Recently, I outlined the problem that September roster expansion poses for many players, coaches and managers. Though the focus now is on the postseason, CBA talks are nearing finalization, so now’s the time to address the subject. I have several suggestions on how to “fix” the competitive integrity in the month of September — along with the other issues I have mentioned.
To begin, the added depth and flexibility of September rosters does have some lessons. I believe first and foremost that a Major League season is too long and that the league should return to the 154-game season. It’s a physical grind to try to play 162 games in 183 days. I understand the revenue involved with TV rights, ticket and concession sales for each game, but other factors need to be considered as well.
Because our sport has made a significant effort to clean up the game with the banning of “amphetamines,” we have seen a dramatic decrease in players playing more than 135 games per season. I am by no means condoning the use of “greenies” to help players play more games — MLB should be commended for its efforts — but the use of the illegal drug was, at one point, simply a necessity for players to physically meet the demands of the game.
The onus on players is to play each game and produce; performance has always been judged by results and the ability to compete in each game. Good nutrition, proper sleep and body maintenance still make it nearly impossible for players to stay on the field in a capacity that is healthy. There is too much travel and there are too many games for these players to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I have the same argument when I view what the NFL has done to their players by adding Thursday night football. The demands of the game, coupled with short windows of recovery, force players to find “means” in which to compete, and those means sometimes toe the line of legality.
For baseball, I firmly believe it’s time to scale back the regular season. There is a precedent dating back to 1961, when baseball played 154 games, and returning to this schedule is imperative for the safety of the players.
In addition to that change, rosters for each MLB team needs to expand as well, from a 25-man roster to a 28-man roster. The increase in three players is significant enough to lighten the burden on starting pitching rotations and bullpens while also giving teams an extra bench player.
I understand that adding three players comes at a cost to Major League owners by increasing payroll, insurance, and pension, while also allowing more players to reach arbitration. However, the current situation harms the product that the league sells. It has been increasingly popular for teams to carry 13 members of the pitching staff, limiting many teams to a four-man bench. The shorter bench becomes a disadvantage (especially for National League teams) when a starting player is nursing a “day-to-day” injury; it becomes only a three-man bench while the injured player recovers.
Without the needed flexibility, the 15-day minimum disabled list stint means that regulars can be pushed harder than they should — possibly leading to more significant injuries — or be kept out longer than they ought to if a DL stint is required. An increased roster size could help prevent starting players from hitting the disabled lists while recovering, because teams will not have to worry about playing with a shorter bench. That would increase competition, especially when the games matter most down the stretch, and allow owners to keep their best players on the field longer.
Having the extra bench player could also allow National League teams can carry a DH-type of player over the course of the season, creating more excitement and helping to even the playing field for NL clubs competing in AL parks during interleague contests. When baseball moved the Houston Astros back to the American League, the NL and the AL were balanced out to include 15 teams apiece, but the byproduct became season-long interleague play.
There are more direct ways in which the financial shift could be offset, too. In order to make up lost revenue from subtracting eight games during the season, the postseason can expand to include a seven-game series after the initial Wild Card play-in games. Currently the division series is a five-game series. Adding two games can help offset some of the lost revenue, and a shorter regular season would leave plenty of flexibility to accommodate them. With some give in the schedule, baseball can also consider starting opening day later in April, or it can start the playoffs sooner so that the postseason doesn’t leak into November, thereby avoiding some of the weather challenges that arise on either spectrum of when season starts or finishes.
My final suggestion deals directly with September roster expansion. Under my proposal, teams would be able to call upon any members of their 40 man roster, but in a way that respects the integrity of the game is at stake in the season’s final month. It’s simple: only 28 of those players should be eligible for each game. Managers and front offices can determine which players will be the active roster on a given day, without being forced to follow the typical optional assignment rules. Pace of play in the month of September should increase, or at least stay status quo with the pace of the regular season, as opposed to games in which we see teams deploy 10 or more pitchers. To be fair to players that aren’t activated for a given night, no player would lose service time if they are placed in the pool of possible active roster members, and they would be allowed participate in all pregame work. The only detriment would be that they would simply not be allowed to dress for that night’s game.
Although this seems like a trite reason, having that many players on the bench during the game disrupts many players in-game behaviors, from warming up to finding a seat on the bench. For the final stretch run of the season, even the smallest of disrupted routines can be very important to players competing during the game.
I love September — the drama of the season unfolding, the surprise of a new player making their first mark, players and teams chasing down goals. My goal isn’t to subtract from that by any means, but to serve the best interests of Major League Baseball, its players and its coaching staffs, now and in the future. The final month of the season should not take place with changed personnel rules when history is at stake. Without taking away from a player earning a chance to compete at the Major League level in September, it needs to be recognized that we also should not take away from how the game is played for the previous five months. As great as the drama of September baseball already is, I would love nothing more than to see baseball implement some changes in the final wave of CBA negotiations to improve this game I so deeply care about.