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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.