The construction of a Major League Baseball roster is one of the most complex across professional sports. A MLB team operates as part of an organization, branching to component pieces known as the minor leagues, summer leagues, and other such developmental programs. The vast majority of minor leagues are utilized to develop the talents of tomorrow, presenting opportunities for draft selections to work their way to the big-league team. The many different levels of minor league play also call for deep rosters and vast player collections. Therefore, the total cap space an MLB team has to work with is loosely defined. Mainly due to the fact that there are different contract types for each level and different payout structures for higher drafted prospects who begin their journey in Low Class-A leagues.
Most major league teams use Spring training as the start to roster trimming. A MLB team can have up to 40 men on the major league roster. This makeup gives the team their active roster. While not all 40 players will be found on the bench or in the bullpen, it represents an opportunity for teams to make quick call-ups from their farm teams. There is about a half-and-half split between pitchers and fielders/hitters mixed into the construction of a roster. Most teams will keep 6-7 starting pitchers on their active roster, 5 starters and some back-up in case of injury. The fielders are usually classified as infield or outfield players, allowing some flexibility in the number of short stops a team wishes to have over first baseman and vice versa.
The MLB holds the softest cap among professional organizations, allowing ownership to throw gaudy contracts in the path of free agents. The only discourse a major league team is the high luxury tax amounts that come with cap exceeding. Most of the successful franchises in the history of sport (i.e. Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers) don't have to worry about revenue streams, while smaller market teams do. This is where some of the bigger cities and larger fan bases thrive. Since the folks paying for the experience factors into the total amount of money a team has to spend the next season, the fan base becomes an instrumental piece at getting smaller market teams on the map. This also makes the development of talent much more important for smaller market teams. While the organizational giants can buy their talents, smaller budgeted teams have to grow it. This makes farm team management a crucial role for any organization.
The farm system and cap rules also play into roster construction and late season acquisitions. A team vying for the post-season may choose to unload one of their younger players in favor of a practiced player who can provide some positional or pitching relief. This is known as "cashing in the chips" for lower cap teams and a simple check for larger organizations. This is where it becomes hard for smaller market teams to construct their roster. Their mindset has to be different than the larger organizations because they don't have the bailout needed to dig them out of a bad or unsuccessful situation.
Building An Ideal MLB Roster
One of the plus sides for baseball General Managers is that they don’t have to deal with a salary cap. However most are encouraged to stay under the luxury tax cap. Most small market teams also don’t have the big cash to spend in comparison to teams like New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. We have seen many different strategies, where teams go out and buy their rosters to try and compete. An influx of money is presented and general managers will use it as their disposal. The Moneyball approach famously used by Billy Beane to buy stats over players to try and build a competitive club. Building through youth is also another strategy used.
We have seen teams have a few elite players that leave them with limited depth and production at other positions. Overall in recent winners, depth and strong production spread across multiple positions has been the ideal build. Having a balance of young and veteran talent is also a fairly important. In an ever-growing age of analytics, baseball has transitioned into a numbers game and relied less on simple talent on the field. This ties into how general managers are building rosters more and more. For those stuck in the past, we have seen them begin to struggle.
Looking at building a balanced lineup, we can use stats such as WAR to build a lineup but also to balance out how to pay the starting players. It has become a popular way in valuing a player, especially in free agency when it comes to see what they deserve. WAR stands for wins above replacement, which uses multiple stats to summarize a player’s value. Looking throughout the last few decades teams have found themselves all over the place in terms of a lineup build. More teams have leaned slightly towards a stars and scrubs based lineup.
Having a solid base is extremely important for a number of reasons. It gives you flexibility with trading and working deals with other teams. Prospects are sought after for some teams, especially for those who don’t have the luxury of spending a ton of cash in free agency. Teams that also build through free agency and will spend money still need some depth. Neglecting your Minor League depth is going to catch up with you eventually.
Looking through the batting order, building a lineup has their own tendencies as far as the amount of power, speed, and contact goes into it. Pitching is where you are going to need some depth and not skimp on having a strong bullpen and starting rotation. A lack of pitching depth puts more of a strain on your offense to carry, and that can be vice versa if pitching is made a priority. We have seen teams prioritize one or the other, which hasn’t exactly been a recipe for success, but it has worked.
What’s More Important, Hitting or Pitching?
In other sports you hear “defense wins championships" but what about baseball? Sure defense plays a part, but hitting and pitching are the two categories of strength we want to really key in on. Looking at recent winners, most teams over the last two years posted slightly above average OPS numbers as a team. Only a few were outliers, where those teams had insanely good luck within the postseason and did not match their regular season production, or relied solely on their pitching dominance. Pitching was more consistent in terms of success where teams had a rock solid foundation for their team.
When looking at the numbers of championship winners, we have seen championships won both ways. World Series winners have had dominating offenses but we have seen winners also have extremely strong rotations. And then of course there are just the flat out powerhouse teams that have both. The one consistent thing though is that no team had below average pitching numbers. So even the teams that won World Series titles, they may have had elite offenses, they didn’t have below average pitching.
Looking through the playoff teams, a balanced roster certainly looks to be the trick. Running on an unbalanced roster requires a lot of moving parts that are not in your control to unfold. It also relies on an underperforming part of your roster to over perform for a that short period of time. This is not reliable to bank on over a longer period of time.
Are Bullpens The Secret Glue Of A Team’s Success?
We have seen games wasted because of bad bullpens, but how about having an entire season wasted. The 2013 ALCS comes to mind, where the Tigers neglected their bullpen the entire season and offseason prior. This Tigers team had a strong offense, but an amazing trio of starting pitchers with Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez. They combined for 48 strikeouts, and allowed just eight earned runs in the five combined starts between them. Their bullpen allowed seven earned runs in the shorter innings they pitched. Only one pitcher earned a win in that series out of the three of them, and Doug Fister had the other. Even a remotely average bullpen might have changed the way that postseason went, and ultimately the Tigers missed their World Series window.
The modern era is starting to change a bit, as bullpens are used more. The average innings a starter is throwing is going down, and bullpen arms are now used as starters. We have seen the Rays and Brewers use these methods mostly over the last few seasons and both teams have had a ton of success. Tampa Bay has used bullpen days instead of a traditional five-man rotation. The Brewers have masked not having great starting pitchers and depth for the last few seasons with a strong bullpen. The dominance of a Josh Hader going 2-3 innings when called upon as been an extremely successful move.
This new way of pitching might become extremely popular, especially when it comes to keeping pitchers healthy. We won’t see too many 200+ inning arms anymore, and instead we might get a totally new era of how managers use their pitchers. At the moment, teams are still using traditional five-man pitching rotations and normal usage bullpens. MLB’s new rule of a three batter minimum takes out those one and done arms who are more specialist pitchers. We would see the left specialist come in for that one big out or two against the left-handed hitters within the lineup. This is a part of the new pace of play initiative, so that might derail some plans a little bit over the next few seasons, but overall the game plan is still going to be remotely the same.
Best Rosters Of 2020
While the Los Angeles Dodgers have one of the best offenses of 2020, they have also added a strong pitching core as well. They added David Price over the offseason to go with Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler. This team is built with plenty of veteran talents, but also have some of the best young names in the game like Buehler, and Cody Bellinger. Gavin Lux is also coming through the rankings and will be starting this year. On the American League side, the Yankees added Gerrit Cole from the Astros (who still have a strong roster), and this adds to a very good rotation. The offense is also strong, but health is going to be the biggest dictator of their season as they have struggled being healthy. The Yankees splashed the cash on Cole, but they have also been growing a lot of youth and talent through smart moves.
Worst Rosters Of 2020
There are some brutal rosters out there right now. We saw quite a few teams lose 100+ games last season. Baltimore has one of the worst rosters in baseball, and overall they have struggled in developing their team and holding onto talent. The pitching staff and bullpen is one of the worst in baseball. The offense isn’t quite the worst in the league, but they are close. Seattle has fallen off immensely over the last few years. They have failed to build with their younger names, and now they are in trouble. Miami and San Francisco are also not too far behind these names as they have struggling rosters that need big rebuilding.
MLB Rosters Frequently Asked Questions
What Is 40-Man Roster?
A 40-man roster is a set of players that can be added to the active 25-man roster at any point during the season. A Minor League reliever could be on the 40-man roster and be called up whenever needed, but doesn’t have a set spot on the roster.
What Is 25-Man Roster?
The 25-Man roster are the active 25 players who are currently playing for the Major League team. They are also still on the 40-man roster, but these are the main names who are playing game in and game out for everyday services.
How Many Players Can Be On An MLB Roster?
A MLB roster is broken down into 40 and 25 man rosters. The 25-man roster is going to be a group of active players that are playing for the Major League team. The other 15 are on the Minor League teams but can called up.
How Many Players Can A MLB Team Call Up In September?
In recent rule changes, September call-ups will only be 2-4 players. This was not the case before 2020, where the entire 40 man roster became on the active list of usable players and would travel with the team.
Why Do MLB Rosters Expand in September?
The rosters expand in September because the Minor Leagues wrap up, and it gives teams some extra depth in key areas like catcher and the bullpen. Teams will also use expanded rosters to get young players playing time at the Major League level.
When Are MLB Rosters Finalized?
Before Opening Day arrives, teams will finalize their 25 and 40 man rosters. Moves can be made throughout the season between the 25 and 40 man. Players can also be purchased and added to the 40 man roster throughout the season.
When Do MLB Rosters Expand?
MLB Rosters expand after August 31st, when teams use the last month of the season to add some depth to their teams and to get a look at some of their younger players. This is expanded until the postseason starts.