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.



ESPN piece predicting most improved teams in 2015:

This line on the Cubs sums up 2014 pretty well:

"Like the Astros, the Cubs carried a lot of dead weight in 2014 -- Darwin Barney, Nate Schierholtz, Junior Lake, Mike Olt, John Baker, Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez were horrible offensive contributors, each batting at least 200 times and posting an OPS+ of 70 or less. That’s bad, but Cubs fans already knew that." 

G. Soto gets minor league deal from White Sox, J. Marquis got one from Reds the other day.

Tony Campana get WSox minor league deal too. Adam Greenberg spotted at Midway Airport.

Is Fontenot going to be their bench coach? Why not trade for Reed Johnson and get the s-crappy boys back together?

The meotoric fall of Soto was impressive. I didn't see that coming at all, Rookie of the Year to irrelevant 4A player in just a few years. Reminds of Jerome Walton. 

Walton is actually interesting in that he tanked in 1990-1993, but then from 1994-1998 he put up a slash line .303/360/478 (838 OPS) in over 400 PAs as a pinch hitter and spot starter. He was with 4 teams during that time and no one seemed to want to give him more ABs despite the fact that he performed well in those that he was given. He was getting about half as many ABs as Dwight Smith during that same time, and Smith was lauded as a solid pinch hitter, but he actually performed much worse than Walton at the plate.

I remember in 1989 thinking that those two would be in the outfield together for 5-6 years anchoring the top of the order. ROY and ROY Runner-Up, Smith had a .382 OBP, Walton had 24 steals. Walton, Smith, Dawson in the OF, Grace, Sandberg, Dunston in the IF. Maddux on the mound. Sigh. That turned into one long shit fest very quickly.

That '89 team was really, really fun to watch -- the young outfielders who could hit and run, the Hawk in RF, Sutcliffe somehow getting it done, Grace emerging, Wild Thing in for the save, Les Lancaster out of his freakin' mind, Lloyd McClendon off the bench, the Shawon-O-Meter -- great stuff. I also think that first playoff game caused pitchers to start covering their mouths with their gloves when they talked on the mound -- everybody could read Maddux's lips "I want to go with fastball". Next pitch, Will Clark grand slam.

In a 5-year period, from 1987-1991, the Cubs had SEVEN players received ROY votes (Lancaster, Berryhill, Grace, Walton, Smith, Harkey, and McElroy), and Palmeiro was an All-Star in his first full season in 1988 but had accumulated enough playing time in 86-87 to have already exceded rookie limits. The future looked bright.

Sadly, most of those guys never panned out as expected, and it would take the Cubs another 16 years to have another 7 players receive ROY votes. With the exceptions of Trachsel and Wood, they basically went a decade without developing any talent until Prior came along in 2002. 

The talk going around at that time was the Walton abused both drugs and alcohol for years. Whether or not it was true, he was considered to be a cancer in the clubhouse.

I was pretty young and we didn't have blogs, etc. like we do now, so I wasn't aware of drugs/alcohol. But even as a kid I heard that he let the ROY go to his head and showed out of shape, refused to make adjustments, etc.

The Cubs have released seven minor leaguers: RHP Josh Davis (2013 NDFA - Belmont U.), LHP Alberto Diaz (2010 IFA - Venezuela), LHP Frailyn Figueroa (2011 IFA - Dominican Republic), LHP Nathan Dorris (2012 17th round - Southern Illinois), RHP Zak Hermans (2013 13th round - Princeton), and RHP Yao-Lin Wang (2009 IFA - Taiwan). and C Lance Rymel (2012 28th round - Rogers State). 

Thank for the update. Any surprises here? Hermans (who was 30th round I think) did OK last year in A, but nothing  spectacular. Most of the rest (at least the ones I know) I think put up poor numbers.

WISCGARD: Not really.

Yao-Lin Wang got a $260K bonus in 2008 but he was an "A"-ball swing-man, plus he was going to be a minor league 6YFA post-2015. He was a SP for Team Chinese Taipei in the WBC qualifying tournament a couple of years ago, so he can probably find work in the Taiwan Major League (TML).

Zak Hermans was a polished lower-level swing-man with minimum upside.

Nathan Dorris was a hotshot coming out of HS but was an under-achiever at Vanderbilt when Cubs Minor League Pitching Coordinator Derek Johnson was there, and Dorris ended up transferring to a JC and then ended up at SIU. He started off pretty well this past season, but had a bad 2nd half.

Josh Davis was a polished NDFA senior roster-filler who moved back-and-forth between EXST and wherever he was needed.

Alberto Diaz is a hard-throwing but short (5'8) LHRP with zero command that I saw a lot of in Extended Spring Training. 

Frailyn Figueroa was at EXST, too, but he was out of shape (overweight) and then he strained something and ended up on the 60-day DL. 

Lance Rymel functioned as a sort of player-coach at several different levels. Good receiving skills but no bat.

Schwarber #3 catching prospect in baseball behind Swihart and Alfaro.

fluff piece on Baez working hard in the Winter Leagues

working hard to make contact! Am I right!?!?!?Am I right!?!?

If he's made adjustments that could be contributing to his struggles. I wonder if he is still coiling up for those wild swings down there. With Stella in the mix, he's gonna have a hard time sticking after spring training. Cubs have plenty of power once Bryant comes up, and if Olt does well even if he didn't come up right away. A good OPB guy would be fine with me at second.

Denorfia deal looking better and better. Gomes signed with Braves for $4 million (!?!) with a $3 million vesting option (which becomes a team option if it doesn't vest) for 2016. Both are the same age, both supposedly "club house dudes" but Denorfia can play all three OF positions and Cubs are only on the hook for one year at $2.6-3 million (depending on incentives).

Jon Heyman @JonHeymanCBS · dexter fowler settles with cubs at $9.5M, 150K below midpoint

"that there is a RV, Clark" Ted Lilly charged with RV insurance fraud. $ 80 million doesn't go as far as it use to.

According to the California Department of Insurance, Lilly damaged his RV worth around $200,000 but did not file a claim until after he purchased insurance on the vehicle.

says up to a 5 year prison term...

okay that's stupid and all, but that seems excessive....

I am sure he will just pay a fine and be done with it. But what an idiot.

The TLFC super computer sheds a single tear.

Hopefully doesn't effect his Cubs' job. /serious

"did not file a claim until after he purchased insurance" I think that's called a pre-existing condition.

I can't remember how much he cares about his anonymity on here, but one of our commenters is responsible for that.

Silent Towel or Mike C? /I keed

My titometer just went up to 10. Wait that sounded wrong ...

Vogelbach #8 1B prospect in baseball

Wow 6'0" 280 in high school.

Thick a brick!

Nice breakdown of the holes in Javy Baez's swing and the challenges he faces in hitting major league pitching -- (from the twitter feed on the left)

that heat map is fearful...not in a good way.

Isn't anyone who hit .169 going to have a bad heat map?

yeah, but when you look at what he's swinging at along with the extremely limited area he's cashing in...damn. he isn't doing much with anything except in a very narrow zone. as important as what or where he's hitting is how he's going to get killed with outside/low until he learns to quit swinging at it so much.

That heat map inspired me to vote in the survey. I picked superstar. Because I can.

"Fangraph's Kiley McDaniel reports that catcher Lorenzo Quintana has defected from Cuba." good hitter with great D (supposedly)...25 years old...eligible to sign with any club (not in the international money pool) once he jumps through residency hoops. interesting guy, if not high on people's lists.

Good D, eh? And how are his pitch framing skills? That's what I want to know!

Cubs claim Gonzalez Germen from Texas, his 4th team since December.

Gonzalez Germen. Why?

getting that formatting issue again...are you guys?

ROB: I am getting it when I log in, but if I go to TCR without logging in (view only) I don't.

I tweaked a setting, seemed to fix it on my end.

Let me know if others have issues.

ROB: It's fixed for me, too.


I was having a good day, a really good day, until about 10 minutes ago. Fuck.


Met him three times and couldn't have been nicer to me each time. He even asked me if I wanted his autograph......yes, thank you. Ernie and Billy were and always will be my guys. Hope he's playing two tonight.

RIP Mr Cub

Not counting a Cubs-Sox exhibition game, this was my first Cubs game:  


Ernie Banks played 1B, and it was the first time he ever played 1st base at Wrigley Field.   

billy williams hitting 7th...ha, rookies.

Wow, Koufax pitched too. What was Wally Moon's eyebrow like up close?

If anyone in the universe deserved to see a Cubs world series before passing away, it was Ernie Banks. There's no way to properly pay homage to Ernie that I can think of that matches what he gave us.

Indeed. My sentiments exactly. Truly unfair for a man of his dignity to have witnessed so many years of disappointment. I think we all wanted a series for him; much, much more than we wanted it for ourselves.

Nice vidoe here of Banks hitting his 498, 499, and 500th home runs. The 500th shows the entire at bat and is in nice color:


Smile at least twice today for great a ball player and even greater human being

I may have been MIA for years, but came straight here when I read about Ernie. Hope his passing was peaceful, and my thoughts are with his family. The Cubs lost a giant yesterday. They should dedicate the 2015 season to him.

I'm sure you'll be seeing his number on the sleeves. Maybe not just this year, either.

A part of my childhood just died. RIP Mr. Cub

Me, too. He's the reason I'm a Cub fan. (I don't think it was Walt Moryn or George Altman.) Otherwise I'd have been a Sox fan like my dad. Horrible thought.

Hey, now!

Summer of '69 I was 11, then 12 (August birthday). Played 2 games of neighborhood pickup baseball a day. Every day. Half-field since we only had about 5 guys a side. EVERY kid flexed his fingers on the bat, just like Ernie. As the summer went along, half the kids finished each game jumping up and clicking their heels, just like Ronnie. The other half knew they'd get another chance after lunch or the next morning. Icon is overused these days. Icon also under-describes Ernie.

Odd. His attorney said his death was unexpected and not of natural causes; press conference from family on Sunday at noon.

He seemed like a hell of a guy. Mr. Cub will be missed.

Recent comments

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  • 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.


  • JoePepitone 5 days 5 hours ago (view)

    Ex-Cub Sergio Mitre convicted of rape and murder of a young child, per a news story from SI --


  • 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)?