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Fewer Middle Relievers, More Dads

Five ways MLB teams should use their 26th roster spot

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The primary purpose of Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement is to determine how much of the $9 billion in annual revenue gets siphoned off by ownership and how much goes to the players, who are the sole provider of value in the relationship. But the CBA also influences the game by setting up rules for the draft, free agency, and roster size.

And word on the street is that for the first time since 1914, MLB will expand its base roster: In 2017, teams will likely be able to dress 26 players full-time.

If you’ve been paying attention to baseball at all over the past 100 years, you know who that 26th man is going to be: a relief pitcher. In 2016, according to Baseball-Reference, teams used an average of 4.15 pitchers per game, breaking the all-time record set in 2015, which broke the record set in 2012, which broke the record set in 2007, and so on. Two things have been true in baseball since the beginning of time: Strikeouts are going up, and teams are using more relief pitchers.

Data via Baseball-Reference
Data via Baseball-Reference

Considering what just happened in the playoffs, the hope is probably that the extra reliever is just another tentacle on an Andrew Miller–shaped sea monster that would swashbuckle in from the bullpen to stomp out rally after rally, but there are only so many Andrew Millers, or even Edwin Díazes or Chris Devenskis; the 13th guy on the pitching staff isn’t going to be a multi-inning shutdown guy. He’s going to be an anonymous, replacement-level innings-eater, and it’s going to take a mid-inning pitching change to get to him.

Nobody’s pumped about that.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

OK, I was wrong. Matt Albers is pumped about that. But even if it were the right move tactically to carry another middle reliever, it’d suck to watch. Here are five better ways to use that 26th roster spot.

1. Swingman

Now, carrying another pitcher isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there are ways to make it not boring. Back in the 1970s, when Orioles manager Earl Weaver wasn’t busy swearing at umpires, he was fond of breaking in rookie pitchers by using them in long relief and as spot starters.

Now, there’s a reason we don’t do that anymore — young pitchers’ workloads are monitored very closely, and the unpredictable exigencies of a big league bullpen make it hard to plug a 22-year-old you’re terrified of hurting into a role where opportunities for innings might come once every third day or once every three weeks.

Yet, there are young pitchers for whom Triple-A is essentially a holding pattern — Alex Reyes of the Cardinals and Carson Fulmer of the White Sox are two examples from last year — and the only way to really know if they’re ready for the majors is to toss them into the deep end. A swingman role would help them get used to a big league clubhouse and routine while keeping them ready to start if a rotation spot opens up.

2. Rule 5 Guy

In case the Rule 5 draft is one of those baseball terms you just nod along to absentmindedly and don’t really understand: From the day a team signs or drafts an amateur player, that team has either four years (if the player turns pro at 19 or older) or five years (if the player’s 18 or younger) to promote him to the 40-man roster. Anyone not added to the 40-man roster by that time is eligible for the Rule 5 draft, in which teams with open 40-man spots can buy eligible players for $50,000, provided the player stays on the big league roster all season.

This rule serves to keep teams from hoarding prospects they’ll never use, thereby offering a more efficient allocation of talent for the league and more chances for players to see the majors. Top-100 prospects don’t get tossed around in the Rule 5 draft, but Josh Hamilton and Johan Santana were Rule 5 guys, so if you know what you’re doing, have a roster spot, and get a little lucky, you could pick up a good player essentially for free. Just last year, the Blue Jays picked up Joe Biagini in the Rule 5 draft and got 67.2 innings of a 141 ERA+ out of him.

The good news is that since all 30 managers are used to getting through 162 games using only 25 players at a time, an extra roster spot means that every team would have room for a full roster, plus a space to stash a 21-year-old with a 100 mph fastball and iffy command.

3. Slow Pitch Softball Guy

With a 12-man pitching staff on a 25-man roster, AL managers have only a four-man position-player bench. With so little wiggle room, the primary concern has to be just finding injury cover for each position, and with a backup catcher, a utility infielder, and a spare outfielder as necessities, that leaves only one bench spot to get creative with.

Platoon bats, especially in the corners, aren’t really that hard to find, but a four-man bench makes them hard to stash. It’s hard to carry a fat guy with an uppercut to smash dingers off the bench if he can play only first base.

Take last season’s Mariners, who were squeezing four or five DH types onto the roster anyway, then traded reliever Mike Montgomery to the Cubs for 23-year-old Dan Vogelbach, whose official position is “First base, I swear [bursts into uncontrollable laughter].” Now there’s room on the roster for Vogelbach to show up every game and swing like he’s trying to reverse the rotation of the Earth.

4. Dedicated Pinch Runner

Specifically Terrance Gore, the Kansas City Royals outfielder with nine career plate appearances, 19 career defensive innings, and 19 career stolen bases. Back in 2000, a Cardinals minor leaguer named Esix Snead stole 109 bases in high-A. Meanwhile, Mark McGwire was hitting .305/.483/.746 but played only 89 games because he was old as hell and his legs didn’t work anymore. So why not, the argument went, have McGwire hit in the first inning, then have Snead pinch run for him?

Of course, this is baseball, not Super Smash Bros., and McGwire and Snead are not the goddamn Ice Climbers. Actually pulling that strategy off would have left the Cardinals down two players after an inning, which is annoying with expanded September rosters and untenable with a 25-man set. But we did get to say “Esix Snead” a lot, which is its own reward.

An extra roster spot could allow a team to carry a less extreme version of Snead or Gore, like Toronto’s Dalton Pompey or Philadelphia’s Roman Quinn, and use him the way the Royals use Gore in the playoffs.

5. Team Dad

Remember how much fun the Cubs had with David Ross this past season? Sure, big league teams already have eight uniformed coaches — a teacher-to-student ratio that would make a liberal arts college where you design your own major say, “OK, you’re suffocating the poor kids” — but there’s always room for another graybeard. Let Ichiro hang around Miami until he’s 50. Bring Jim Thome back for another turn on the Indians. “Man, y’all think Trevor Bauer’s weird? Let me tell you about a guy named Manny Ramírez …”

I don’t care if the Team Dad goes oh-for-the-season. I’d rather hear 100 more David Ross anecdotes than watch another mid-inning pitching change.