The month of September is here. And in Major League Baseball, that means the cavalry has arrived.
'Tis roster expansion season in baseball. After playing the first five months of the season with strict 25-man rosters, clubs around MLB are free to carry as many as 40 players if they so desire. Fringe major leaguers and star prospects alike get a taste of The Show in September.
Not everyone is happy with the idea. And to be blunt, nor should they. Roster expansion is a cool notion in theory, but the system itself is incomplete and needs to be overhauled.
There is griping about roster expansion every season, and this year the griping is as strong as ever. For a variety of reasons, people both within and outside the league just hate the idea of teams carrying more players in the stretch run.
Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin is probably its biggest critic. Here's what he told MLB.com back in 2009:
You play 80 percent of your season with even rosters, and then all of a sudden, you throw that out. It's like playing three-on-six in basketball or 11-on-18 in football. I don't know of any sport in the world that does it like ours, with this kind of imbalance of rosters. I'd like to find out if there's any other sport that does that at the most important time of the year.
He goes on to say that the rules are "the most ludicrous thing I see in sports."
Three years later, Melvin is still beating this same drum. He told Joel Sherman of the New York Post recently that he still hasn't gotten a good answer as to why MLB has the roster-expansion rule.
Just as he wasn't alone back in 2009, Melvin isn't alone now. Sherman spoke to another National League GM who told him that he hates the September call-up rule. Sherman himself was critical of roster expansion, calling it a "mechanism that trashes logic, strategy, fairness and integrity."
He also claimed that the response he got in various interviews was pretty much unanimous: "the rule is archaic and needs to be fixed."
To offer a piece of token fairness, there are some nice things to be said about roster expansion. From where the fans are standing, it offers a chance to catch a glimpse of oft-talked-about super-prospects such as Jurickson Profar of the Texas Rangers and Shelby Miller of the St. Louis Cardinals. These are the guys that publications such as Baseball America rave about, and suddenly here they are in the major leagues.
I'll be honest, the fan in me loves that about roster-expansion season. The fact that the same boring rosters we've gotten used to in the previous five months now feature super prospects and other new faces is just another reason to tune in during September.
The more objective baseball analyst guy in me, however, not only understands what all the fuss is about, but sympathizes with it as well.
Roster expansion is all well and good for the fans, but it's a problem for the guys out on the field because it presents an opportunity for clubs to gain an unfair competitive advantage. In September, no two teams are dealing with the same deck of cards, and that's a problem.
For example, Sherman noted in his article that roster expansion would allow NL West teams to load up on righty hitters to combat the Los Angeles Dodgers' trade deadline acquisition of lefty specialist Randy Choate (not to mention lefty starters Clayton Kershaw and Chris Capuano).
He was right. As reported by the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Giants used roster expansion as a means to add Xavier Nady and Brett Pill, two right-handed hitters, to their roster.
Elsewhere, the Atlanta Braves called up a trio of pitchers in Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran and Cory Gearrin to help their stretch run in September, according to David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Their new-found pitching depth will come in handy when they come up against the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies later this month.
We can go on and on. The point is that using roster expansion to gain a competitive edge isn't just a theory—it's a theory that teams actually practice, and that ain't right.
One solution would be to eliminate roster expansion altogether, but going that far would be a little too drastic. Instead, Sherman's idea of "fixing" roster expansion would be more appropriate. Even Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine—perceived as a doofus in some circles—can agree with that, as he said a few days ago (via the Associated Press) that the rule needs to be revised.
To this end, to make it fair for everyone, universalizing roster expansion is the way to go. That would entail two things.
One, 40 players is too many. The 40-man roster in and of itself should not be eliminated, but teams should only be allowed to carry a few more players—not the current 15.
And that leads us to the second part of this universalizing process: In addition to restricting the number of players teams can add to MLB rosters, the roles these players can fill must be restricted as well.
Bob Melvin has proposed something along these lines, saying that managers should be restricted to 30-player rosters consisting of 15 pitchers and 15 position players in the month of September.
Major League Baseball could take it a step further. To make sure each team is operating on the same playing field, all teams need to be dealing with the same weapons.
For example, Major League Baseball could allow teams to call up six different players: One lefty reliever, one righty reliever, one long man/spot starter, one outfielder, one infielder and one catcher.
Such a sysyem this would prevent teams from loading up on southpaw pitchers as part of an effort to gain an edge on a rival with a predominantly lefty-hitting lineup, and it would also force teams to get creative with their call-ups. A team may want to call up two outfielders, but they'll only be able to call up one. A team may want two lefty hitters, but may be restricted to one because one's an outfielder and the other's an infielder. And so on.
Exceptions could be made. MLB could allow for teams to call up two outfielders or two infielders rather than an outfielder, an infielder and a catcher. Teams could also be allowed to tinker with their chosen call-ups throughout the course of the month. Once a week, perhaps.
If this were the case, a team such as the Giants could use roster expansion to prepare for a big series against the Dodgers, and vice versa. But even if the two teams were to alter their rosters in preparation for one another, they'd still have to abide by the rules for the types of players they can add to the mix. Thus, it would be a lot harder for either of them to find an obvious competitive advantage.
Regardless of how MLB chooses to go about it, barring clubs from gaining obvious competitive advantages is what needs to happen with roster expansion. It's surely a well-intentioned system, as it gives contenders a chance to add fresh legs and arms, and non-contenders a chance to get a sneak peak at their youngsters. But it's past time for the system to get a few regulations. The problem now is that it doesn't have any regulations.
While Major League Baseball is at it, it can see about adding expanded replay, eliminating local TV blackouts and taking care of just about every other archaic problem on its to-do list.
I would say "no hurry," but I'd rather not mislead MLB into thinking people are cool with the league's notorious stubbornness toward change.
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