MLB Has A 40-Man Roster Problem. Here’s How To Fix It.

Image credit: (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

This was always going to be an MLB season unlike any other.

Playing a season without fans in the middle of a novel coronavirus pandemic was never going to be normal or easy. Trying to field major league teams without a minor league season added to the on-field difficulties.

So, everyone had to get creative. Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association agreed on a plan for a 60-player pool. The 60-player roster was designed in part to handle the normal roster churn that happens during a routine season. With no Triple-A or Double-A games being played, teams needed another  way to ensure there were players ready to be called up. 

But the 60-man roster was intended to do more than that. There was an understanding that there might be coronavirus outbreaks during the season. The 60-man rosters were also designed so teams would have options, and game-ready players in case a number of a team’s players were unable to play because of coronavirus positive tests or illness.

The Marlins had the first significant outbreak. They missed eight games before returning to action with a revamped roster that saw 13 players placed on the injured list.

The Cardinals have had a significant outbreak as well. They have had 18 games postponed, meaning close to a third of the club’s entire season has been delayed or wiped out, depending on how many games can be rescheduled.

We’ll leave the health concerns and mitigation efforts to health experts, but there is a baseball issue here as well: The 40-man roster was not designed to handle a coronavirus pandemic. In all the modifications that were done for the abbreviated 2020 season, that aspect of roster management was left unchanged.

No player can be added to the active (currently 28-man) roster unless they are also on the 40-man roster. While the active roster is only in place during a season, the 40-man roster is a year-round entity. Once a player is added to the 40-man roster, he remains on it unless he is placed on the 60-day (this year it has been cut to 45-day) injured list, traded, reaches free agency or is removed from the 40-man roster either by being designated for assignment or waived.

And once a player is on the 40-man roster, he has to be optioned if he is to be sent to the minors. (Or, in this year’s unique instance, simply not placed on the active roster).

So, adding a player to the 40-man roster is a semi-permanent move. While MLB and the MLBPA worked out an agreement that players added to the injured list because of COVID-19 would be treated like players on the longer 45-day IL (and therefore removed from the 40-man roster temporarily), there are no allowances for extra space when those players come off of the IL.

The Marlins are already dealing with this. Miami currently has 18 players on the injured list. Because of the significant number of players on the COVID-19-related IL, the Marlins were able to add a large number of players who weren’t on the 40-man roster with no issues.

However, there’s a problem coming in the near future for the Marlins. While the IL rules were modified to allow the club to clear 40-man roster space to add players, no adjustments were made to how players should be removed from the 40-man roster.

As such, every time one of the more than a dozen Marlins players currently on the IL is ready to return, Miami will have to drop a player from the 40-man roster (as well as the active 28-man roster). That is a major reason why Miami did not add most of its top prospects to their active roster and instead acquired veterans players via trades, waiver claims and minor league free agent signings. It makes no sense to add a prospect as a fill-in because sending the player back down starts their options. A veteran acquired cheaply however, can be waived or designated for assignment without affecting the team’s long-term outlook.

The Cardinals will face an even more difficult dilemma when they return to action. 

Because of how long their players have been sidelined, none of the pitchers on their roster is likely to be fully stretched out. Ace Jack Flaherty’s last appearance, for example, came on Opening Day on July 24. The logical response is to add players from the alternate training site, where players have been working out everyday unlike the big league team.

But the 40-man roster is a significantly limiting factor. The Cardinals can feel comfortable adding fringe roster players who they can drop from their 40-man roster as soon as their regulars are able to return. No team is going to be willing to add players with long-term futures unless they were already in the plan to be called up.

The 40-man roster works very well in normal seasons, but this isn’t normal. Ideally, roster rules should be tweaked to allow teams with coronavirus outbreaks some additional leeway to deal with short-term roster issues.

So how could it be done? Here is one many potential solutions. For starters, have a threshold of a number of positive tests that have to occur before the rules of the 40-man roster are allowed to be modified for a team. 

Say that threshold is five (or six or eight) players who test positive. At a point where a team has hit that threshold, it would be allowed to add players temporarily to the 28-man active roster and the 40-man roster as those players go on the coronavirus injured list. Those players would then be allowed to be removed from the 40-man roster without going through waivers only if they are replaced on the 40-man by the players coming off of the COVID-19-related injured list.

All service time accrues as normal for players added to the major league roster, and upon their removal from the 40-man roster their minor league salaries going forward would be that of a player who has been on the 40-man roster.

It’s hard to find who loses out in that situation. For the players, they get major league service time, MLB salaries (even if just for a few weeks) and a bump in minor league pay. For the teams, it’s needed roster flexibility during a difficult time.

And for MLB as a whole, it’s a way to avoid situations where a team cannot play for two weeks because of the possibility of additional positive tests. In this scenario, teams could call up their entire alternate site pools to play if needed. From a competitive standpoint that would not be ideal, but it is better than the possibility that one team plays only 45 games while everyone else plays 60.

There is no perfect solution in this very imperfect year, but tweaking the 40-man roster would help solve some pretty clear problems for the 2020 season.

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