Should MLB expand rosters to 26?
Depleted benches and hectic travel schedules putting a strain on the game
Tommy Hutton, a popular broadcaster with the Florida Marlins, played parts of 12 seasons in the majors and topped out at $125,000 with the Montreal Expos in 1981. Fans and friends routinely ask if he feels cheated about playing at a time when the compensation was so meager compared to today.
"People say, 'Don't you wish you were playing now because of the salaries?''' Hutton said. "I tell them, 'No I don't, because I wouldn't be on a roster today.' I was on teams that had six or seven guys on the bench as extra men. Now five is usually tops. And one of those guys is a catcher.''
Reserves in the Tommy Hutton mold -- guys who can swing a bat but aren't capable of playing six positions -- have yet to officially appear on baseball's endangered species list. But they sure are finding it more challenging to land jobs on 25-man rosters. With all those right-handed sidearmers and lefty one-out guys (or LOOGYs) taking up spots in the bullpen, there's not much space to go around these days.
That's one good reason for baseball to consider expanding rosters from 25 to 26 players in the game's next collective bargaining agreement. Because of smaller benches, managers are often hamstrung when it comes to making moves, particularly in the National League, where double switches and tactical maneuvering have long been sources of pride.
And the day-to-day demands of the schedule are putting an increasingly bigger strain on rosters. Player after player will tell you that travel is more demanding than ever as baseball tries to squeeze in 162 games while accommodating a lengthy postseason, and the ban on amphetamines forces big leaguers to complete the journey au naturel. Doesn't it stand to reason that an extra player would make the marathon less taxing for everyone involved?
Sources said that expanding rosters from 25 to 26 is not a hot-button issue in baseball's halls of power, and that the subject has not been addressed in any meaningful way during labor talks between the commissioner's office and the players' association. But the union has had internal discussions about rules changes that might expand rosters for doubleheaders, so the initiative is not off the table completely.
Meanwhile, some people in the game think this is an idea whose time has come.
"I am a big proponent of the increase in roster size,'' Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said in an email. "I would actually consider 27. I'm not sure how we arrived at 25 to begin with, but I definitely feel it is time for a change. It's too tough of a schedule and too long of a season.''
Relievers, relievers and more relievers
This might seem like ancient history, but let your mind drift back 45 years to the 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers, who won 95 games to capture the NL pennant before losing to Baltimore in the World Series. Four pitchers -- Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen and Don Sutton -- combined for 154 starts and an average of 265 innings each. Manager Walter Alston divvied up the rest of the work among his closer, Phil Regan, setup men Ron Perranoski and Bob Miller and long man Joe Moeller, who snagged an occasional start during doubleheaders.
Over the next few decades, several developments helped alter the makeup of rosters. The designated hitter arrived in 1972. Four-man rotations gave way to five-man rotations. Billy Martin killed a staff in Oakland, and A's manager Tony La Russa helped foster the more specialized use of the bullpen in the late 1980s. Pitch counts are more stringently monitored today, and managers need to carry more relievers because starters aren't going as deep into games.
Last year, the 30 big league clubs combined for 165 complete games. Compare that to 1968, the Bob Gibson "Year of the Pitcher,'' when 20 clubs combined to throw 897 complete games.
No wonder bullpens are growing like kudzu. A spin through the current 30 rosters shows that 29 teams are going with 12 or more pitchers. The Seattle Mariners, with 11, are the exception. The Tigers, Cardinals, Marlins, Royals, Yankees, Orioles, Rockies, Brewers, Braves, Mets, Blue Jays and Rangers have all gone with 13-man staffs at some point this season.
Do the math: With 13 pitchers on the roster and eight position player starters in the NL, that leaves four players on the bench. One is the backup catcher, who can't be used because he needs to be held back in the event of an injury to the starter. Say hello to Atlanta catcher David Ross, who is slugging .551 this year but has only 49 at-bats because he plays behind a perennial All-Star, Brian McCann, and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez doesn't have the luxury of using him as a pinch hitter.
I am a big proponent of the increase in roster size. I would actually consider 27. I'm not sure how we arrived at 25 to begin with, but I definitely feel it is time for a change.” -- Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd
Fringe roster guys have always been at the mercy of staffs. Consider classic journeyman hitter Jeff "Mickey'' Manto, who played professional ball for 12 franchises over 16 years and even found time for a cameo in Japan. Manto was a terrific clubhouse guy who once tied a record with home runs in four straight at-bats. He even learned how to play catcher to enhance his value. And he still wound up playing 289 games in the majors and 1,346 games in the minors.
"The utility guys have become way more athletic now than when I played,'' said Manto, now the minor league hitting coordinator for the White Sox. "The 25th guy now has to be some kind of special. He has to be able to play shortstop and center field and maybe steal a base. If they added a 26th player, I'm sure it would relieve a whole lot of pressure for teams to make that final roster decision.''
The extra manpower would also make life easier on managers whose teams are trying to claw their way back from early deficits. In a May 19 game at Citizens Bank Park, Phillies fans were probably surprised to see pitcher Cliff Lee grab a bat and pinch hit in a 7-1 loss to Colorado. But Phillies manager Charlie Manuel wasn't about to burn a position player with his team down 5-0 in the third inning.
"If the rosters were bigger, it might be an aid to the offense,'' said an NL scout. "If it's a tight game and your team is down one or two runs, you might be more likely to go ahead and pinch-hit in the fifth or sixth inning. Managers don't do it now because they don't have the bodies to do it.''
25 for eternity?
According to historian Cliff Blau of the Society for American Baseball Research, big league teams in the late 1950s and early '60s carried 28 players on Opening Day and were required to reduce their rosters to 25 a month later. Then rosters could expand to 40 in September.
Since the formation of the players' union in 1968, the rules have called for a minimum of 24 on a roster and a maximum of 25. In 1986, all the teams acted in unison and carried 24 players, or one under the limit. Relievers Todd Worrell and Jesse Orosco wound up playing the outfield in emergencies, pitcher Dan Schatzeder made 14 appearances as a pinch hitter, and the Mets and Red Sox sacrificed a potential competitive advantage and stayed with 24 in the World Series.
The players' association filed a grievance, but arbitrator George Nicolau ruled for the owners because there was no language in the basic agreement forbidding teams from colluding on roster sizes. The labor agreement now decrees that the number of players carried on an active roster "is an individual matter to be determined solely by each Club for its own benefit. Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs.''
One of the owners' main objections to increasing rosters is, of course, financial. The conventional wisdom is that the Marlins, Pirates, Royals and other small-market clubs would have no interest, even if it means paying that extra player the minimum salary of $414,000 a year.
That's not the only objection: The "competitive balance'' argument also comes into play.
"The lower-revenue teams are going to use that spot for a minimum-salaried player, where the Red Sox, Phillies or Yankees are in a position to go out and sign another veteran pinch hitter for $2 million,'' said a baseball official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "That's the big squawk you're going to get from the small-market clubs -- that it's a competitive disadvantage to them.''
One American League general manager didn't necessarily agree with that assessment.
"I don't think anyone laments the Yankees signing Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez,'' the GM said. "They're bench guys. But it does have an impact on the market. It's an extra five minutes you have to spend telling an agent, 'We're not the Yankees.'''
Regardless of cost, smaller benches have changed the way GMs build their rosters. Teams are now less inclined to go with a pure DH in the David Ortiz-Frank Thomas-Jim Thome mold and rotate the spot among several position players. Versatility is also a more prized commodity today. Omar Infante, Jamey Carroll, Brent Lillibridge and other "have glove, will travel'' guys are more valuable than ever, even if they're not necessarily paid like it.
Opponents of roster expansion are quick to raise two other objections:
• There's no need for a 26th man in the AL when pinch hitters are rarely used and some bench players barely see the light of day as it is. Kansas City outfielder Mitch Maier, Boston outfielder Darnell McDonald and Texas infielder Andres Blanco are prime examples of players who've been on rosters since Opening Day and collected cobwebs from lack of use.
• In light of all the fringe players on big league rosters already, an additional 30 roster spots would only serve to dilute the game's talent pool even further.
"It's thin enough right now,'' said Phillies broadcaster Gary Matthews. "The days of a Cliff Johnson coming off the bench and knowing he might hit one out those days are gone. If teams are going to add an extra player now, it's more of a utility guy, if you will.''
The case for expansion
Major leaguers don't spend a lot of time whining about this for public consumption, but the ban on "greenies'' and tougher travel have created lots of exhausted, zombie-fied players who stumble off charter flights and roll into their hotel rooms at 3 or 4 a.m. before heading to the park for another game the next day.
Marlins player representative Wes Helms and Phillies assistant rep Brian Schneider, two players actively involved in the players' association, said the rigors of interleague play and the more demanding schedule are major issues for the union. But they do not advocate expanding rosters as a solution.
"It would probably help to have 26 guys, but we're grown men and we have learn how to deal with whatever cards we're dealt,'' Helms said. "That's what makes us professional athletes. We're not college or high school kids anymore. We've got to deal with it and do our jobs even if we're tired. I'm old school when it comes to that.
Said Schneider: "It would take a lot of educating and explaining for me to see why things need to change. I know they took [stimulants] out of the game, but I don't think you counteract that by adding another player to make it a little easier on us. They took some things away, and you learn a lesson from that and go from there.''
Helms thinks that MLB needs to find ways to make the schedule more player-friendly -- for example, by having more daytime getaway games so that teams can hit the road at a reasonable hour. Schneider, meanwhile, advocates a shorter spring training, even though a regular season that begins in late March would inevitably lead to weather issues.
Because MLB continues to resist a return to the 154-game schedule and the postseason threatens to keep expanding, many observers think more doubleheaders would help create needed breathing room in the schedule. This is where MLB and the players' association might ultimately find some common ground on roster expansion.
Detroit manager Jim Leyland, a member of commissioner Bud Selig's 14-man special committee for on-field matters, suggested that the rules be changed to allow teams to increase their rosters from 25 to 26 players for doubleheaders. Clubs would be allowed to add a starter or a reliever or do absolutely nothing depending on their individual circumstances. But Leyland's proposal has failed to generate much traction to this point.
"I would not be opposed to 26 guys,'' Leyland said. "That would not bother me one bit. I don't know if you need 26 all year. But there are special cases when you can at least bring a guy up for a doubleheader. I thought it was a no-brainer.''
Leyland said it's "ridiculous'' that a team has to send a player to the minor leagues to create a roster spot to make room for an emergency pitcher during doubleheaders. Quite often, the sacrificial lamb is a young player who is expendable because he has minor league options left. Once he goes down, his team has to wait 10 days before he can be recalled.
"The way things are now, it's a nightmare for general managers, because they have to send out guys they don't want to send out,'' Leyland said. "And you're punishing some poor kid who's doing his job and sending him down just because he has 'options,' and you're hurting your team. To me, it's just common sense to change that. But I recommended it and they shot it down.''
As Leyland discovered from the chilly reception to his idea, change can be an ordeal in baseball, and there's no such thing as a no-brainer when money, jobs and tradition are at stake.
Is bigger necessarily better when it comes to roster size? Lock a bunch of baseball people in a room, and good luck getting them to agree to an answer to that question.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick