Baseball’s postseason rosters will lock into place at the stroke of midnight tonight, when the roster expansion period begins. Only the players on each team’s 25-man roster at that time will be eligible to play in the postseason. That rule was devised to prevent playoff-bound teams from loading up on rentals during the final two weeks of the season (as the rest of the league is eliminated from contention), as well as calling up their top prospects just for the postseason. However, there is a way to circumvent that rule and essentially add a 26th, 27th, and occasionally a 28th man to the playoff roster pool, and it involves the disabled list.
Simply put, a team can substitute another player from the 40-man roster for any player on the team’s major-league 60-day disabled list after August 31. The catch, and it is a minor one, is that only pitchers can replace pitchers and only positional players can replace positional players. This exception came to prominence in 2002, when the Angels used their exception from Steve Green on Francisco Rodriguez, but it has been used throughout the last few seasons, by the Rays in particular.
The beautiful aspect of the loophole is how much flexibility it provides a team like the Rays. Take their 2008 run, when they had David Price sitting in the minors. Without this rule, they would have had to promote him to the majors before September 1, thus giving him what would have worked out to be an additional two weeks of service time. Using the rule, they instead placed the injured Jae Kuk Ryu (who spent most of the season with Triple-A Durham) on the major-league team’s 60-day disabled list on August 31. From there, they were able to replace him with Price, who wound up recording the final outs in the American League Championship Series.
As of this morning, here are the players on the 60-day disabled list for the likely playoff squads who could become the next Green or Ryu (as is par for the course, these things could change, as someone like Buchholz could be removed between now and September while others could be added):
Philadelphia (one pitcher): Joe Blanton
Brian Cashman and the Yankees are in the driver’s seat with six 60-day disabled list players, including four pitchers. Manuel Banuelos and Jesus Montero are the prospects most often rumored to be in line to join the Yankees’ postseason roster, but neither is on the 40-man roster yet—a problem that would have to rectified in order for either to join the Yankees in the postseason. The Yankee aren’t the only team with top prospect questions to answer between now and the deadline, as Arizona has to ponder whether they should use top pick Trevor Bauer. Meanwhile, Atlanta and Texas have ensured postseason eligibility for a few of their top prospects by preemptively promoting Arodys Vizcaino and Leonys Martin in recent weeks.
The loophole isn’t always exercised with a top prospect in mind, or at least not a top prospect from the present. Last August, the Rays again used the disabled list trick, this time with Gabe Kapler and Jose Lobaton, in order to grant Desmond Jennings and Rocco Baldelli postseason eligibility. The moves themselves didn’t matter much, as Cliff Lee tore through the Rays twice during the Division Series, but the subject of Baldelli brings up the other big postseason roster rule to keep in mind this October, as it explains how players injured during the tournament are treated.
Baldelli started game one for the Rays but subsequently suffered an injury, possibly due to his well-documented mitochondrial disorder. The Rays then petitioned the commissioner’s office for an injury replacement, and they were granted their wish during the 20-something-hour gap between the final out of game one and the first pitch of game two. Texas eliminated Tampa Bay in five games; however, if the Rays had advanced, then the only repercussions against Baldelli or the team for replacing him during the series would have been his ineligibility for the next round of the postseason. Again, the penalty is only for the next round and not the entire remainder of the playoffs. Baldelli would have been eligible had the Rays advanced to the World Series.
There is no such thing as a free lunch, nor is there a free playoff exemption, as there are transaction costs in play, including adding players to the 40-man roster and promoting players to the major leagues—both of which come with a prorated raise. Still, for the teams in the hunt, having that extra player or two is worth the effort, since you never know if that player will be the one who makes all the difference.