The 27-Man Roster

Major league teams will do anything to get an edge on the competition, especially if it’s within the rules. In the last few years, we’ve seen more and more creative roster management, with the introduction of the bereavement list and the constant shuffling of players to and from the disabled list and Triple-A.

It’s not surprising, then, that teams have discovered how to exploit some of those rules. For example, here are a few transactions the Boston Red Sox have made in the last few days:

5/21/07 Recalled RHP Manny Delcarmen from Triple-A Pawtucket.

5/20/07 Recalled LHP Kason Gabbard from Triple-A Pawtucket; optioned RHP Devern Hansack and LHP Kason Gabbard to Triple-A Pawtucket.

5/19/07 Placed RHP Josh Beckett on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to May 14, with an avulsion on his right middle finger and recalled RHP Devern Hansack from Triple-A Pawtucket.

I don’t mean to pick on the Red Sox here; the Yankees (not to mention nearly every other team in baseball) have done something similar in recent memory. But let’s look at what they managed to do. Hansack started one game of Saturday’s doubleheader, while Gabbard followed him on Sunday. By Monday, both starters were back in Pawtucket, and Manny Delcarmen pitched out of the pen that night.

I’m not sure how much of a competitive advantage the Red Sox gained from shuffling those three particular players in and out of one roster spot, but they sure benefited from the fresh arms: in three days, they got three appearances and 10 innings while maintaining a 24-man roster on top of the trio. In short, the Red Sox were able to operate with a 27-man roster.

So, what’s the problem?

It’s tough to get too worked up about this, because any team that takes advantage of the ability to effectively play with a 26- or 27-man roster is shuffling some pretty mediocre players. Is it really all that important that MLB changes some rules so that the Red Sox can’t have Delcarmen in their pen right now? Probably not.

But at the same time, something feels wrong about it. It’s common practice to do what the Red Sox did, swapping out a one-and-done starter for a reliever for a few days, effectively getting a roster bonus for losing a pitcher to injury. After a tough stretch of games, teams will trade in one 12th pitcher for another simply to wrench a few more innings out of their bullpen.

What bothers me more than the fact that a clever team can get some bonus innings is that it supports the status quo of unimaginative managing and poor bullpen construction. Unless you have a truly awful (read: Baltimorean) series of outings from your starting rotation, there’s no reason a six- or seven-man pen shouldn’t be able to get the job done. The White Sox have gotten this far with seven relievers; the Brewers and Angels have used eight.

Could we fix it?

If MLB did want to crack down on 26- and 27-man rosters, it wouldn’t be that hard: just put a minimum on the number of days a pitcher must be on the major league roster. If the Yankees want a start from Tyler Clippard, say, he’s got to be on the roster for five days. That’s the same logic that leads the commissioner’s office to issue standard suspensions of five or six games to starting pitchers.

MLB could even require a three- or four-day stay for relievers. That wouldn’t make as much of an impact, but it would prevent teams from too aggressively shuffling through the dregs of their bullpen.

These changes would hardly revolutionize the game; they would just make managers think a little harder. Skippers might go to their long man a little earlier in extra-inning games, and the value of flexible relief arms such as Hector Carrasco might be a little greater. Some teams might opt for a long man over yet another short reliever.

Maybe I’m just a nut for in-game strategy, but I would welcome a change like this that forced teams to limit their 25-man roster to a more standard corps of…well, 25 guys.

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