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Spring Training in September

I very much love the game of baseball, and like anyone who loves the game, there are some things about the way Major League Baseball produces the game that drive me crazy. One of the glaring voids in the new collective bargaining agreement is the continued use of expanded rosters in the month of September. For the first five months of the season, managers have 25 players to use throughout the course of a game – but when the calendar flips over to the last month of the regular season, skippers are suddenly allowed to call on up to 40 players to take the field in a single game.  There is no justifiable reason for why the rules of the game should change this dramatically when the games matter the most – if you believe that sort of thing.

With that said, the idea of expanded rosters is not completely senseless. Since the minor league season wraps up earlier than the major league season does, active 40-man rosters give younger players a chance to collect a few more at-bats and register a few more innings. It also gives major league coaching staffs and fans a glimpse of what the future could be like. As a fan, that’s certainly not something I can complain about.

Former GM Jim Bowden expressed his thoughts on the topic earlier this year in preparation for September call-ups and cited a number of current GMs who also think this rule needs a change. While Bowden’s piece highlights the financial ramifications of expanded rosters – which are not insignificant – I’d prefer to endorse the sentiments of Padres Cubs GM Jed Hoyer, who said, “Matching up lefties and righties in the fourth inning is not baseball and shouldn’t impact pennant races. I hope this changes in the next collective bargaining agreement.” Unfortunately, it didn’t change and that’s exactly what we did see.

On the last day of the regular season, Joe Girardi gave us a perfect example of how the 40-man roster rule can be grossly abused. On what was arguably the greatest day of drama in baseball history, the Yankees’ manager signaled to the bullpen nine(!) times in the first nine innings. Ultimately, Girardi had to leave Scott Proctor in the game for however long it was going to take for New York to lose. Managers should not be given the opportunity to make the box score of a game in September look like it was played in the middle of March.

Beyond the integrity of the game, more available pitchers means more pitching changes – which means longer games. In 2011, managers used 3.81 pitchers per nine innings over the first five months of the season. In the last month of the season, however, skippers used 4.21 pitchers per nine innings. This increased the average length of a nine inning game by two minutes – a small, but non-trivial amount.

Instead of doing away with expanded rosters altogether – which would likely remove any possibility of seeing your team’s top prospect on the big stage until the following year – a better way to rectify this problem is to keep the expanded rosters but require a manager to select a set of only 25 players who are eligible for the upcoming series (in the same way rosters are selected prior to postseason series). Restructuring the active roster prior to each series is just an arbitrary partition and I’d have little problem if the reshuffling happened for each calendar week instead. This way, MLB could restrict the amount of players a manager can use in a game, but still encourage the use of younger talent. As far as salaries, options, and major league service time are concerned, everything can remain exactly the same as it is now.

I suppose I can understand why this was overlooked yet again. Owners and players are certainly much more concerned with issues of larger financial scope, but I can still hold out hope that some of them actually care about the way they choose to present the game.