The final month of Major League Baseball’s regular season is just around the corner. For many teams, that means help is on the way.
Starting Monday, Sept. 1, teams are allowed to carry as many as 40 players on their active roster. And after playing the first five months of the season with a strict 25-man squad, the chance to bolster a roster with upward of 15 additional players, whether it be in the form of serviceable depth or young, talented prospects, can be the deciding factor for teams still in the playoff hunt.
At face value, the expansion of rosters in September makes for an exciting end to the season—especially after the implementation of a second wild-card spot. However, MLB teams will never be fully on board with the idea until the system itself is reformed to favor all 30 clubs equally.
Outrage over September call-ups is nothing new. Back in 2009, Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin blasted the notion of expanded rosters in a conversation with MLB.com:
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.
Roughly five years have passed since Melvin issued those remarks, but, as you might have guessed, the system is still the same. That hasn’t caused Melvin to back off his stance or stop seeking reform, however, as he told Joel Sherman of the New York Post in 2012 that he still hadn’t received a logical answer from MLB as to why it continues to support the September roster expansions.
About this time last year, Melvin further expressed his frustration with the system, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today:
There is no other competitive team sport that allows uneven rosters any time in the year. Any time in the year! And now, in the most important month, we're doing that.
How does that make any sense?
We've adopted rules to make sure you can't play a game with a one-guy disadvantage, and then we go into the most important month of the year, and we don't care if there's a five-player difference.
As someone who lives and breathes prospects, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this time of the year.
Specifically, September roster expansions offer fans a glimpse of some of baseball’s top prospects, many of whom are attempting to open eyes over the season’s final month and earn a spot on the Opening Day roster the following year.
In recent seasons, for example, the roster-expansion rule has given us an early look at highly touted youngsters such as Jurickson Profar, Julio Teheran, Shelby Miller, Billy Hamilton and Yordano Ventura.
Yet, while expanded rosters cater to the interests of baseball fans, critics of the system such as Melvin have every right to take issue with the lack of regulations.
As Sherman argued:
Once rosters expand, however, one team literally can operate with 15 more players than its opponent. Think about that, a game could begin in which one manager has 40 players at his disposal and another has 25. But even if it is 33 vs. 29, how is that fair?
With a spot in the postseason potentially on the line, no one team should be able to gain an unfair competitive advantage via roster expansion.
But, unfortunately, teams do.
Each team’s call-ups usually are based on its outlook for the remainder of the season, as clubs vying for a playoff berth are more likely to promote players who can directly influence their overall success. Therefore, a team with more players at its disposal is, at least in theory, better prepared to endure a potentially grueling final month.
So, how can Major League Baseball reform the roster-expansion system so as to encourage a level playing field for all teams?
Sherman’s desire to completely do away with September call-ups is one idea, albeit an extreme one. However, with the uptick in injuries in recent years—especially in regards to pitchers—it could be a dangerous practice for teams to rely on a firm 25-man roster for a full season.
But if roster expansion is going to continue, there will need to be universal restrictions on the number of players teams can use during that defined period.
Melvin has lobbied for something similar in the past, suggesting that teams should be limited to a 30-player roster in September comprised of 15 pitchers and 15 position players.
In that scenario, every team would have five additional roster spots rather than the 15 permitted under the current system.
Meanwhile, B/R MLB Lead Writer Zach Rymer took Melvin’s idea a step further by proposing that teams should only be allowed to call up six different types of players:
One lefty reliever, one righty reliever, one long man/spot starter, one outfielder, one infielder and one catcher.
Such a system 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.
Rymer’s intriguing suggestion would have a larger impact on the game, as the option to call up predetermined player types in September would almost definitely impact how teams acquire, develop and sign players. Basically, clubs would know exactly what they’ll need and therefore make more concerted efforts to make that happen.
Major League Baseball’s September call-up system is broken, clearly. For an entity that preaches collective balance and has checks and balances in place for virtually all aspects of player development, it’s shocking that it continues to ignore the unfair advantages associated with the use of a full 40-man roster in the season’s final month.
That being said, MLB clearly means well with the current system. Injuries are always a major concern during the second half of the season, let alone down the stretch, so the ability to call up relatively fresh players is crucial. It also gives non-contenders a chance to evaluate their young players at the highest level without worrying about service time or the displacement of active big leaguers.
While MLB has made significant progress this year with instant replay and home plate collisions, the swelling criticism of the roster-expansion system is a strong sign that it needs to be changed.
Let's just hope it’s next on MLB's to-do list.