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.
Arizona Phil 36 min 2 sec ago (view)
RHSP Duncan Robinson (June 2019 TJS) has retired.
Arizona Phil 56 min 59 sec ago (view)
Rex Brothers and Tony Wolters reached five years of MLB Service Time this weekend, so Brothers now cannot be sent outright to the minors without his consent (he is out of minor league options) and Wolters (who has a minor league option left) now cannot be optioned or outrighted to the minors without his consent.
Arizona Phil 1 hour 53 min ago (view)
It's not good to play bad teams early because they have the confidence and energy they won't have later in the season after they realize they suck and all is lost.
crunch 9 hours 31 min ago (view)
as of the end of this game (game 9) there's only 1 player on the team hitting more than .250 (j.marisnick).
bryant, baez, contreras, marisnick are the only guys hitting more than .200.
Cubster 10 hours 13 min ago (view)
Two awful days of baseball.
On top of that, Dexter Fowler (Angels) tore his ACL and will undergo season ending reconstruction surgery.
He's a hero in my Cub/heart no matter how the remainder of his career goes, but at 35 yrs, he will have a rough road ahead.
crunch 10 hours 54 min ago (view)
these bats are killing me.
they need more than a waffle maker to feed these bats. julio zueleta needs to be hired for batting coach and the ricketts need to toss some serious loot into the fruit budget for him.
crunch 11 hours 29 min ago (view)
lefty goose goosage reporting in...
crunch 13 hours 14 sec ago (view)
crunch 1 day 6 hours ago (view)
career high for zach davies, 7 runs given up...only took 1.2 innings.
Cubster 1 day 7 hours ago (view)
Ex Cub Dexter Fowler, now with Maddon's Angels goes on the DL with a knee sprain.
crunch 1 day 8 hours ago (view)
AAA exhibition game @south bend rained out.
Cubster 1 day 9 hours ago (view)
Coach Craig Driver tested positive for Coronavirus and was sent back to Chicago. Apparently, no other Cub tested positive. No word about symptoms so it sounds like it was picked up in whatever the regular testing protocol covers including Wed, Thursday and Friday which were negative for the "traveling party".
bradsbeard 1 day 16 hours ago (view)
Sure makes it sound like Schwarber and Lester were among the positives. Hate that for them, especially Jon who has the cancer history and the recent thyroid issue. Hopefully both recover without significant lingering effects.
crunch 2 days 2 hours ago (view)
j.musgrove throws SD's first no-hitter. it would have been a perfect game if he didn't hit a batter.
not bad for his 2nd start for them.
Cubster 2 days 6 hours ago (view)
Nats Covid update (wrt Former Cub factor): Brad Hand, Yan Gomes, Alex Avila and Jordy Mercer have all been cleared to return after being away due to COVID-19 protocols. Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester and Josh Harrison have not been cleared yet,
Still looking forward to seeing Schwarbs play in a Nats uniform.
Jackstraw 2 days 8 hours ago (view)
Right. Three batter minimum. Hopefully the only time I'll need to be reminded this year.