Baseball roster expansion remains a hot topic of debate

Dodgers outfielder Terrance Gore made the team's 2020 opening day roster.
Dodgers outfielder Terrance Gore made the team’s 2020 opening day roster.
(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

Twelve teams began September within 3 1/2 games of a playoff berth, a product of parity and a postseason party that has seating for 10.

Still, two of those teams won’t get an invitation. And their fates could well be determined by a player who wasn’t even in the major leagues when the month started.

With rosters expanding from 25 to a maximum of 40 players for the stretch drive, bullpens and benches have grown deeper. Some teams will use those extra spots for specialists such as late-inning defensive replacements, left-handed relievers or pinch-runners, as the Kansas City Royals did last season with Terrance Gore.

In 2014, Gore batted .221 and drove in only 15 runs in 106 games at two minor league levels. But he can run like the wind, so the Royals called him up in September and he stole five bases and scored five important runs, helping the Royals sneak into the playoffs as a wild-card team.

They finished the fall in the World Series for the first time in three decades.


Not everybody thinks that’s fair.

“To me, that’s stupid,” New York Yankees Manager Joe Girardi told the New York Times. “It’s too much. The game is played so differently when you’ve got five left-handers. It’s not right.

“That’s the most important part of the year.”

But although Girardi may have logic on his side, he’s also bucking tradition. Baseball has been expanding its rosters since the Dodgers played in Brooklyn. And in baseball, tradition frequently trumps logic.

“The rules are the rules,” Oakland Athletics Manager Bob Melvin said. “And they’ve been that way for a while.”

San Francisco Giants Manager Bruce Bochy also has no problem with the expanded rosters, although for him the issue is partly personal. Last season, Bochy’s son Brett made his only three major league appearances after being called up in September.

“Those guys down there have really worked hard all year. And for them, it may be the only time they get called up,” he said. “If you’re able to give them 30 days in the big leagues [and] it turns out it’s the only time they get called up, well that makes everything that [they’ve] done worthwhile.”

In the 1950s and 1960s the expanded-roster rule was rarely invoked, partly because it was expensive. Teams that cared far more about costs than competing would not only have had to pay any players they called up, but on the road they would have had to provide meal money and a hotel room as well.

And on the rare occasions it was used, it was done more to reward minor league players for a good season than it was to give the major league team a strategic advantage.

That has changed as baseball has become more specialized and teams have come to understand the value of a player who can do one thing exceedingly well, whether it’s as a pinch-runner, a pinch-hitter or a situational reliever called on to face just one batter. With expanded rosters, teams have been able to carry more of those specialists, and use them more often, in September than in the previous five months of the season.

“Everybody plays under the same rules,” Washington Nationals Manager Matt Williams said. “Some teams call up a few guys and others don’t bother as much it because they’ve got their guys set.

“To each his own.”

Well, not really.

There is little dispute that the way expanded rosters are being used now upsets the competitive balance established over the previous five months. And as a result, the rule seems destined for some tweaks, ones that will likely please Girardi and the traditionalists.

Expanded rosters were discussed during negotiations for the last Collective Bargaining Agreement between Major League Baseball and the players union in 2011 and will be discussed when negotiations begin next year on a new CBA.

What’s likely to emerge is a compromise that will allow expanded rosters, pleasing the union, whose members earn big league paychecks and valuable service time in September, but one that will limit the number of players eligible for each game.

The NHL has similar limits, permitting teams to carry 23 players on their active roster but allowing them to suit up only 20 for games. In baseball, that would make it difficult for teams to carry pinch-runners or use 10 relievers in a game, something that has happened in September in recent years.

For St. Louis Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny, whose team has the best record in the majors and has all but clinched a playoff berth, the next month is as much about the future as it is about the present.

“There’ll probably be some adjustments to the rule. Maybe you designate certain players. [But] that will still allow the opportunity to have some of the younger players around,” he said. “It’s invaluable for a club like ours, with so many veteran players, to be able to bring in these young guys to watch.

“Those are some of the valuable lessons as far as development. There’s kind of that balance of what we need to win but also keep an eye on the future and how we make our organization better.”