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New 2020 MLB Roster Rules Encourage Creativity

Jake Cronenworth Bwfourseam
Two-way player Jake Cronenworth, recently acquired by the Padres from the Rays. (Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

Rangers manager Chris Woodward spent most of his media availability at the Winter Meetings answering questions cordially but dispassionately. Free agent signings, roster holes, health updates—all the standard topics of discussion.

Then came a question about the looming addition of the 26th roster spot. When it did, the second-year manager beamed.

“One spot on your roster, I wish I would have had that a few times last year,” Woodward said. “I think it’s going to change a lot of teams. Maybe keeping that extra bat on the bench provides a little bit more versatility for a manager to go to at times, or having that extra pitcher, especially with the three-batter minimum.

“It’s going to be a little different. I want that extra guy, as every manager does.”

Major League Baseball announced a series of rules changes last spring that would take effect in 2020. Among them: An increase in active roster size from 25 to 26 players, a requirement that all pitchers face a minimum of three batters or pitch to the end of a half-inning and an increase in the minimum time a player spends on the injured list from 10 days back to 15 days.

The MLB Players Association did not agree to all of the rules changes—most notably the three-batter minimum—but commissioner Rob Manfred said at the Winter Meetings the changes will be implemented as scheduled.

“They were approved by the owners,” Manfred said, “and I fully expect all those rules will be operational in the 2020 season.”

Teams have less than four months to decide how they want to make use of their new 26th roster spot, and most are still in the process of figuring it out.

While not yet official, clubs expect to be capped at carrying 13 pitchers as part of the rule change. With most teams already keeping that many pitchers on their roster in recent years, the additional roster spot is expected to be filled by a position player in most cases.

To that end, managers are already largely speaking in terms of position players when they discuss that extra roster spot.

“It gives you a little room to be creative with an extra player, how you want to use that,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “There’s a lot of different ways: three catchers, a pure pinch-hitter, a speed guy—and we’re sort of going through that now.”

“It probably affords you the opportunity to platoon one more spot on the field, which is a good thing,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Put guys in better positions to have success and hopefully reduce the workload for some other guys.”

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The other option clubs are weighing is carrying 12 position players and one two-way player, as designated by MLB.

Or, in theory, any combination of 13 total position players and two-way players a team wants.

That option carries particular appeal for National League clubs, who see it as a way to add another potential pitcher while maintaining their bench depth.

“We’ve kind of talked about it, obviously,” Padres general manager A.J. Preller said. “We have some players like Jake Cronenworth (and) Javy Guerra who can go both ways, pitch and get on the field. We talked about specialists—pinch-hit, something like that. It just depends how your roster ends up being finalized when you get to the end of spring training.”

The two-way designation carries a caveat. Players must pitch at least 20 innings and start at least 20 games as a position player or DH, with at least three plate appearances in each of those games, in either the current season or the previous season to receive a two-way designation.

Otherwise, position players will only be allowed to pitch following the ninth inning of an extra-inning game or if their team is winning or losing by more than six runs by the time they enter.

“It probably just depends on what kind of productivity we can expect from that player (whether we would do that),” said Angels GM Billy Eppler, whose organization has emphasized developing two-way players in the minors such as Jared Walsh, Bo Way and William Holmes. “It will be hard in some of the cases like Jared Walsh, for example. He won’t be able to qualify as a pitcher, so he won’t be able to pitch unless the score is six or more runs or we’re in extra innings. It’s going to be hard to get him a two-way designation.”

Teams, by and large, are still unsure about exactly how they’ll use their 26th roster spot. One theme, however, is consistent.

They’re all happy to have it.

“The 26th man is great because, for a new manager, it’s like, all right, here we go, I’ve got another toy to play with,” first-year Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “I think it’s just one of those things we’re going to toy with, and it may be different in how we create our roster, but going forward I think it’s going to be a little fluid.”

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