Understanding This Year’s Revised Roster Rules

In the Before Times, when the 2020 season was planned at 162 games — on February 12, to be exact — Major League Baseball officially announced a handful of rule changes that had been in the works for awhile, many of which concern teams’ active rosters. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the season has been drastically shortened, and between a hasty reboot of spring training, a suspended minor league season, and voluminous health- and safety-related protocols, the league has been forced to put some of those changes on hold and adopt a very different set of roster rules than was initially planned.

What follows here is my attempt to sort through those rules and explain some of the new entries in the transaction lexicon. Additionally, I’ll use a couple of teams as examples in order to illustrate some of the roster considerations that may be in play. We’ll start with the easy stuff…

Active rosters

Instead of simply expanding from the tried-and-true 25-man active rosters — a limit that was introduced with the first Collective Bargaining Agreement in 1968 — to 26-man ones as planned, teams will begin the season on July 23 or 24 with rosters of up to 30 players, though they’re allowed to carry as few as 25 (a minimum that will remain in place all season). According to the 2020 Operations Manual, on the 15th day of the season (August 6 or 7) the upper limit drops to 28 players, and two weeks after that date, it drops again to 26. For any doubleheaders after that point, teams will be permitted to add a 27th player.

Additionally, the nit picky rules governing the makeup of those rosters, which were laid out in February (and panned here by yours truly), are on the shelf. Teams won’t be limited to carrying 13 pitchers, after all, and position players won’t be limited to pitching only in extra innings, or in games in which teams are ahead or behind by at least seven runs. In other words, all of this is as it was last year, and somebody damn well better sign catcher/blowout closer Russell Martin tout suite.

Injured lists

Also reverting to last year’s form is the 10-day injured list, which will be applicable to both pitchers and position players; previously, the plan was for pitchers to have a minimum stay of 15 days so as to reduce the extent to which the system was gamed, if not abused. The 60-day injured list, on which teams could place a player and reclaim his spot on the 40-man roster, has temporarily become the 45-day injured list. Additionally, there’s a COVID-19-related injured list, where teams can place a player who either tests positive for the coronavirus, is confirmed to have been exposed to somebody who has tested positive, or exhibits symptoms requiring self-isolation for further assessment. There’s no minimum or maximum number of days for a stay on this list, though one would imagine that for most cases, players could be out at for at least the two-week quarantining period with which we’ve all gained at least passing familiarity.

60-man player pools

This is the big one. Because there won’t be any minor league season, teams won’t be able to use their affiliates to restock their rosters in the event of injuries and illnesses. Instead, they’ll draw from 60-player pools, which each team was supposed to submit to the league office on Sunday, though as Craig Edwards noted, several teams did not do so until Monday, and some did so with lists containing fewer than 45 players, mainly because they plan to add more.

The pools include players on the 40-man rosters that teams anticipate participating in the 2020 season, and any non-40-man roster players who are under contract (i.e., veterans on minor league deals) or on reserve (players who would normally be staffing the minor league rosters) whom the team anticipates may participate as well. Some subset of those 60-man pools will be invited to the major league camps, which are being held in teams’ home ballparks. Because of space and safety considerations, the rest of those players will be assigned to an alternate training site, generally the ballpark of a minor league affiliate within 100 miles. The Mets, for example, will use MCU Park, home of the A-level Brooklyn Cyclones, and the Red Sox will use McCoy Stadium, home of the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox. While the Yankees are among the teams that haven’t officially announced their plans, they will probably be at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, their Triple-A home.

Teams won’t be permitted to exceed 60 players in their pools but will be able to make the standard transactions, including trades (this year’s deadline is August 31), Rule 5 draftee returns, outrights (off the 40-man roster), waivers, releases, and placement on injured lists, the suspended list (by the club), military, voluntarily retired, restricted, disqualified or ineligible lists. As Craig pointed out, once players are in a 60-man pool, “the only way they can be removed from it barring injury and few other roster oddities is to allow every other team to get a shot them, either through waivers or free agency.” A team that has an open spot in its 60-player pool can add a player from its own organization whom it had previously not designated for the pool. A player who has been released or waived, and thus is no longer in a team’s 60-man pool, can’t be brought back.

Moving players from the pool to the active roster will mean adding them to the 40-man if they aren’t on there already. Moving them in the other direction will require either optioning (if they’re remaining on the 40-man roster) or outrighting (if they’re being taken off that roster). An optioned player must stay on option assignment for at least 10 days unless recalled due to an injury-related move.

Taxi squads

For every road trip, each team will be permitted to bring a three-player taxi squad to allow for immediate replacements in the case of injury or illness. Those players need to be part of the team’s 60-man pool but not already on the active roster, and it’s not necessary to disclose who’s on the taxi squad at any given time; there’s no official designation or roster status associated with being a member of that group.

One of those players on each team’s taxi squad must be a catcher. The other two can be position players or pitchers, and it stands to reason that every team will include at least one pitcher; as Craig noted, it appears that more than half of the potential taxi squadders are pitchers. These players will be allowed to work out with the active roster while on the road, with the catcher also allowed to serve as a bullpen catcher. At the end of the road trip, the players will return to the alternate site, though the catcher can stick around the active squad as a bullpen catcher. As for money and service time, taxi squad players are considered minor leaguers, making minor league salaries and not accruing service time. They do get the standard major league per diem ($108.50), which puts them ahead from the other players in the 60-man pool who aren’t on the active roster, but that’s not saying much.

Trades

As noted, the trade deadline this year is August 31. Note that only players who are in the 60-man pools, including prospects, can be traded during the season. Showcasing pool players who aren’t on active rosters won’t be easy given that the alternate training sites are currently closed to media and scouts, and likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

[Update: One loophole became apparent in Tuesday’s trade that sent Jorge Mateo from the A’s to the Padres, namely that a team can use deal a non-pool via the player to be named later designation, and complete the trade after the season.]

Opt outs

A player who opts out of the season due to family health concerns, as the Diamondbacks’ Mike Leake, the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross, and the Rockies’ Ian Desmond did on Monday, is placed on the restricted list and doesn’t count against his team’s 40-man roster or 60-man pool. However, he won’t receive salary or service time. Only if an opt-out player is in a high-risk category will he receive salary and service time, which doesn’t appear to be the case for any of those four but may apply to others who come forward.

Rule 5 draftees

In a normal season, Rule 5 picks must spend at least 90 days on the active roster in addition to never being optioned to the minors. In a 66-day season, that’s a mathematical impossibility, and so the minimum number of days has been reduced to 50, which leaves comparatively little margin for error when it comes to a stint on an injured list. A Rule 5 pick who spends less than 50 days on the active roster thus carries over his eligibility requirements into next season, and so can’t be optioned to the minors without completing his 50 days or being offered back to his original team. A Rule 5 player who spends the entire 2020 season on the active roster will thereafter have no Rule 5-related restrictions, meaning that he can be optioned so long as he has options remaining.

Suspensions

The suspensions that have been handed down by the league haven’t been prorated, but they won’t be carried over beyond this year. Yankees righty Domingo Germán, who has 63 games remaining on his 81-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy, won’t be able to return during the regular season, but after that, he will be eligible for the postseason, and his suspension won’t have any carryover into 2021. Twins righty Michael Pineda must still serve the remaining 39 games on his 60-game PED-suspension before being eligible to return. Free agent infielder Tim Beckham owes the man 32 games for his PED suspension; his clock doesn’t start until he’s signed, though presumably, his suspension would be over if he does not play at all this year.

It appears that players who have recently been handed 80-game PED suspensions, such as the Indians’ Emmanuel Clase and the Pirates’ Edgar Santana, would be credited with having served their suspensions if the season is completed this year, but if it’s interrupted or canceled, what happens is subject to negotiation.

The Yankees as a working example

Having gone through the basics, it’s worth illustrating the way a team has constructed its pool, and how it might handle it. Let’s take the Yankees as an example, using RosterResource’s projection for their 30-man Opening Day squad.

The delay of Opening Day has been kind to the Yankees, who as of mid-March were once again looking particularly banged up. By now, Paxton has had time to recover from his February surgery to alleviate a herniated lumbar disc. Likewise, Hicks recently described himself as “80 percent” of the way through a throwing program in his recovery from his October Tommy John surgery; he expects to be up to full speed by the time the season opens. Judge, who was shut down in late February due to a stress fracture and a pneumothorax, has begun to “hit a little bit,” and the hope is that he’ll be ready. Stanton, the team’s top option to serve as designated hitter, has recovered from his strained right calf. Any of these players could suffer a setback over the next four weeks, of course, but for now, they’re targeted to be on the active roster.

Here are the other 30 players whom the team included in its pool. Numbers in parentheses refer to Eric Longenhagen’s rankings of their top prospects, which were published on March 4.

The Yankees, who obviously expect to contend, have build their player pool accordingly. They have plenty of experienced major leaguers (Hale, Otero, Rosa, Tropeano, Zych, Avilan, Lyons, Iannetta, Kratz, Thole, Duffy, Granite, and Herrera) to provide immediate depth, any of whom might catch a break and land on the active roster if somebody else gets hurt or sick. One can imagine that their taxi squad might come from these ranks, provided that player was on the 40-man roster (which none of these catchers are). Perhaps a combination like Kratz, Estrada (who last year saw big league time at both middle infield and outfield corner positions), and Abreu. Suppose, for example, that they’re on a road trip and Hicks lands on the injured list; Estrada might replace him on the active roster, with Gardner taking over in center field, Frazier or Stanton joining the lineup as the left fielder (with the other one DHing), and then Granite taking Hicks’ roster spot once the team returns home and makes the necessary 40-man move. Likewise, if, say, Happ pulls a groin muscle in his start on the road, Abreu might take his place on the roster until the rotation spot comes around again, whereupon somebody such as Green or Loaisiga (both of whom will be traveling with the team) might make an opener-flavored start, or somebody such as Garcia or Schmidt takes the ball if they’ve returned home.

The Yankees don’t have a ton of bona fide upper level prospects, but the ones from among their Top 54 who spent time at Triple-A in 2019 (Estrada, Garcia, and Nelson) are either in the pool, or, in the case of King (33rd on their list), projected to make the active roster. Also in the pool is a quartet of righties who spent time at Double-A in 2019 (Schmidt, Yajure, Abreu, and Kriske), all of whom are ranked higher than two other Double-A righties who did not make the cut, namely Trevor Stephan (36) and Garrett Whitlock (41). The team has even included a handful of prospects who haven’t played at a level higher than High-A, namely Medina, Florial, Gil, and Vizcaino. Given that Schmidt, Medina, Florial, Gil, and Yajure all rate as 45 Future Value or higher, it appears that all of their prospects who are considered to be at least that good and have reached at least High-A are in the pool, as are some of the 40 FVs who fit that bill. Some older minor leaguers — too old to be prospects — round out the group, including relievers Acevedo and Alvarez, catcher McDowell, and infielder Holder. Here it’s worth remembering that with the reserves likely playing intrasquad games to stay fresh, warm bodies will be in demand.

All of which is to say that the team has generally stuck to players who could plausibly help this year, while leaving behind their teenagers, including 17-year-old outfielder Jasson Dominguez, who ranked second on their list and 49th on our Top 100; he signed out of the Dominican Republic for a honking $5.1 million bonus and has drawn Mike Trout comparisons even before he’s played a professional inning. At this writing, it’s unclear exactly what’s going to happen to such players. Stashing them at spring training complexes is impractical and improbable, given that they’re right in the center of COVID-19 hotspots in Arizona and Florida, and such outbreaks have all but quashed hopes of an expanded Arizona Fall League season. As The Athletic’s Keith Law wrote last week, teams are shifting to online instruction where possible, “whether focusing on physical conditioning, tweaking mechanics or developing mental skills,” but that the gains may vary widely from player to player, depending upon their stage of development and level of self-motivation:

“Each individual player is different. Some we get to monitor a lot more than others,” said another NL player development director. “We have to provide more structure and guidance and specific routines to some of the younger players, while some older players have more established routines and know what to work on. We utilize Zoom, doing conference calls with groups of players, like chalk talks and baseball 101 type talks, and then we do them with individual players trying to continue to attack areas of weakness.”

It’s important to note that considerations about prospects will differ from team to team. The Rays, who claimed a Wild Card berth last year and by our odds have a 60.9% at some kind of playoff spot this year, have included number one overall prospect Wander Franco, who has never played above High-A, in their pool. In fact, skimming the 60-man pools, the only players from among our top 25 prospects who are on the outside looking in is Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, who has just 37 professional games under his belt, all of them in A-ball or lower. Even the other low minors prospects from that subset, such as Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez (High-A), Padres outfielder CJ Abrams (A), Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. (Rookie), and Giants infielder Marco Luciano (Low-A), are in their teams’ respective pools.

Even with the shortened season giving the Tigers a more plausible chance at a playoff spot (2.3%), they’re going prospect heavy in their pool, presumably as a way to keep closer tabs on their top youngsters, many of whom are approaching big league readiness. Spencer Torkelson, the overall number one pick in this year’s draft, is expected to join the pool once he signs his contract. This year’s second-round pick, catcher Dillon Dingler, is already there, as is last year’s first-rounder, outfielder Riley Greene, who placed third on their prospect list in January and has just 53 professional games under his belt, all at A-ball or lower. Also in the pool are pitchers Matt Manning (1), Casey Mize (2), Tarik Skubal (4), Isaac Paredes (5), Alex Faedo (6), Franklin Perez (10), and Rony Garcia (13), who have all reached Double-A; pitchers Beau Burrows (17), Shao-Ching Chiang (27), Kyle Funkhouser (29), and outfielder Daz Cameron (9), who have all reached Triple-A; and pitcher Bryan Garcia (26), catcher Jake Rogers (19), and shortstop Willi Castro (14), all of whom got cups of coffee last year.

Eric is taking a closer look at the prospect-related implications of these 60-man pools (he kicked things off today with the AL East), and doubtless, more nuances regarding moves and individual team strategies will emerge. This, hopefully, is enough to get you started on understanding a season that will be unlike any we’ve seen before — but let’s hope we can junk these rules and get back to some semblance of normal in 2021.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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viceroy
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viceroy

How does Service Time work? I saw Justin Mason mentioned in the RotoRiteup that players would be granted an extra year if teams wait 7 days, but I haven’t seen that anywhere else.

jayhawkduke
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jayhawkduke

I’ve heard 7 days as well. Normally a year of service time is 172 days of a 187-day season (92%). It sounds like they just prorated this season at the same rate. 59 days out of a 66-game season is almost 92%.

The one thing I haven’t heard is how Super Two will work…I’m assuming that will be prorated similarly.

TKDC
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TKDC

Super-2 is based on a percentage, right? It is the 20% of players with 2+ years of service time that have the most service time.

If the question is just about accruing service time, then yes, that is accrued pro rata so each day in 2020 is worth almost 3 days of service time.

DGLewis
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DGLewis

2.818 (186/66) days, if the season is 66 days long.

So 62 days on an MLB roster would give a player 174.7 days of service time, while 61 would give 171.9, meaning that I expect the threshold for a full year of service time to be 62 days.

With the added caveat that if a player is already on the reserve list, they need to be optioned to the satellite squad for any time not spent on the active roster, and a player who spends less than 20 days on optional assignment in a season accrues MLB service time while on optional assignment – though it’s not totally clear whether that 20 days is also prorated or not.