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MLB’s revised roster rules could end up punishing the players

Tony Clark and Co. once again agreed to rule changes that may punish baseball’s middle and lower classes.

MLB: World Series-Kansas City Royals at New York Mets
Christian Colon, who had the go-ahead hit for the Royals in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, was a September call-up and may not have made Kansas City’s playoff roster under MLB’s new roster rules.
Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

MLB and the MLBPA have come to an agreement on new legislation that will feature several transformative rule changes, as ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Yahoo’s Tim Brown detailed on Wednesday night and the league confirmed on Thursday morning. As part of this deal, MLB rosters will expand from 25 to 26 players for the 2020 season, though they’ll contract from a maximum of 40 to a maximum (and required minimum) of 28 in September. On the surface, it looks like a good move for the players’ association to get 30 new full-time jobs around the league. But will this deal ultimately be one that comes back to haunt executive director Tony Clark and the MLBPA, just as the most recent CBA did when the new luxury tax penalties essentially ruined free agency for a large chunk of the league’s middle class?

An extremely alarming, but so far overlooked, aspect of this deal is that there will be a limit on pitchers from the beginning of the season through September 1 — the league didn’t confirm how many it will be on Thursday, but both Passan and Brown’s reports indicated that there will be a 13-pitcher cap. Of course, every team feels like it can always use more pitching — that’s why we see countless teams shuffling relievers in and out on a daily basis throughout the season — but it’s unclear if there’s really much of a desire for more position-player depth. The new roster spot, combined with the new restriction, means that every team will have the ability to carry up to 13 position players. Thus, for the immediate future, every NL team will be able to carry at least five players on the bench, with every AL team having at least four extra position players on a day-to-day basis.

Do teams really need (or even want) that extra roster spot, though? Bench players are more versatile now than they’ve been at any other point in recent memory, with almost every reserve (and many starters, for that matter) capable of playing multiple positions. The idea of being able to carry a third catcher or pinch-running specialist is intriguing, but teams have gotten by just fine without those types of players for many years and likely can continue to do so if they so choose. Many AL bench players already struggle to see the field on a consistent basis as is — because of the general lack of pinch-hitting opportunities, combined with the ability to give a regular a half-day off as the DH rather than having to sit him entirely and start another player, platoon players are generally the only ones who can expect to see frequent playing time.

Sure, an extra roster spot probably means that there will be a greater opportunity for the non-roster invitee who tears the cover off the ball in spring training to head north with the big-league club for Opening Day. But when that player struggles to get consistent opportunities and/or injuries strike, will teams bother to keep that spot occupied throughout the duration of the season? Sure, platoon-centric clubs like the Dodgers and Cubs that thrive on position-player depth probably will. But it only takes a quick look at rosters in two of MLB’s major professional counterparts, the NHL and NBA, to realize that some teams may just leave that 26th roster spot open at times and pocket the money — especially since virtually every front office is treating the luxury-tax threshold as a soft salary cap.

It’s almost commonplace for NHL teams to operate short-handed, particularly when the 23-man roster limit is in effect from Opening Night through the trade deadline in late February. As teams try to save money toward the salary cap, it’s extremely frequent for a club to head out on a road trip with the necessary 12 forwards, six defensemen, two goalies, and an extra forward and d-man. If they’re at home and have minor-leaguers within a reasonable distance, it’s not unheard of for teams to head into a game with one or even no extras beyond the 20-man game night roster, meaning that two or three roster spots could go unused on a given night. Since we’re beyond the deadline and NHL rosters are unlimited for the rest of the season, the current roster sizes don’t accurately portray just how common this practice is, but it’s worth noting that even with expanded rosters, four of the 31 teams were still operating below the pre-deadline limit of 23 players as of Wednesday night, per Spotrac.

Meanwhile, according to Spotrac’s NBA salary cap tracker, 14 of the league’s 30 teams are currently operating below the 15-man roster limit (12 have 14 players, while another two have 13). In addition, NBA teams are allotted two two-way players — guys who can spend a limited amount of time in the NBA while spending the rest of their time developing in the G League. Five teams employ only one two-way player, while the Portland Trail Blazers chose to go through the season without signing anyone to a two-way contract.

Cross-league comparisons obviously are not a foolproof way to predict the way MLB teams will behave — after all, the final three players on a maxed-out NHL roster and the last four on a full-size NBA squad aren’t allowed to dress for games, whereas each major-leaguer is eligible to participate in every game. But with the first position-related roster limit in MLB history being implemented and spending penalties being the strictest they’ve ever been, it’s more possible than ever that many MLB teams will opt to go short-handed rather than fielding a full 26-man squad all season.

MLB has not yet announced a minimum salary for 2020 — at the time the current CBA was put into place, it was agreed that the league minimums for 2020-21 would be subject to cost-of-living adjustments — but it’s gone up by $10,000 each year since 2017, so estimating that the minimum for next year will be $565,000, that means an extra $16,950,000 will be paid out to players in 2020, even if every 26th man makes the minimum (and, of course, if teams actually choose to operate with a full roster). With every club making two September call-ups, that’ll funnel an additional minimum of roughly $5,650,000 toward the players during the season’s final month. But that’s a sharp decrease from the theoretical ~$42,375,000 that September call-ups would have been in line to earn under the previous rules (of course, not every team chose to operate at the 40-player maximum, and many clubs held off on calling players up until injuries occurred or the Triple-A playoffs wrapped up). Though some of the newly-added 26th men will be making more than the league minimum, the total $22,600,000 that players beyond the top 25 will be in line to earn (if every one of them makes the league minimum) falls well short of the $40-plus-million-dollar pool that was previously there for September call-ups.

With MLB effectively eliminating 360 jobs during September, countless minor-leaguers that previously would have gotten a promotion for the season’s final month are now going to be left on the outside looking in. Assuming that the rumored idea of granting MLB service time to all players on the 40-man roster in September is not ultimately part of the plan — if it is, it wasn’t mentioned in any of Wednesday night’s news articles or in the official announcement on Thursday — the players on the 40-man who don’t get called up will be alright from a financial standpoint, but they’ll certainly be much worse off than they were before. Even by earning just a one-month pro-rated portion of the MLB minimum salary (~$92,500 in 2019), many of those guys would have an opportunity to more than double their earnings — the minimum salary for minor-leaguers covered by the MLBPA, which has risen by $1,500 a season since 2016 and is subject to a cost-of-living adjustment next year, is set at $88,000 for 2019.

That’s not even factoring in players off the 40-man roster who otherwise might have received a call-up in September — those guys will face drastically longer odds in their quests to reach the majors, and the ones that are left on the outside looking in as a result of this new deal will be forced to subsist on the money they made playing in Triple-A (where, at last check, the minimum salary was $2,150 a month — roughly $11,825 a season — for players in their first year at the minors’ highest level) rather than receiving a nice, nearly-six-figure bonus. Never mind the fact that players who in the past have become key postseason contributors after earning playoff roster spots in September — Christian Colon, Juan Perez, Hunter Strickland, Terrance Gore, and Brandon Finnegan are among the recent examples — may no longer get the necessary opportunities to establish themselves in that manner.

Again, if the extra players on the 40-man roster are paid as if they’re major-leaguers for the last month of the season, that’d be a significant boost — albeit not one that’d totally replicate the virtual stimulus package provided by the old-fashioned September call-up system, as players on minor-league contracts who would no longer be selected to the 40-man roster in September would suffer. But either way, it’s a change that will impact the development of younger players (or the career arcs of grizzled veterans, for that matter) who might’ve received opportunities with expanded rosters down the stretch.

Perhaps all this concern is for naught, and MLB teams will keep their rosters at the 26-man maximum, with all players on the 40-man receiving service time in September. But for now, there seems to be plenty of reason to worry, especially with the union’s recent history of dropping the ball in negotiations like this.