A Modest Roster Expansion Proposal

Last week, Joel Sherman made it very clear that he was not a fan of the September roster expansion rules in a column for the New York Post.

Tomorrow, Sept. 1, rosters will be allowed to expand in the major leagues all the way up to 40 men.

In a sport with plenty of dumb rules and traditions, this one seems created by Larry as told to Moe and implemented by Curly.

Here is how you know it is stupid: If the rule didn’t exist and you proposed it today, the 30 general managers would laugh you out of the room. Yet a mechanism that trashes logic, strategy, fairness and integrity remains because of a toxic brew of tradition, laziness and partisanship. In interviews this week — in a sport in which it is hard to find consensus on anything — I heard pretty much unanimity that the rule is archaic and needs to be fixed.

Sherman has a point, and of course it’s one that has been made before, because it is kind of silly that the season finishes with rules that are quite a bit different than the ones that have been in place for the first 80% of the season. And, while I don’t know that it ruins baseball or any of the other hyperbole that goes along with these discussions, I do think that there may be an alternative that actually puts the shorter minor league season to use in a way that makes a bit more sense.

Right now, rosters expand in September because the minor league season ends on Labor Day weekend and the kids who were playing down there don’t have anything else to do. The Fall Leagues don’t start for another month, and for teams who want their better prospects to continue working and gaining experience, adding them to the big league roster is the only way to achieve that goal.

If the minor leagues continued on through September, teams wouldn’t have any need for roster expansion, as their prospects would still be getting regular work in the minors, just as they had all year. Rather than advocating for a longer minor league season, however, why don’t we just start the minors a month later, and let teams begin the year with expanded rosters rather than ending them?

If we pushed back the start of the minor league season to early May and gave teams expanded rosters to begin the year, we’d get some benefits that I’d consider to be significant positives.

1. Pitchers could begin the year with reduced workloads, as larger rosters in April would give teams the flexibility to either use larger rotations or stricter pitch limits while pitchers are still building up their arms after a few months of rest. By reducing the need for every pitcher to be near 100% by early April, it’s less likely that we’d have young pitchers reaching their innings limits in September, and we’d be less likely to repeat the scenario that we’re going through with Stephen Strasburg right now. It’s clearly in the best interests of baseball to have their best talents playing on their biggest stage, and the fact that potential contenders have to weigh the value of postseason appearances against a season long workload is a shame. There’s also an argument to be made that ramping up a pitcher’s workload in a slower, more deliberate manner may help avoid injury issues in spring training, though that’s obviously speculative at this point.

2. Major League ready prospects would be less likely to be held down in the minors for service time reasons. In an ideal world, the best players in the sport would be playing in MLB as soon as they’re ready, but right now, the financial structure relating to service time rewards teams for holding players back for months after they’ve shown that they can contribute in the big leagues. Instead of providing the best possible product for the fans, teams have to make choices about whether having an exciting young player on the team is worth the cost of added salary down the line, when the goal of the league should be to highlight it’s best talents, not promote a strategy that keeps them playing in front of a few thousand fans per night in the minors. Additionally, with expanded April rosters, teams could take a look at the Major League readiness of their best prospects without having to cut a veteran in order to make that call, giving them more information without forcing them to eliminate some depth of talent in order to make that evaluation.

3. Newly drafted players would get longer opportunities to adapt to professional baseball. The earlier signing deadline has meant that players selected in June got nearly two full months of professional baseball, but shifting the minor league season from April-August to May-September would give them another full month to make that adjustment and hopefully speed up the transition time between college ball and the minor leagues. Right now, many teams end up sending their recent college draft picks to the Arizona Fall League in order to get them more reps, but having the minor league season simply run through the end of September would provide a better opportunity for more players to get this benefit.

Of course, there would likely be some negative side effects as well. Expanded rosters in April would likely be an even larger drag on run scoring, as teams could play the match-ups more thoroughly and mix-and-match with relievers, and April is already the lowest scoring month of the season due to the cold weather. Teams would have to bridge the gap between the end of spring training and the start of the minors with extra baseball in Arizona and Florida, though that could be mitigated to some degree by just bringing in the majority of minor league players at a later date and pushing back minor league spring training so it had less overlap with Major League spring training. And, of course, this plan would still result in one month of the season having drastically different roster rules than the rest of the season, which is the main complaint about the expanded rosters to begin with.

However, there is some benefit to giving teams larger rosters when the minor leagues are not in season, and that benefit could probably be maximized by giving teams those larger rosters earlier in the season. Rather than changing baseball down the stretch and making September baseball less meaningful at a time in the season when the leverage is the highest, giving teams additional information and flexibility early in the season may lead to a better product for the entire year.

Any change of this magnitude would obviously have wide-reaching effects, and it’s not something MLB could easily implement given the current structure of the minor leagues. But, maybe it’s worth thinking about, at least.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

48 Responses to “A Modest Roster Expansion Proposal”

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  1. Jamie says:

    I have always wondered how it trashes the integrity and fairness of the game. This is an argument that is often made about roster expansion, but that just doesn’t hold water. All teams still play by the same, which seems like all that is needed to cross the fairness/integrity threshold. All teams know it is coming, and can manage their rosters throughout the season for the planned 40 man increase. That all teams don’t take full advantage of this does not seem unfair, just poor roster management/construction by those teams.
    Now I will allow that it is strange that baseball plays the last month with bigger rosters, but there is no way anyone can claim it as unfair.

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    • odditie says:

      1. Just because something is equal for everyone doesn’t mean it is fair. If we said we flip a coin to start the game and the winner of the coin toss gets to start the game with 5 runs, that is “fair” by your definition, but is obviously flawed.

      2. The problem is that when you add 15 minor league players to the major league roster, teams that are out of the race (or have clinched their spot) have more incentive to player lesser players, which can alter the competitiveness of games and allow for a team in the race to get an advantage/disadvantage.

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      • Jamie says:

        Your first point is fair enough, but as for point 2 I don’t think this comes into play as much as some people think. Sure, the increased rosters mean lesser players get to play more, but usually at a platoon advantage, which would negate alot of the disadvantage there. This is something like the Cardinals did down the stretch last year, TLR often using multiple lefty relievers per game and an ability to pinch run/hit more often. Ultimately it seems like this would balance out, with the advantage going to the teams that had the deeper 40 man roster.

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    • David says:

      The integrity of the game argument is a recasting of the unbalanced schedule argument. In September, those contenders who are fortunate enough to have on their schedule a bunch of non-contenders will have their way paved even more smooth by the fact that the non-contenders are fielding a lineup of guys who would be in AAA for the first five months of the year.

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    • Jack says:

      I assume that the implication is that for teams out of contention, it becomes a way to ‘test the farm.’ A team like the Astros can bring up all those 26 non-prospects from Triple-A and see if any stick. Obviously, this ends up making the bad teams worse unless they strike a gold mine, but those cases seem to be rare. Off the top of my head, I know that Pablo Sandoval got his first cup of coffee in the majors in September 2008, and played well enough to make an impression. The next year, he went berserk, so it can happen. But most of the time, teams out of contention can literally start sending up Triple-A lineups.

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      • odditie says:

        That’s not exactly true…the player still has to be part of the 40 man roster. We aren’t talking about sending up “26 non-prospects” at all.

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      • Jack says:

        Well just a brief look for Quad-A players on a 40 man roster. I’m not thoroughly looking, just picking out names that come to mind.
        Player/Team/Age/Career PA or IP
        Casper Wells/SEA/27/592 PA
        Evan Crawford/TOR/26/8 IP
        Trevor Plouffe/MIN/26/734 PA
        David Lough/KC/26/14 PA
        Justin Christian/SF/32/146 PA
        Brandon Barnes/HOU/26/58 PA
        Nick Vincent/SD/26/15 IP
        Andrew Brown/COL/27/76 IP

        Then there are the useless vets that are just hanging on like Cody Ransom who still end up on major league rosters this time of year.

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  2. VORP is too nerdy says:

    I think one of the significant benefits of the September call up is that it gives teams that are out of contention an opportunity to assess their minor leaguers and give them some big league experience. This would be a risky thing to do in April.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      I don’t know that this is true – we’d just be giving a different set of minor leaguers some experience. Instead of rewarding guys who emerged over the course of the season – say, Jurickson Profar – we’d be giving those roster spots to guys who have already shown that they were close to big league ready, like Mike Trout.

      And, of course, any team that was out of the race in September would still be free to call up as many prospects as they’d like. Any non-contender almost certainly has some marginal veteran players who aren’t likely to be part of the team’s roster next season, and instead of just getting benched, they’d now be let go a month earlier.

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      • Baltar says:

        I’m sure you wrote this post just to stir up comments, as your proposed change is one of the worst ideas I’ve ever seen.
        Minor league play does not begin when major league play does in April. The minor leaguers get more time in training camps. The lower their level, the more time they get.
        Major league players, however, wear out during the season and can use the break that September callups allow. They don’t need a break in April, with all the open dates.
        As you yourself admitted, teams don’t know who their best minor league players are at the beginning of the season. So why would you want to make them guess in April when they’ll know in September.
        I could give many more reasons, but I’m already boring myself.

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  3. odditie says:

    I liked the idea that Keith Law (I think) suggested. Why not just make teams designate their roster down from the 40 man to 25 for each game. The two issues I see with it are (a) SP can be left off the 25 man for the day adding 4 extra players beyond what we normally have and (b) there is a cost to carrying up to 15 extra players who because of the rule now have no added opportunity to play regardless of circumstance.

    I think though those two negatives are minor enough that it at least makes it not as big of an issue as it currently is, while still allowing players to gain some experience in September.

    As for Dave Cameron’s suggestion, doesn’t this just make the problem a little less obvious instead of addressing it and fixing it? Plus by starting the season one month later you’d force the playoffs to overlap with the AFL.

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    • Spike says:

      I think a compromise might work best – make it a 30 player expansion roster after Sept 1 with a 10 player traveling taxi squad. In any case, it’s prob kinda rare that any more than 30 players get into any one game so I don’t know that we ever see this huge rosters really have much of an affect on game outcomes.

      I get the need to have a bunch of minor leaguers continue to play or train thru October before shutting it down for a few months but 40 is prob too big a number to carry at any one time.

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      • Baltar says:

        No team ever carries all 40 in September. Most teams, quite rationally, call up only a handful, and the smart ones, such as the Rays, call up players who can fill a niche, such as pinch-runner, rather than their top prospects.
        Smart teams, again the Rays are the example with Ben Francisco, add a major league player who fills a role for them.
        I like the system just as it is and would not change one thing about it.

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  4. malcolm says:

    wait…who are the Irish and who are eating them?

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  5. SF 55 for life says:

    I have no problem with the september roster expansion basically for the reason the above poster made. I would be fine with the proposed scenario in this article as well.

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  6. Eminor3rd says:

    This is a great idea.

    Devil’s advocate: September call-ups give fans a reason to watch teams that are out of contention. If I’m an Indians fan right now, the best reason to watch tonight’s game is to see how some of these rookies look.

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  7. Jim Lahey says:

    What about the trade deadline? Waiver period? Those are rule changes in the middle of the season. Do they need to end?

    Maybe it’s just me… but this idea makes 0 sense. What about the 15 extra guys? They’re going to be on the 40 man for a month and then cut and have to find a new team mid season when the roster limit goes back to 25? Shouldn’t they be practicing and playing daily not sitting on the bench waiting for 1 AB per game if they want to get better? There would be 0 point of signing a minor league deal?

    The current setup is soooo much better than that.
    1. minor leagues guys have proven themselves to be capable for the last few months rather than just rounding into shape. Gives organization time to evaluate who they have on the field and if they grew during the season. What time does anyone have to make adjustments if they’re just starting playing again for the season? I can’t imagine that guys in the AFL see the same level of scrutiny as they would from their own coaching/scouting staff?
    2. It make the playoffs better as the teams can rest some regulars and have a relatively healthy team at year end. AKA putting the best product on the field when the games still count and teams havent been eliminated.

    Why the hell would I give Johnny AA 50 ABs in April with my season on the line still?

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    • Lyle says:

      This makes sense to me, as well. I like the current system.

      I would, however, expand the regular roster to 26, or even 27. Teams are carrying more and more pitchers (I remember 10-man pitching staffs, and yes, we had to dodge the dinosaurs to get to the stadiums).

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      • Simon says:

        Not sure how enabling teams to carry a 13, 14 or 15 man pitching staff would really improve the game. It’s not like teams would use the extra space to have an old-school bench.

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      • Baltar says:

        I, too, favor a larger roster, perhaps 28 or even 30.
        Yes, every team would add a LOOGY or ROOGY or two, but smart teams would add a third catcher, a pinch-runner, a pinch-hitter or perhaps a platoon player.
        I like the idea of giving players with specialized skills the chance to play in the Bigs.
        This would also enable the teams to carry a “day-to-day” injured player without having to put him on the DL.

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  8. siggian says:

    One thing the expanded rosters does is give long suffering fans of teams that are out of the post season race a glimpse or two of the future. These fans need to move on from mourning the current season to having hope for the upcoming season. I think the expanded rosters are just as much about selling for next year for some teams as it is about having a few extra bodies ready and waiting.

    As a Jays fan, I was originally looking forward to September to see some of the fruits of their farm ripen. Due to a blight on pitching arms and position bodies, we got to see some of it early and found them rather stunted at this point.

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  9. Julian says:

    One problem with this is that it makes the beginning of the regular season somewhat indistinguishable from spring training, except for the fact that these games count in the standings. A casual fan might not start watching baseball until May, when the “real” games start, whereas under the current season there is a very obvious reason to keep watching baseball (the playoff chase and, for teams out of contention, a sneak-peak at some prospects you might not otherwise care to see). I just prefer the current build-up to the regular season, then start strong with full rosters in April

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    • Baty says:

      The games would still be very real and meaningful. I think the most significant difference you’d see in April might be a deeper use of bullpens.

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    • octelium says:

      As a fan I Would like to point out I don’t really start paying attention to games until after number 50 or 60. As the first few don’t mean much anyway. Unless you open the season 0-21 you have a shot so the games that get you to 25-25 are pretty much meaningless anyway. I think the proposal is interesting and hopefully someone with more time then I adresses the total run of pros and cons people have listed here.

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  10. Trevor says:

    Vote Dave Cameron 2012!

    Running on the slogan…
    A face born for radio, and a voice perfectly suited for the internet!

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  11. MFG says:

    The more I think about Dave’s proposal, the more I like it. Particularly for items #1 and #3 that he presents.

    Question: how much would the minor league affiliates push back on the new season? I imagine they’d have a harder time selling tickets to regular season games in September, when the smaller communities have to compete with HS and college football for local entertainment dollars. (Granted, it’s fairly obvious that the needs of the minor league affiliates would be a deal breaker on this proposal, but it’s an angle to consider.)

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  12. Michael Scarn says:

    Title edited down from, “A Modest Roster Expansion Proposal for Preventing the Prospects of Poor Teams From Being a Burden on Their Teams or the League, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.”

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  13. Baty says:

    Logically it makes most sense to postpone the MILB season a month and keep MLB rosters expanded until then.

    It would give teams and affiliates time to commit to what they have. It would give all MILBers an extra month of instructional play. It would allow for more time to get your MLB pitching staff in shape and stretched out through April when guys are still trying to get to carrying full work loads. It would keep pitching prospect game play IP totals down heading into Sept. making late season MLB replacements less effected by innings caps. It makes September more consistent and meaningful with playoff races.

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  14. The Ronin says:

    To counteract the con of “non-contenders get worse bc they start playing minor leaguers” Jim Leyland has chosen to prove that contenders can get worse too by starting Don Kelly at 1b tonight and batting him 6th.

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  15. RUJONAUT says:

    I realize this has nothing to do with this article, but it’s a Cameron article so I know the comment section will be viewed a lot. Can somebody, out of the kindness of their heart, take a minute to explain why Joel Guzman is always near the top of the Popular Players list? I’ve tried to figure it out myself but I’m finally giving up. Thanks.

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  16. Brett W says:

    Minor league teams want the excitement of a real opening day and don’t want to compete with football. Not a bad idea, but ultimately it’s not realistic.

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  17. Evan says:

    One group this might have unintended consequences for is major league veterans who sign minor league contracts hoping to earn a roster spot or a mid-season call-up. When the MLB season starts they won’t have minor games to play in, only extended spring training and teams might be reluctant to include them on the expanded active roster because they would have to clear waivers to be sent to AAA. I’m sure other rule changes that could be made to deal with this, but I think it would be an issue to consider.

    As for the main gist of the article, while I don’t have the objection to expanded September rosters that many do, I like that this proposal would at least have an answer to the question of where teams are supposed to obtain replacements from for players injured in September. Most of the writers and broadcasters who want to eliminate this never reach the question of how to replace players injured 2-3 weeks into September.

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  18. Nathan says:

    Dave, this idea makes too much sense for it ever to be taken seriously. The advantages are tremendous.

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  19. Matt says:

    I would like to put my $0.02 in on this one.

    1. No team ever actually goes to the full 40 players on its roster. Or, if one does, it is the extreme exception and not the rule. So, while the rule allowing teams to go to 40 is silly, does it really need to be fixed? Isn’t it the MLB equivalent of jaywalking? Drop it to 35, drop it to 32 . . . I hardly think it would make any practical difference in the end anyways.

    2. I’m not buying the whole Stephen Strasburg argument. Teams, Washington included, have many strategies at their disposal if they want to avoid shutting down a pitcher just before the playoffs, including starting that pitcher in May or June and not at the beginning of April; or going to a 6-man rotation; or skipping that pitcher in the rotation once a month for 6 months . . . it is not as though the Nats had no choice but to go down this road. Right or wrong, they decided that this is what they wanted to do; and I suspect, given the media’s harsh treatment of this circus event, that other teams may purposely go in another direction in the future. (That said, I’m sure the media would be just as quick to criticize the Nats for NOT shutting Strasburg down if the guy got hurt again.)

    3. Do the minor league playoffs not go through September? If the season gets pushed back a month, does that not now conflict with the AFL? I believe this was already said, but I did not see this scheduling problem addressed.

    If there was one rule I would change with respect to rosters, I would add a 26th player to each MLB team. At least I know the union would love it.

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    • CharlieW says:

      Yeah, good point (#3). There are playoffs for the minors too. Dbacks have 3 teams in it (it being their league’s playoffs) so far, and possibly a fourth (Missoula still has 3 games left in their regular season). Obviously same goes for many other clubs. I dont see a problem with the rule currently as is.

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  20. Snowblind says:

    Just keep the ML roster at 35 players for the entire year. Then we don’t have nearly as much weird DL trickery OR minor league shuffles.

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  21. oogo says:

    Damn, the title made me think the suggestion would be eating underperforming minor leaguers to free up space on the 40 man roster

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  22. Average_Casey says:

    I often agree with much of what is written at Fangraphs but I’m not much of a proponent for this one. I think the September roster expansion helps keep things interesting and provides rewards for guys who had great AAA seasons, who may never be prospects. You can’t really do that in this proposal.

    I do however like the attempt at killing the service time gaming that goes on, it’s nice. It would have eliminated the whole stupid Mike Trout starting in the minors problem that went on (there are always others too).

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  23. ChrisCEIT says:

    I’m not sure how shifting the minor league season changes the service clock rules, but I’m pretty certain that asking every minor league to shift their schedule by a month doesn’t qualify as “modest”. In fact, I’m pretty sure that some leagues (Midwest League, for one) would have a tough time getting their fans to attend games throughout September and into October (as opposed to April).

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  24. Tim says:

    I’m not in favor of screwing over every minor leaguer who’s trying to go to school at the same time. We like to think only of the top prospects, but a lot of these guys aren’t ever going to be major leaguers, and need the schedule they have if they’re going to make anything of their lives outside of baseball.

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  25. RMR says:

    If you add in to this that players could be demoted to the minors once the minor league season began without using an option, then you’d really have something.

    April would be extended spring training for the other minor leaguers while the best among them would get an extended tryout at the major league level without risking their ongoing eligibility.

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  26. Lex Logan says:

    Historically, when the 40 man rule was first adopted, expanded rosters were allowed in both April and September. Perhaps a review of why the April expansion was abolished would be instructive.

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  27. B N says:

    I’m on the opposite side of this. Getting those prospects up in August gives a viewership boost to teams after they’re out of the race. I often watch teams that I wouldn’t have bothered, just to see the new guys play some games. While I feel for the Strasburg situation, players getting shut down due to inning limits is far less common than players coming up from the minors in September and catching fire. While that great performance over a small sample size is unsustainable, it’s still fun to watch.

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