Every year it seems like people around baseball have the same discussion in September: why does the MLB still have roster expansion? It’s a fair question, given that September is make-or-break for most teams in the playoff hunt. So why does baseball still allow teams to expand their rosters?
For the first five months of the regular season, teams are allowed to have a 25-man roster on a given night. Teams will generally carry 12 or 13 pitchers, which makes bullpen management very important over the course of the season. The dynamics of managing the bench each night can also be a challenge, especially in the National League. Those challenges are all but eliminated in September, when teams can expand their rosters to anywhere from 25 to 40. That kind of increase in player availability gives managers the freedom to make thoughtless substitutions, bring in countless relief pitchers, and play platoon advantages over multiple innings.
The ability for managers to manipulate their bullpens with seemingly unlimited resources is not only an assault on the strategic integrity of the game, but also on the timing of the game. Pitching changes are boring, and giving managers the ability to make up to nine or ten changes in a game becomes painful to watch. The substitutions themselves are time consuming, but then consider that most of the relievers called up in September are either rookies or big league retreads, and you have the potential for some really bad baseball at a time when teams should be fighting for playoff spots.
The issue with teams like the Braves, who are out of playoff contention, is that they still have to play against teams with meaningful games at stake. The Braves could have Adonis Garcia as their starting pitcher for every game the rest of the season and nothing would change with regards to their own playoff hopes, but teams like the Brewers, Cardinals, Marlins, and Rockies could be greatly affected when the Braves lose. Imagine a scenario where the Marlins make the playoffs over the Brewers because on one of the last days of the season, Miami faces a collection of ten minor league retreads that happened to be on the roster that day. The integrity of the playoffs is compromised because one team is playing against Triple-A competition.
There is an argument to be made in favor of roster expansion, especially from fans of teams that are out of contention, because teams will often call up top prospects to get a taste of big league competition when the stakes are low for their team. The Braves have employed this strategy, and it is exciting to see guys like Luiz Gohara at the big league level, but for the sake of competition teams could wait until April and keep their designated 25-man roster while other teams fight for playoff spots. For every Luiz Gohara there will always be a retread to occupy playing time down the stretch, and that is not representative of major league talent.
Baseball needs to address this situation, and have for years, yet every September we are left watching the remnants of former big leaguers return to partake in what should be the best baseball of the season. The level of competition (and talent) that we often see in September should be reserved for Spring Training, when the games do not matter and the fans can enjoy a slower pace of play. Those conditions do not exist in September, with playoff berths on the line and fans eagerly awaiting the results of a long season. Changing the rules hurts the game, and it is time MLB did something about it.