PORT CHARLOTTE — Just the fact that Major League Baseball and the players union could agree, given their cantankerous relationship and antagonistic attitudes, made Thursday’s joint announcement of a series of on- and off-field rule changes in the midst of the current labor agreement a significant development.
“A good first step,” Rays player rep Matt Duffy said.
The significance of what they actually did will be felt over the next two years. Several of the changes have the potential to curtail advantages the Rays seem, at least from the outside, to have exploited in the past.
One, going into effect for 2020, would limit their matchup maneuvering by requiring pitchers to face a minimum of three batters (or to finish an inning).
Another reduces their flexibility in shuttling fresh arms to the bullpen by extending the time pitchers optioned to the minors (or placed on the injured list) have to stay from a minimum of 10 days to 15, although it could still be tweaked.
Neither, at least upon initial review, seemed of great worry to the Rays. (Or they’re just confident they’ll figure out by then how to beat this system, too.)
“No concerns at all whatsoever,” manager Kevin Cash.
Plus, he added with a wry smile, “We have a lot of pitchers.”
Overall the biggest change, also for 2020, is roster size. Rosters will expand by one, to 26, for the first five months but be capped at 28 in September, rather than up to 40. While that could curtail development-oriented teams such as the Rays from getting experience for prospects as September callups, it does end the downright ridiculousness of playing the most meaningful games under almost different rules, with a seemingly endless string of matchup changes and substitutions.
“The way bullpens are being used now, and we are on the cutting edge of that … September games are a little outrageous at times, especially when you get two teams that are really competing for a postseason spot,” Duffy said. “They want to give themselves the best chance to win a game, and if that means bringing in five or six relievers in one inning, they’ve got them down there, why not use them?”
Cash was quick — like before-the-full-question-was-asked quick — to say the Rays would use the extra roster spot on a pitcher.
But the setup will include a limit, to be determined by a joint committee, and rumored to be 13, on the number of pitchers carried. Also, it limits situations in which position players can be used to pitch and requires specific designation of two-way players, which could be a factor when/if prospects Brendan McKay and/or Tanner Dodson make it.
Some of the changes will go into effect this season. Most significant is the elimination of the August trade period, making the July 31 trade deadline — crazy thing here — actually the deadline.
Though the Rays have made helpful August additions at minimal cost — such as Chad Bradford in 2008 and David DeJesus in 2013, and dumped Scott Kazmir’s salary in 2009 in a deal still playing dividends (catcher Michael Perez, but it’s complicated to explain) — GM Erik Neander said this rule won’t change much: “I don’t think we’re ever in a position where we’re strategizing in a way to rely on August.”
The union wanted the change, hoping it spurs teams to commit earlier in the season, and even going into a season, to add key pieces to make a run.
Others for 2019 are small, such as reducing mound visits in a game from six to five, or geared to create more hype for the All-Star Game with an “Election Day” for final fan selection of the starters and an increase in prize money, including a bump to $1 million for the home run derby champ to entice the big-name boppers to join.
Also significant is what’s not included: MLB agreed to drop the push for a pitch clock, and there is no mention anywhere of banning defensive shifts.
As often as the Rays seemed to bring in a fresh arm to bolster their reliever/opener corps last season, they say the requirement that optioned pitchers have to stay in the minors 15 days won’t have much effect.
Neander said that “contrary to popular belief,” they don’t set their bullpen up specifically to run a shuttle from Triple A, but they typically include a couple of relievers with options so they have the flexibility to get looks at young arms and benefit from whoever is doing the best. So while the pitcher sent down would now be required to stay the extra five days, Neander said it shouldn’t “have a drastic effect on how we operate.”
Though the Rays have also benefited for years from using a matchups-based approach to their bullpen, they have a similar view of the three-batter minimum.
The Rays ranked 11th last year in using pitchers 80 times for fewer than three batters, and they put an emphasis on having relievers who can handle righties and lefties, and work through an inning or more.
“Specialization has its moments in the game where it’s particularly important, but we try to do everything we can to develop our arms to be capable of carrying a greater workload,” Neander said.
Union chief Tony Clark said the players didn’t want the minimum, which supposedly will aide pace of play with fewer changes. Some managers, such former Ray Joe Maddon with the Cubs, said Thursday that they don’t like it either.
Nor does veteran Rays starter Charlie Morton: “Ideally you use your roster to win games and you bring in the appropriate pitcher for the appropriate circumstance. So it will handcuff managers.”
And in that way, it could actually work to the Rays’ advantage. Because the Rays also play matchups offensively, Cash could wait for an opponent to bring in a reliever, then take away the left-right advantage by bringing up several of his pinch-hitters.
With each rule change, there are unintended consequences that will show up. And potential benefits to be discovered. Book it that the Rays are already working on them.
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.