Roster Expansion Saves A Lot of Headaches

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What a difference one player can make to the sanity of a farm director.

That's been the case this season after Major League Baseball expanded the rosters of Triple-A and Double-A clubs from 24 to 25 this spring. (Major league and Class A rosters were already at 25.) Though it may not seem like a big deal, the extra spot provides teams greater flexibility for minor league assignments, saves money on travel for players filling last-second vacancies and reduces the wear and tear for players on teams left short-handed by a promotion or injury.

"In many cases, the big league club may take your best starter who is supposed to start that day, and then you don't have anyone to fill that spot. So you are scrambling to fill that spot," Athletics farm director Keith Lieppman said. "(The extra roster spot) meets the needs of the major league club without us having to ship people all over the country."

MLB's decision to expand minor league rosters grew from a provision in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement approved after last season that allows major league teams to place a player on a taxi squad for 24 hours without activating him. For example, the Mets called up third baseman Josh Satin from Triple-A Buffalo on April 14 in case they needed to place David Wright, who was hobbled with a broken pinkie finger, on the disabled list. Wright ended up playing, and Satin was back in Buffalo's lineup the next day without a transaction taking place.

Though it creates flexibility for the big league team, the new rule could further tax minor league rosters that can get stretched thin during the season. So, during the Winter Meetings, farm  directors asked MLB to expand Triple-A and Double-A rosters to 25.  

"We listened to the player-development directors, who felt the increase was needed more today because of how minor league players are being used and developed and the travel demand that is placed on them," MLB senior vice president of baseball operations Peter Woodfork said. "The taxi squad was one more thing that added to the need for the 25-man roster."

Long Time Coming

In the minds of many farm directors, bigger minor league rosters have been needed for some time. "Like 100 years," Lieppman joked.

The 25-man configuration certainly adds a cushion at the upper levels that hadn't been there before, but there was talk at the farm directors meeting of even bigger rosters. One proposal suggested teams carry 27 players and have just 25 active for each game, Lieppman said. This is similar to how Japanese teams operate. The depth would give managers a safety net against last-second promotions and also help protect players from overuse.

Minor league managers often had to play shorthanded even before the taxi rule was put in place this season. They often have to piece together lineups from rosters sabotaged by big league promotions or players whose injuries don't warrant a trip to the disabled list.

Even rules governing transactions add a degree of difficulty. For example, players sent down from a big league roster have three days to report, which could leave a hole in a lineup or force farm directors to use frequent-flyer points for temporary replacements.

"I can't tell you how many times we've played with just nine guys in the field and worried that we would have to put a pitcher out there if someone got hurt," Lieppman said.

Though the larger rosters would seemingly add players to an organization, they could actually save money by leading to less movement among affiliates. It should cut down on players who may not be ready from being promoted from a lower level to fill an opening out of necessity.

"What we've seen through April for us is we've had guys go down a couple of times, or had pitchers knocked out in the first inning, and we've been more adequately able to handle it with the 25-man roster," said Red Sox assistant general manager Mike Hazen, who previously served as Boston's farm director. "(In the past) you would have to take a kid from (low Class A) Greenville and send him up to (Triple-A) Pawtucket. That's not fair to the affiliate and it's not fair to the player . . .

"It's only one extra guy, but it has seemed to make a difference."