Miller took over the MLBPA in 1966, the players gradually began to turn the tables on the owners, winning battle after battle on the labor front. By the mid-1980s, the pendulum had swung completely in the players’ favor, so the owners had to get creative. Faced with exponentially rising salary costs, the individual clubs seized upon language in the collective bargain agreement that required them to only carry 24 players instead of the customary 25. What was intended as a temporary olive branch by the players would now be used to beat back salaries by eliminating one major league job from each roster.
In the video above, Phil Rizzuto and Bill White discuss the gentlemen’s agreement that led to a reduced 24-man active roster during the 1986 season.
As early as November 1985, the Cleveland Indians indicated that they would be cutting back to 24 players in the following season. According to Jeff Scott, who was Cleveland’s director of player development, cutting costs was the main reason for the move. At the time, A.L. President Bobby Brown endorsed the decision, but was careful to portray it as an independent action that “should be examined very closely” by each team. Not surprisingly, every other club came to the exact same conclusion.
Did the 25 other clubs take it upon themselves to follow the Indians’ lead, or was the uniform application of roster contraction the result of a “gentlemen’s agreement”? Donald Fehr, who was then head of the MLBPA, must have believed the latter because in May 1986, the union filed a grievance stating that the teams had abused their right to limit rosters by taking the action unilaterally instead of on an individual basis. Because of the late date of the grievance, it was too late to rescind the new de facto 24-man roster, but Fehr’s tardiness was easy to forgive. At the same time, the MLBPA was busy filing two other grievances: one objecting to the imposition of a new drug program and the other claiming a systematic attempt to limit free agent mobility and salaries.
Clearly, there are a lot of decent, proven players who should be playing right now, but aren’t. The 24-man roster is a major reason for this, we think, and we’re going to try and do something about it” – MLBPA spokesman Mark Belanger, quoted by AP, April 8, 1986
The owners wound up losing the two other grievances, but in a rare legal victory versus the MLBPA, a three-man arbitration panel headed by George Nicolau upheld the 24-man reduction, arguing that owners were within their right to be influenced by each other’s actions. Incredibly, the individual policies of all 26 teams remained in lockstep until 1990, when the settlement of a spring training lockout included the restoration of a mandatory 25-man roster in 1991. However, the individual teams couldn’t wait that long. The Phillies were the first to announce their intention to use a 25-man squad in 1990, and then the rest of the league followed suit. So much for honor among gentlemen?
Every collective bargaining agreement since 1990 has included the mandatory 25-man roster stipulation, so you can bet both sides will be extra cautious about accepting any changes to the current September expansion rules. Players will be wary of agreeing to a plan that reduces overall service time, while owners will be careful to avoid mandating increased costs. Even though labor harmony in baseball is at its zenith, any attempt to alter current roster rules will require tact and precision. Whenever jobs at a stake, a labor dispute is only one misstep away.
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