No one needs to tell Toronto Blue Jays fans about the disabled list. With 14 players and more than 325 player games lost already this season, they are well-acquainted with this grim corner of the roster.
Nevertheless, DL stints are up around the league, by as much as 50 per cent over similar periods compared to the past five years according to Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris. This is not entirely a matter of an epidemic of player injuries so much as it’s the league adjusting to the offseason tweak that reduced the minimum stay on the sidelines from 15 to 10 days.
While much attention was paid to an extra active roster spot which never came to fruition, over the short period of the start of this season, we’re already seeing how this seemingly subtle rule change could fundamentally change the way rosters are managed.
With the shorter required stay, teams do not need to wait out nagging injuries while occupying an active roster spot with a player whose greatest contribution for a week or so will be limited to gingerly high-fiving teammates and tearing through the team’s reserve of sunflower seeds while keeping the padding at the top of the dugout netting clean with the sleeves of their warmup hoodie.
Moreover, starting pitchers who come up lame but not necessarily hurt, or whose innings are being controlled by a team, can also more easily be sent to the DL to miss one turn around the rotation, while the team gets to add either a replacement starter or an extra arm to the bullpen in the interim.
It’s probably no surprise that the Los Angeles Dodgers have already stood out as an innovator in making use of this change, given that the team employs Alex Anthopoulos. The former Jays GM has never come across a nuance in the collective bargaining agreement from which he couldn’t wring some advantage. As Tom Verducci reported at Sports Illustrated, the Dodgers were already cycling through a deep list of a dozen MLB-quality starting pitchers with varying levels of health as early as the first weeks of the season.
What this means in the coming years – or even months – is that teams will need to reconsider not just how they populate their 25-player active roster, but also pay far greater attention to what the next five-to-ten slots on a sort of “taxi squad” will look like.
The Blue Jays, whether by design or in desperation, have already demonstrated a few of the options for how those shadow roster spots could be managed. On one hand, having players with a big-league pedigree and the willingness to accept a minor-league assignment – like Mat Latos and Mike Bolsinger – could be an approach. This pool of players could even expand once more players realize that accepting a late-March demotion provides an excellent opportunity to return to the major-league roster within a few weeks.
Moreover, the competition for those marginal players may heat up as early as this trade deadline season, with teams looking to reinforce their depth as the season pushes through its dog days.
On the other hand, managing options and the ability to shuttle the roster appendices back and forth without the prospect of losing them will also enter play. The extent of the Blue Jays’ injury situation this season has probably contributed as much as anything to the calls for Anthony Alford and Dwight Smith Jr., but these appearances raise a question going forward: Is there a value to integrating those young players into the big-league clubhouse earlier, and does that exceed the value of managing their service time and arbitration clocks?
Of course, any change in player personnel management because of the DL rule change would have cascading effects down the line. As teams might look to strengthen the roster spots for a taxi squad, it would put pressure on the other slots on their 40-player roster. Down the road, this could see teams leaving better young players exposed to the Rule 5 draft in order to solidify the top end of the next expanded roster.
Depending on how profound the downstream changes are, a new approach to roster management could even change the definition of what a “replacement-level” player is. If better veterans hang on longer with the knowledge that their services as plug-in players could be valuable to teams and lucrative for them, the expected performance from players 26 through 40 could bump up. The services of a pitcher or player who could play a third of the season and be worth a quarter of a Win Above Replacement could potentially be worth millions.
Any change brings challenges, but also opportunity. The teams who adapt most astutely to the new reality are most likely to thrive. The fun of baseball still happens on the field, but tracking the roster maneuvers that see new players taking the field will also be fascinating.