They headed to the field by ones and twos, all 11 of them, most in shorts and all with fielder’s gloves. All those Twins out early to stretch and toss in the Tuesday afternoon sun were pitchers, and that wasn’t all of them. Fifteen headed to the bullpen for that night’s game with the Washington Nationals, out of 19 pitchers on staff, not including the drug-suspended Michael Pineda.
That’s baseball in September, that odd time when the rules change and major league rosters expand from 25 players as many as 40. Like many of their Major League Baseball counterparts, the Twins stuffed their clubhouse with call-ups. Target Field’s bullpens and dugouts are roomier than, say, Fenway Park’s, but things get crowded this time of year.
“You look around and all the spaces and all the chairs are full, and you’re like, ‘Wow,’” said reliever Tyler Duffey. “It’s great that all the young guys are getting that experience. I was one of those guys once.”
The AL Central-leading Twins dressed 37 players altogether that night, though not all were healthy enough to play. The Twins are so banged up they needed position-player call-ups to fill out the lineup, a treacherous thing for a team heading to Cleveland this weekend trying to hold on to their division lead. It’s also a luxury the Twins won’t have next year, when MLB limits September rosters to 28.
Or will they? MLB still hasn’t announced how the roster expansion and other proposed changes for 2020 are supposed to work. Managers Rocco Baldelli of the Twins and Terry Francona of Cleveland believe teams will be allowed to carry 32 players and activate 28 for each game, something MLB has yet to confirm. (An MLB spokesman told MinnPost he was not aware of that plan.) And there may be a limit on how many pitchers teams may activate for a game.
“We haven’t gotten clarification,” Francona said last weekend at Target Field. “It’s very vague. I’m sure they’re still working things.”
Managers have griped about September roster expansion for at least 20 years. I remember then-Mets manager Bobby Valentine carrying on about it before a 1999 game at Shea Stadium, when I covered the Mets for the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger. It stuck with me because he raised a valid question I never heard before: Why did baseball play by one set of rules for five months, then adopt different rules at the most important time of the season?
Then there’s the inequity of one club, perhaps fighting for postseason, facing another club with eight to ten more players in the dugout for late-inning relief, pinch-running, defense, etc. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes it doesn’t. Last Saturday night Baldelli used seven relievers in a 6-2, 11-inning loss to Cleveland, among them September callup Brusdar Graterol, the club’s hardest-throwing prospect. Graterol faced four batters, didn’t retire any and was charged with three of the four deciding runs.
Recently more and more managers raised complaints similar to Valentine’s, prompting MLB to study it.
“(Twenty-eight) is less than what we’re doing now, and it’s uniform, which I think is really good,” Francona said. “I think they should have done it a long time ago. I’ve never understood it.”
And yet, there are times when all those extra bodies come in handy. Take the Twins. With outfielders Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Jake Cave injured, Baldelli started September call-up LaMonte Wade Jr. in center on Tuesday, while another outfield call-up, Ian Miller, came on for defense. Ryan LaMarre, acquired last week from Atlanta in a minor-league deal and promoted immediately, started Thursday in center. Baldelli is so shorthanded he has .347-hitting rookie infielder Luis Arraez playing left field while regular left-fielder Eddie Rosario shifts around to right. Thursday night, Ehrie Adrianza strained his right oblique, adding to the list of aching Twins.
“We have been operating somewhat like this, though not quite like this, for most of the year,” Baldelli said. “We’ve had guys play all over the diamond. Side effect of that is, you’re prepared when things get thrown your way like what’s going on now with some of the injuries we’re dealing with.”
Francona, meanwhile, hopes another change slated for 2020 never happens: A rule requiring relievers to face at least three batters. “They may put that in the rules, but I’ll go kicking and screaming,” Francona said. “It’s a hard one for me to wrap my arms around at all. It just makes no sense to me. I don’t know if it will speed the game up five minutes, but it’s going to make the game less than it should be.”
Intended to reduce batter-by-batter pitching changes that grind games to a halt, Francona fears an unintended consequence: Teams with higher payrolls snapping up every setup reliever who routinely pitches one or more innings. Francona likes the old Tony La Russa approach, piecing things together with lefty and righty specialists, relying on matchups, ingenuity and baseball sense.
“It bothers me so much when they tell you how to compete,” Francona said. “We’re not going to outspend some of these teams, so you try to be better than them, whether how we run our bullpen, or how we do this or how we do that.
“I understand what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to cut out some of the fat. Just don’t let it get in the way of when you’re telling somebody how they can or can’t compete, or strategize. That’s what was so bad about the steroid era. It kind of skewed things that had been in place forever. I don’t think you want to start doing that with the game either, with the rules.”