MLB roster moves: The vanishing bench player – Call to the Pen

Posted: April 11, 2021 at 5:46 am

This may be the era of the home run. But in one way roster construction five American League teams are summoning the ghosts of the MLB dead ball era.

The Orioles, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Mariners, and Rangers all entered play Friday carrying just a dozen position players on their 26-man roster. Subtracting 14-man pitching staffs plus their regulars and their DH, that leaves the managers of those teams with just three every-day substitutes.

Thats the kind of roster constriction big league managers havent faced since the days when clubs traveled by rail, only washed woolen uniforms twice a week, and drew crowds of a few thousand to wooden stadiums.

Just one week into the season, teams are already beginning to see the kinds of problems those roster limitations can create.

Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo faced that circumstance for the first but likely not the last time Thursday in the teams home opener in Dunedin. Facing the Los Angeles Angels, Montoyo began the game with only outfielder Jonathan Davis, backup catcher Alejandro Kirk and DH Rowdy Tellez available to him.

Virtually from the outset of what developed into a tight 5-5 battle, the limited options appeared to influence Montoyos decisions. After Joe Panik led off the seventh inning with a double, Montoyo held off pinch hitting for his ninth hitter catcher Danny Jansen who is hitting .143 not wanting to burn his limited options too quickly. Jansen grounded out, Panik did not advance and the Jays did not push across the lead run.

Two innings later, the game still tied, Montoyo made his move. With none on and two out, he sent Tellez up to pinch hit for Jansen in the hope of averting extra innings. Then when Tellez walked, he burned Davis as a pinch runner. That move backfired when Angels pitcher Steve Cishek picked Davis off to send the game into extra innings.

After the Angels failed to score, Montoyo used his final option, pinch running Kirk for Davis at second base. But the Jays could not move Kirk, sending the game to an 11th inning with Montoyo out of substitutes.

The Angels scored twice in the 11th and won the game 7-5.

All five of the teams operating with just three every-day subs are applying essentially the same formula: One extra catcher, one utility infielder and a fourth outfielder. They are all carrying 14 pitchers, one more than the 13 being carried by most teams.

The spare infielder can almost always play multiple positions, and the spare outfielder sometimes packs a first basemans glove.

The Los Angeles Angels are also carrying 14 pitchers, but of course one of them is Shohei Ohtani, who theoretically could play in the outfield. That singularity gives Angels manager Joe Maddon four available bodies, typically catcher Kurt Suzuki, infielder Jose Rojas, outfielder Juan Lagares, and either Ohtani or Albert Pujols, whichever isnt in that days lineup.

One has to go back nearly 90 years to find a successful team that carried that few bench regulars. During his teams 1929 World Championship run, Athletics manager (and team owner) Connie Mack often traveled with as few as 18 players, 11 regulars and seven pitchers.

That year only nine non-pitchers catcher Mickey Cochrane, first baseman Jimmie Foxx, second baseman Max Bishop, shortstop Joe Boley, third baseman Sammy Hale, outfielders Al Simmons, Bing Miller, and Mule Haas, and utility man Jimmy Dykes got as many as 90 plate appearances during the 154-game regular season. In that years World Series which Macks team won in five games he used just 11 regulars and six pitchers.

But to find a large group of teams as routinely personnel-strapped as those five AL teams are at present, it is necessary to go back to the first decade of the 20th Century. In 1902, only 186 non-pitchers on the 16 existing teams thats an average of about 11.6 per team got as many as 100 plate appearances.

While MLB plate appearances is an imperfect method of estimating normal roster size, its the best we have and it suggests that several current managers are dealing with the kinds of limited in-game personnel options that havent confounded their peers in more than a century.

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MLB roster moves: The vanishing bench player - Call to the Pen

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