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Other than talent, what factors influence MLB opening-day roster decisions?

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Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals have a few decisions to make when it comes to the opening day roster. Who will be the fifth starter? Which players will make up the St. Louis bench? Which relievers will make up the bullpen? I'd like to tell you that the most skilled player will fill each positions, but that's not necessarily true. There are other considerations, most of which due to the rules governing MLB rosters.

When I put together the spring-training roster matrix, I use a handful of categories:

  • Players who are likely to make the 25-man roster due to contract status, skill, or both
  • Players who are involved in a springtime competition for a spot on the 25-man roster
  • Players who are on the 40-man roster but unlikely to break camp on the 25-man MLB roster
  • Non-roster invitees, who are not on the 40-man
  • Players who have been optioned or reassigned to minor-league camp
Today, I thought it might be insightful to go over some of the contours of the various roster statuses and how that might impact who makes the opening-day MLB 25-man roster and who doesn't.

Some players are placed on the 40-man when they are ready to join the majors or the MLB team has an immediate need, regardless of how long they have been an organization. Neither Rule 5 draft eligibility nor the limited number of options a player has once he is on the 40-man are driving factors in such moves for higher-end prospects. The Cardinals have promoted quite a few players under such circumstances, including Matt Adams, Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Adams, Carlos Martinez, Shelby Miller, and Kolten Wong.

In other cases, St. Louis places other players on the 40-man roster in order to protect them from the Rule 5 draft, which occurs at the winter meetings that follow every World Series. Who is eligible for the Rule 5 draft?
  • Players who signed their first professional contract at age 19 or older and have played professional baseball (i.e., within an MLB organization) for four or more years
  • Players who signed their first professional contract at age 18 and have played pro ball for five or more years
Think Xavier Scruggs and Tommy Pham late last year—both would've been Rule 5 eligible after the season and necessitated adding to the 40-man to protect them, so the Cards did so late in the season and promoted them to the majors.

Once a player is on the 40-man roster, a club can move him between MLB and the minors as they wish. However, a club only has three option years for a player on the 40-man roster. A club can move a player up and down between the majors and minor as many times as need be during a given season, and it counts for just one option. It's when they move a player to the minors for more than 20 days that they use up an option year.

The 40-man roster vs. non-roster invitee distinction also informs the parlance of moving players from major- to minor-league camp during spring training. The Cardinals "option" players on the 40-man such as Greg Garcia and Tyler Lyons, burning one of their option years. On the other hand, St. Louis merely "reassigns" non-roster invitees such as Breyvic Valera or Carson Kelly.

The Cardinals moved Pete Kozma between the minors and majors in three seasons: 2011, 2012, and 2014. Thus, Kozma is out of options. The Cardinals can't send him down to Triple-A in 2015 without first placing him on waivers. This allows every other MLB club to make a claim on him. The Cardinals don't want to essentially give Kozma away for free via waivers, so they have two options: (1) Trade the infielder to another team instead of seeing if he'll slip through waivers so they can reassign him to Memphis; or (2) Put him on the MLB bench.

Non-roster invitees to major-league camp are not on the 40-man roster. They would have to be placed on the 40-man roster in order to make the opening-day 25-man roster. If the Cardinals were to add a player to the 40-man roster in order to place him on the 25-man roster, they would burn an option year if they subsequently decided to relegate him to Triple-A.

Clubs tend to prefer a bit of wiggle room when it comes to the 40-man roster. Having 40 guys on it when opening day is less than ideal because it's almost certain that a player or two or four will need to be added to it during the season to respond to injuries. A player on the 15-day disabled list remains on the 40-man. However, a player on the 60-day DL comes off it, which allows a bit of flexibility. Nonetheless, it's better to have an open spot or two on the 40-man in the event that injury strikes and lands more than one MLBer on the DL.

An example from last season is instructive. Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha both hit the 15-day DL on June 23 with shoulder injuries. Joe Kelly was already on the 15-day DL. The Cardinals needed a starter, so they purchased the contract of Marco Gonzales from the minor leagues. In order to make room for Gonzales on the 40-man, the Cards moved Kelly to the 60-day DL. Had they not been able to move Kelly, the Cards would have had to designate a player for assignment and leave him open to a waiver claim.

Thus, the Cardinals don't want to have players taking up a spot on the 40-man roster before they absolutely have to due to Rule 5 draft eligibility considerations, they need to because of injury or ineffectiveness on the part of a major-leaguer, or they want to because the player has developed to the point that he has nothing left to prove in the minors. In addition to flexibility in the current season, this prevents them from unnecessarily burning one of a player's three option years by placing him on the 40-man so he can take up a spot on the bench even though he isn't ready for the majors and could still use regular playing time in the minors.

This is why Stephen Piscotty and Jacob Wilson, however well they are hitting in spring training exhibitions, are long shots to make the opening-day St. Louis bench. Both Piscotty and Wilson would need to be added to the 40-man to make the opening-day bench and are good bets to require a future optioning to the minors in order to get more work via regular playing time. Placing either on the bench makes the Cardinals roster less flexible in 2015 and likely burns an option year this season unnecessarily. The Cardinals don't want or need to place either on the 40-man in April—they'd rather have them playing daily in Memphis—so why limit their roster flexibility now? Perhaps need or desire will result in such a move later in the summer, but there's no urgency to do so on opening day.

By contrast, Ty Kelly, Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, and Dean Anna are already taking up a spot on the 40-man roster. Including any of them on the opening-day bench doesn't make the Cardinals roster any less flexible than it is right now. Further, to give Piscotty or Wilson a bench spot over any one of them would require burning an option before opening day. On the other hand, if the Cardinals place any of them on the opening-day bench and he sticks all season long, no option year will be used up. This is why Kelly, Grichuk, Pham, and Anna are ahead of Piscotty and Wilson in the competition for the St. Louis bench.

These are some of the factors other than baseball ability that teams consider when making opening-day 25-man roster decisions.

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