Thinking Through the Roster Expansion Problem

Last night, the Nationals and Braves played an 11-inning game, and because it happened in September, 17 different pitchers were used between the two clubs. Ninety-nine batters, 17 pitchers: that’s a new pitcher every six batters, essentially. Yes, it went extra innings, and Stephen Strasburg had to leave the start with an injury, forcing the Nationals into an unplanned bullpen game, but 15 pitching changes is still just far too many for a Major League game. It’s a problem the league faces every September, when teams are able to carry everyone on their 40-man roster as active players if they so choose; the Nationals currently have 37 active players.

Of course, neither the individual teams nor the players are all that incentivized to change the system. Since the minor-league season ends around Labor Day, the roster expansion gives teams a chance to give their best prospects something to do in September, and gets them some valuable experience in the big leagues. Players like it, of course, because the promotion to the active roster comes with a big improvement in salary, and so guys who have been making minor-league wages are essentially rewarded with a significant end-of-season bonus. It’s hard to imagine either side is going to push hard to limit September roster sizes in the current CBA negotiations, as they both benefit from the current system, and the burden of longer, less enjoyable games are mostly carried by the fans, who don’t have a seat at the bargaining table.

But as the Braves and Nationals showed last night, there has to be a better way than this. Let’s run through a few options.

The solution bandied about the most often is to maintain the 25-man active roster limit in September, but just let teams select which players are going to be active before each game or series. That way, teams could still travel with up to 40 players if they so chose, and could continue to give their prospects experience with the big-league club in September, without giving them the chance to turn every September game into a war of relievers. Of course, this solution might not actually end up doing that much to impact the problem. Consider: if teams could choose to activate different sets of players every day, they could simply keep swapping in fresh relievers who didn’t pitch the day before, and so managers would still have far more pitching depth than they do during the rest of the season, and pitching changes would still be more frequent than they are in April through August.

Simply limiting the number of active players each day would probably help a little bit, but maybe not enough. And then the league and the MLBPA would have to decide what the paycheck would be for a player who’s traveling with the team but deactivated for a given day; is that an active player, paid at the standard rate, even if he’s not eligible to play that day?

So there might be some logistical issues, and the fix might not actually fix much. So there might not need to be some more significant changes.

One idea I still like is something I proposed four years ago: move the minor league season back a month, so that rosters are expanded in April, not September. If we had the month of the MLB season without corresponding minor-league games at the start of the year, teams would be able to manage their pitchers’ workloads early in the year, when everyone is still ramping up to full strength, and teams would be incentivized to carry their best prospects on Opening Day, knowing that the alternative would be to have a guy like Kris Bryant just hanging out in extended spring training otherwise.

Of course, this would just move the too-many-relievers-on-a-roster problem from September to April, and maybe that’s not really an improvement. And this issue doesn’t take into account that the minor leagues do have playoffs that extend into mid-September currently, and if you push the whole minor-league season back, you’re now pushing those into the same time period as the Major League playoffs, and into a colder-weather month. They might not be particularly fond of that change.

So that’s not exactly a perfect solution, either — though I, for one, would rather have the expanded rosters earlier in the year than at the end of the season. But that’s a pretty big structural change to just move the issue from the end of the year to the beginning of the year, and it seems pretty unlikely to be the path MLB actually pursues.

What else is there? Well, they could just get rid of the roster expansion in September entirely, but I can’t imagine either side preferring that option. They could shrink the expanded rosters from 40 down to 30, but that would essentially end the practice of calling up minor-league veterans and fringe prospects, the types of guys who benefit the most from getting a big-league paycheck for a month.

This seems to be a situation where the two parties responsible for finding a solution don’t have incentives that align with really solving the issue. So, despite the fact that no one really wants to watch a game with 15 pitching changes, I don’t know if there’s a change that will solve the issue while actually making either the teams or the players happy. In the end, this might just be a situation where the cures aren’t any better than the disease.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

The easiest solution to me would be to change it so that the entire season you use a 22-man active roster that you can change each day, and then the “taxi squad” could simply be, say, 26 men for the main part of the season, going up to 40 at the end of the year.

During the main part of the season you’d usually designate your last 4 starters as the guys to sit out each game. In September, you could also swap out tired players/relievers for the game as well, but at least it means that you’re playing by the same rules the entire season.

Another option could be to simply play the entire season with, say, a 20-person game roster, but there would never actually be an upper limit to the “active” roster. This means that you’re basically limited to about 6 relievers max in a game, but you would usually manage your team so the 6 relievers would all be rested guys. Instead of continuously swapping out guys with options to the minors for 10 days, you could simply alternate them on the taxi/active squad the whole season. Since your average game most teams have 1-2 relievers who are usually unavailable anyways, there shouldn’t actually be a large in-game difference to this.

Pirates Hurdlesmember
5 years ago
Reply to  Matt

Doesnt seem all that difficult to me either. Have an active game roster in Sept that can be changed each day. Allow 22-24 players each day from the large 40 man pool. Game integrity is preserved and teams get to look at extra guys and lighten the workload.

5 years ago
Reply to  Matt

I’ve always liked this solution. You can use 20 players per game. No need to set the active roster to “declare” which players are active, just a maximum number of appearances. Add +1 in the 10th inning and every other inning after that.

5 years ago
Reply to  Matt

Joe Maddon at the very least wouldn’t like this. He’s warmed up starters a couple of times in late extra situations, after running out of pitchers, and in multiple cases has used starters as pinch hitters (including at least one pinch bunter in the 12th inning).

5 years ago
Reply to  Matt

FWIW and since nobody else is pointing it out: this is the way the Japanese league operates all year: 28 man roster, 25 active each game.