If you’re a veteran free agent, even one with multiple years of MLB experience, this is proving to be a tough offseason to find a job.
We’re not talking about unsigned premium free agents. Even though they haven’t signed yet, Cody Bellinger and Blake Snell aren’t worried about securing a contract. They’re trying to find the best fit and the best possible deal.
But this is a tough offseason for players several levels below them on the pecking order. These are the veterans with upper-level minor league experience, and in some cases MLB experience, angling for a minor league deal with a non-roster invitation to big league camp.
These types of contracts have always provided a wonderful foot in the door for players who aren’t perceived as worthy of a 40-man roster spot. Every year, some of those players take a step forward and grab an opportunity. Others struggle and are released at the end of spring training.
But the door has slammed closed this year for some of those players.
As part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement between minor league players and Major League Baseball, MLB had the right to reduce the in-season player limit for domestic MiLB players to 165 players beginning for the 2024 season, which means there is an offseason limit of 175 minor league players per organization. As expected, since the moment the MiLB CBA was agreed upon, MLB has exercised that right. That’s a reduction from the 180 player in-season and 190 player offseason limits from a year ago.
In other words, there are 450 fewer domestic U.S. roster slots for players this February compared with this time last year. That means that players who would have signed deals last year with outside shots of making big league teams coming out of camp can’t even land MiLB contracts this offseason.
That may not actually mean that there are 450 fewer players on rosters, because not every team has always gone right up to the roster limit in the past. But multiple MLB front office officials said they are getting calls from agents daily trying to find spots for veteran players. In many cases, they have to tell them they have no roster room to sign them.
“You can’t take fliers on guys anymore,” said one MLB front office official.
Not everyone agrees with this assessment. Other MLB front office officials say teams can always create roster room through releases. They believe players with a clear shot at MLB roles are still easy decisions. After all, if a player has a real shot at a big league role, are you going to turn him down to keep a 19- or 20-year-old potential role player?
But structurally, this year is very different for MLB teams when it comes to minor league roster management. While the door is opening for teams to move 40-man roster players to the 60-day MLB injured list, which frees up additional 40-man roster spots, teams won’t be able to take advantage of the 60-day minor league injured list until mid March.
So with many teams sitting at or very close to the 175-player limit currently, those teams are in a situation where signing a non-roster invitee means releasing a younger player to clear a roster spot. It’s a conundrum many of these teams have not really faced before.
There’s another odd development from these roster changes. In the past, spring training was the time where players had to battle to make a roster. Before the MLB takeover of the minors following the 2020 seson, teams had much larger offseason minor league rosters, because for every short-season and Rookie-level team a club had, they had 35 additional roster spots.
So a team like the Yankees, who in 2019 had five short-season affiliates between the Dominican Summer, Gulf Coast, Appalachian and New York-Penn leagues, could bring close to 250 players to camp.
Now, making the offseason roster may actually be tougher than surviving spring training cutdowns.
Each team is allowed to move up to 15 players to the 60-day minor league injured list in mid March. Those 60-day IL players will not count toward the roster limit until they are activated off that list.
In the case of most teams, there are a number of players, most notably pitchers rehabbing from Tommy John surgeries, who are guaranteed to move onto the 60-day IL as soon as they are eligible to do so. With a 175-player offseason limit and a 165-player in-season limit, a team with 11 or more players slated for the 60-day IL will actually find themselves with roster spots opening up in mid March. It’s conceivable that a team could break camp on minor league spring training without releasing anyone.
This is a source of frustration for some MLB front office officials who note that having an offseason roster limit hinders their flexibility to try to build the best roster that they can. Teams that used to bring numerous players to spring training in hopes of finding an unexpected bounceback candidate or a diamond in the rough say that now, they’re much more limited in what they can do.
International players do not count toward the player limit until they set foot in the U.S., so the new rules also incentivize teams to wait to bring over players from their complexes in the Dominican Republic until after spring training is over and full-season rosters are sorted out.
While this change is somewhat significant, no one can say it was completely unexpected. Both sides collectively bargained this in the first-ever CBA for minor league players. As is true in any collectively bargained agreement, both sides got some of what they wanted and gave on other aspects.
MLB agreed to raise minimum salaries for minor league players dramatically, guaranteed housing improvements and assure MiLB players that there will not be any contraction of minor league affiliates during the life of the current CBA.
In return, MiLB players agreed to a 180-player in-season roster limit (and a 190-player offseason limit) and gave MLB the right to reduce that to 165 players in-season and 175 players in the offseason after one year. That phased-in reduction has taken place as expected.