MLB Opening Day Roster Limits
NOTE: This is an abridged version of a story I posted here about nine years ago, but in the archives it is attributed to Christian Ruzich, but actually I wrote it...
The 25-man Opening Day roster limit and clubs having to cut their 40-man rosters down to 25 by Opening Day is one of the “Rights of Spring Training,” in some cases the “last rite” (so to speak) for many players. But the 25-man Opening Day roster limit is a fairly recent invention.
I used to have an extensive Sporting News collection that went back many, many years (unfortunately it was destroyed in a flood about 25 years ago), and it was fun for me on a rainy day to go back and look at how managers would handle the transition from Spring Training to Opening Day back in the olden days. I noticed that managers were not particulary worried about making “final roster cuts” at the end of Spring Training, because the worry would come later, sort of incrementally.
While the idea that clubs can activate their entire 40-man roster for the last month of the season--giving young players a “cup of coffee” or “full trial” after the minor leagues close on or about Labor Day--goes back about 100 years, the idea that clubs must operate with only 25 players from Opening Day through August 31st does not.
A guy named Clifford Blau has actually compiled the history of roster limits, and it is interesting to note the changes over the years on his chart.
1968 was the first season in MLB history where clubs had to cut their 40-man roster down to 25 on Opening Day. That was when managers started to hear the question “How many pitchers are you going to take north, skip?” I believe Jim Bouton refers to that question in Ball Four, because it was still a new thing in 1969.
During the years 1957-1967, MLB clubs had to cut their 40-man rosters to 28 by Opening Day, and then to 25 by the 31st day of season. If you look back at the Opening Day rosters from that 11-year period, you would note that at least two of the three “extra” players carried during the first month of the season were usually pitchers (and that was before the days of starting pitchers having their workloads limited by arbitrary pitch counts!).
Most clubs circa 1957-67 normally carried nine or ten pitchers May through August, but they would often carry 12 pitchers during the month of April. It was recognized even then that pitchers needed more time than position players to get ready for the start of the season, and having an extra couple of arms available during the first month was understood to be advisable. By May, all starting pitchers were expected to be ready to handle a full work-load (pitch a complete game, if possible), and the three extra guys (including usually a couple of pitchers) were optioned or outrighted to the minors, traded, or released.
Prior to 1957, the roster limit remained at 40 until the 31st day of the season. That doesn’t mean all clubs would carry 40 players during the month of April, just like clubs today do not activate their entire 40-man roster on September 1st just because they have the right to do so. When the roster limit remained at 40 until the 31st day of the season, clubs would (in reality) carry maybe five extra players, with the other ten players usually being young players who weren’t ready to play in the big leagues, and they would be optioned to the minors to get a chance to play every day.
The type of player who would be kept around during the first month back when the 40-man roster cut-down date was the 31st day of the season would be veterans at the end of their careers trying to remain in the big leagues for a little while longer, 4-A type minor league players (that is, guys who had “mastered” AAA but who were having difficulty making the transition to MLB), Rule 5 Draft picks, “bonus players” who couldn’t be sent to the minor leagues without first clearing waivers, and players who were out of minor league options.
In the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s, the 40-man roster (or 48-man reserve list with a 30-man active roster limit during the “heart” of the season in 1945 and 1946 as player returned from WWII) “cut-down” date was even later than the 31st day of the season, in some cases as late as May 15th, or even June 15th in some years!
And prior to 1977, clubs had no 25-man “minimum” roster requirement as they do now. Clubs having financial problems could play with 22 or 23 players if they wanted to do that, and some did. Beginning in 1977, the CBA required clubs to maintain a 24-man minimum active roster during the regular season, and the owners tried a half-year experiment (April through June 1978) where clubs rosters were set at 24, but it was abandoned.
In 1987, as part of the Grand Ueberroth Collusion Plan of 1987-89, teams "coincidentally, individuually, and independently" decided to play with only 24 players (which they had had the right to do since 1977, but had only talked about doing for years). They continued to go with 24-man rosters for a total of three full years (1987 through 1989), until the lockout of 1990 resulted in a new CBA that permitted clubs to play with 24 players in 1990, but required clubs to go to 25-man rosters (minimum) in 1991. However, several clubs jumped the gun and went to 25-man rosters on Opening Day 1990, so all of the other MLB teams immediately went to 25-man rosters, too, so as to not be at a competitive disadvantage. And that was (apparently) the end of the 24-man roster. However, in a subsequent CBA the roster minimum was changed to give MLB clubs the option to operate with a 24-man roster. But no club actually does that (except maybe temporarily after a trade while waiting for a newly-acquired player or players to report) because it would be a competitive disadvantage if all teams don't do it.
So there is nothing “written in stone” when it comes to cutting the 40-man roster to 25 players by Opening Day, or even maintaining a 25-man roster during the regular season. The current roster limits and a cut-down to 25 players on Opening Day is a fairly recent invention, and it is totally arbitrary and could be subject to change in a future CBA.
With the current CBA set to expire after the 2016 season and with the possibility that MLB could (because of the increase in interleague play) choose to implement the DH league-wide beginning in 2017, it might be possible that MLB clubs could go back to expanded rosters (perhaps 28) for the first 30 days of the season (while starting pitchers are still getting "stretched-out"), then perhaps a 24-man roster up until September, and then only a limited expanded roster (maybe no more than 28 or 30 players) beginning on September 1st.
Hagsag 6 hours 38 min ago (view)
Is AZ Phil okay?
crunch 8 hours 56 min ago (view)
gene clines has died.
he was with the organization on/off for a notable amount of time as both a player and coach.
crunch 2 days 5 hours ago (view)
sammy sosa off the HOF ballot after 10 years. he finishes up with a 18.5% vote, highest in any year.
crunch 2 days 7 hours ago (view)
cubs sign 31 year old eric yardley to a minor league deal.
he's a 31 year old righty that throws sub-90mph junk.
Sonicwind75 2 days 9 hours ago (view)
Thank you for sharing Mike. Sounds like the former owner was a high character human being and should be celebrated. Haven't had a chance to attend a game there since I moved away from Des Moines in 2007 but recall it being a great ballpark experience. Has there been any word of the new owners making any major changes?
crunch 5 days 3 hours ago (view)
a 22 month old.
a'ite. i'm done with Earth. going to Pluto. don't bother visiting or calling. later.
Cubster 1 week 1 day ago (view)
Jason Schmidt signs with Dodgers, 3/44.
crunch 1 week 1 day ago (view)
20 year, 800m contract incoming...front loaded 150m over the first 2 years with a player opt out after that...
videographer 1 week 1 day ago (view)
Darth Vader to rescue Carlos Correa's bruised ego.
crunch 1 week 1 day ago (view)
carlos correa has hired scott boras...
bradsbeard 1 week 2 days ago (view)
The IFA market isn't exactly an equal access thing. Not only do the Cubs have a slightly smaller bonus pool than some teams, players are often linked to teams through their trainers well before they are able to sign. It's not like when these kids are 14 that the teams know for sure that they have a top of the class player on their hands two years in the future.
Wrigley Rat 1 week 2 days ago (view)
Cubbies.4ever - I read that the Cubs strategy with international free agents has been to spend most of their bonus money on young, position players and then take chances on cheaper, older pitching prospects who have been late bloomers (taller, stronger, more command of pitches, etc.). They are also grabbing guys at the end of the international signing period and signing them to future service contracts. They have six pitchers that were signed last year to future service contracts, and only one position player.
cubbies.4ever 1 week 2 days ago (view)
Cubs IFA Signings are heavy on SS (given SS usually can play many positions as the develop), but only 1 pitcher. Given it's still early. Also disappointing that their best signing is #18. Gone are the days of Soler, Eloy, Torres, Marquez, Amaya etc. I believe Christian Hernandez last year was highly rated though.
Wrigley Rat 1 week 3 days ago (view)
One more international free agent signing announced today: Daniel Benschop, OF, Aruba
bradsbeard 1 week 3 days ago (view)
I hope all is well with AZ Phil. Hasn't posted in a few weeks and typically would expect him to have a post up tracking IFA signings. Maybe he's waiting for something official from the Cubs (who don't seem to have announced any of the signings officially)?