In a game of traditions, loss of expanded September rosters is worth mourning

MLB insider Ben Nicholson-Smith joins SN Today to discuss who he expects the Blue Jays to call up in September, wondering if there's any chance we see pitching prospects Anthony Kay and T.J. Zeuch.

Baseball is a game of traditions, but one of them is coming to an end this month with little lamentation.

The era of expanded September rosters will end after this season. Where teams have previously been allowed to summon anyone from their 40-man roster to play in the big leagues in the final month of the season, they will be restricted to a 28-man roster after August 31st of 2020.

Because rosters will increase in size to 26 players for the full season next year, this means that just two additional players will be brought in for the final stretch of the schedule.

That this change will be made without much grieving is a function of how the roster sizes were increasingly abused in the on-field management of the game. In recent years, some MLB managers would initiate an endless parade of relief pitchers to the mound, halting the game for mid-inning changes to such an absurd extent that the tradition began to feel untenable.

One can’t blame a manager for using all the tools at his disposal, and when properly applied, the expanded roster could be an asset to the game. Having the extra arms available at a point when both the starters and the bullpen were gassed could lighten the load when necessary. There may have been a manner of changing the rules of daily active rosters that could have found a way to limit the number of pitchers available on any given day, but one suspects that adding the extra roster spot through the full 162 games came at the cost of the extra ones in September.

But for all of the perceived abuses, it is a pity to see this aspect of the game end this year, because on the whole, this rule was mostly a positive for the fans and for the players.

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The expanded rosters have traditionally provided an opportunity for fans to get a glimpse of their team’s minor leaguers, and in turn, it gave the opportunity for those minor leaguers to get a taste of the big leagues.

At one point, this meant that the top prospects could get an early look at what it means to play at the highest level. It fades in the memory now, but both Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green made appearances with the 1993 World Series winners in the final month, while Vernon Wells played three Septembers in a row before becoming a regular. One of Roy Halladay’s most memorable moments, the near no-hitter against the Tigers, came in his second career start as a September call-up.

Of course not all the added players were stars in waiting, and in recent years, the added emphasis on controlling players’ service time has meant that the top prospects are less likely to make a appearance.

But the next tier of prospects or organizational guys would often get a chance for some major league time, and a big league paycheque, while fans would get a chance to put a face to a name.

At one point, these extra players could play a key role in years when the Jays were in contention. In the ill-fated 1987 season, Duane Ward and Rob Ducey were among the additions, and while neither of them shone in their time that year, it gave the team an extra arm and a pinch-runner/defensive replacement to supplement the roster.

More recently, the 2014 Blue Jays called up Daniel Norris and Dalton Pompey for extended looks in September, while Aaron Sanchez was added to the roster in August, but might not have had a role that season if not for the imminent roster expansion. In what was a disappointing season, their appearances gave some reason for optimism before the team eventually broke out the next year.

While the endless parade of relievers in recent years was a September strategy that at times detracted from the game, the use of pinch runners and defensive switches that was afforded by the bigger bench was actually a welcome addition to the game. It added to the in-game machinations, and gave managers a weapon late in close games.

Looking ahead, it’s hard to imagine that big league debuts like those of T.J. Zeuch or Anthony Kay will be a part of forthcoming Septembers, which is a shame. This season would have been dark and dreary if not for the arrival of young players who may be a part of the future of the franchise, and in a bad stretch of baseball, Zeuch and Kay were enough of a curiosity to make the team worth watching for their respective appearances.

If anything, it seems likely that the additional roster spots might be reserved for players returning from the injured list, or an added reliever or catcher. It will be less about rewarding young players, and more about allowing management a couple of extra roster spots to give them more time to make a decision on marginal players who may be headed toward a DFA (designation for assignment) or a non-tender.

For all of the moaning about the negative outcome of expanding September rosters, fans will eventually miss those overflowing dugouts filled with new faces and spring training jersey numbers. As this season wanes, it will be worth taking note of the appearances that we’re likely to lose from now on.

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