BY: Richard W. Humphrey
ARLINGTON, Texas – The calendar flipped from August to September with a couple of American League teams having essentially wrapped up the division championship, but the East Division and the two Wild Card playoff spots are still wide open. While Cleveland and Texas are all but mathematically in the playoffs, they have meaningful games to decide seeding and home field advantage. There is exciting and meaningful baseball to be played until the regular season ends October 2.
The rosters expand in September. Teams can add players up to their 40-man roster. The Rangers are up to 34. Teams in pennant races usually like to add players to shore up areas like:
PITCHING: Teams routinely add to their staffs, particularly the bullpen. Texas immediately added Nick Martinez and Yohander Mendez when the rosters first expanded. Jose Leclerc and Tanner Scheppers have been added since. Colby Lewis came off the 60-day disabled list last Sunday, so the Rangers have 17 pitchers on the active roster.
CATCHER: In the 21st century with teams routinely carrying 12 pitchers, there is room for just two catchers. Catcher is one position where teams go for defense first. Often late in games, the defense first catcher comes to bat in a critical situation, and managers are reluctant to pinch hit because they don’t want to later be exposed with no backup catcher on the bench if an injury occurs. A third catcher in September solves the problem. The Rangers added Brett Nicholas in the first wave of call-ups to join Jonathan Lucroy and Robinson Chirinos.
SPEED OFF THE BENCH. Every manager wants a player or two with plus speed for pinch running situations. Outfielder Delino Deshields, Jr. was already on the roster, and Jered Hoying was also added.
Infielders Hanser Alberto and Joey Gallo have also joined the team. Alberto gives manager Jeff Banister flexibility in his infield substitutions and Gallo provides power off the bench.
The expansion of the rosters benefits teams across the spectrum. Obviously, the teams in pennant races like the flexibility to have pinch hitters, pinch runners, and a deep bullpen. However, teams that are totally out of the races have the opportunity to look at their prospects in a Major League setting and to get their prospects acclimated to the Major Leagues. As Buck Showalter used to tell the local media, “You put that third deck on the stadium, and it’s a different ballgame.”
In recent years, there has been a growing sentiment to change the roster situation in September. Many conceptually see playing by one set of rules for five months (a 25 man roster), and then playing by another set of rules in September (30 or more on the active roster) when the races get decided. Eric Nadel even predicted last year that there would be a change to the rules this year. That obviously didn’t happen, but there is at least some chance that changes will be made for next year.
The common theme in the proposed rule changes has teams still being allowed to expand their rosters, but with a per game or per series limit of the usual 25-man active roster.
Quite frankly, I don’t see the need for such change. First, it would hurt teams out of the race by limiting their ability to play the young players they have summoned from the minor leagues. One of the unwritten rules of the game is that a team that is out of the pennant race puts the best team on the field in games against teams contending for the playoffs. If such roster limits were in place and the game turned into a blowout, they could miss the opportunity to use September call-ups that aren’t designated for that game.
For the contenders though, it makes even less sense. Under the present system, teams with a productive farm system get a talent shot in the arm in September. Teams with less productive farm systems don’t get the same jolt. Why penalize teams that are building through their farm system?
The other thing to consider is that in the second decade of the 21st century, Major League General Managers have become very creative at roster management. There are restricted list and paternity leave designations that effectively inflate the 25 man roster during the season.
The one complaint that has some merit is that with the large number of pitchers, game times can expand because of numerous pitching changes. Former Atlanta pitcher John Smoltz ranted earlier this week on the MLB Network about a game in which 19 pitchers were used. That is excessive, but it’s the exception to the rule.
The success of a season is ultimately decided by the success in the playoffs. The playoffs are really played by different rules than the regular season. There are off days for travel, such that most teams shorten their pitching rotation to four or even three starters. That enables teams to drop back to 10 or 11 pitchers and add one or two position players. There is thus more flexibility for defensive replacements, pinch hitters and pinch runners. There’s no reason that the different rules of September baseball shouldn’t be part of the game that decides which teams participate in the playoffs.