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Jonah Keri Headshot

It Should Get Better, But It Won't

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Rob Neyer writes this morning about a relatively obscure player named Dallas McPherson, and the roster challenges that conspire to keep McPherson out of a major league job.

With the A's acquiring Kevin Kouzmanoff to play third base yesterday, Oakland likely no longer has room to carry McPherson, a Ken Phelps All-Star (woo, Jeff Bower links!) with a .280/.360/.635 line at Triple-A who's never gotten a clean shot at an everyday job in the majors. Much of that failure to land a job has to do with the holes in McPherson's game, namely his shaky defense and inability to stay healthy, to say nothing of some teams' biases against high-strikeout hitters and their excessive reliance on small sample sizes to make roster decisions.

But the bigger reason, as Rob notes, is the current size of big league rosters, 25.

Thanks to the dozen-man pitching staffs that we all love so much, teams resort to platoons only as a last resort. You've got your 12 pitchers, your nine guys in the lineup, and your extra catcher, and now you've got room for only three more players. You also need a utility infielder and a fourth outfielder ... and now you're down to one roster spot.

Rob, like me, wishes teams deployed more platoons. It isn't just nerds like us who obsess over Rob Neyer Baseball (Rob is clearly a superior nerd, having an actual game -- a really good one too -- named after him) that want to see platoons make a comeback. Great managerial tacticians like Earl Weaver regularly deployed platoons, be they straight righty-lefty platoons like Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein or offense-defense time-splits like the kind Weaver executed with uberfielder Mark Belanger and whatever other shortstop Weaver had on the roster who could hit better than .250. (If you've never read the classic book Weaver On Strategy...what's wrong with you? Go buy it now). Even today, you've got a manager like Bobby Cox, who once deployed platoons all over the diamond (who can forget the beauty combo of Garth Iorg and Rance Mulliniks?) and now rarely get such chances due to the glut of pitchers with today's LaRussa-fied rosters.

Still, there's hope. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires December 11, 2011. MLB and the players union are enjoying one of their most peaceful periods in decades, making a 2012 labor stoppage look unlikely at this point. But there were will be negotiations, and concessions, as there always are. Expect a slight tweak to revenue sharing here (but no real effort to account for market size, i.e. by opening the possibility of a third or even fourth team in New York), a minor adjustment to PED policy there (with no corresponding move to acknowledge the hypocrisy and inconsistency of current measures against certain players and not others).

In an effort to throw the union a bone during these talks, it's not hard to imagine MLB offering a 26th roster spot for the 2012 season. The popularity of that potential offer among union members could be up for debate, since most current major leaguers aren't at immediate risk of falling out of the majors, and even those who are at risk might not want to admit it. Still, some union support for another $450,000 salary, combined with a broader push from GMs, managers and others in the game, could realistically make this a reality two seasons from now. Probably too late for our friend Mr. McPherson. But soon enough to offer hope to the current generation of minor league Rob Deer and Mark Belanger clones seeking a shot at a steady big league job, right?

Well...maybe. The question is, what would major league managers do with a 26th roster spot? To make a ridiculously off-topic, yet somehow on-topic comparison, the book Half The Sky studies the harsh plight of women and girls in a variety of third-world countries. Rather than fixate on hollow hopes and promises for gender equality, the book's authors look at what happens when female household leaders take charge of their family's finances. Outcomes improve dramatically, with more money devoted to pursuits such as education. Conversely, funneling foreign aid to governments results in increased corruption and little help for those in need. Even getting funds into the hands of male household leaders often creates deleterious effects, with the money going to alcohol and other pursuits that do little to help the rest of the family.

Handing a 26th roster spot to today's managers would likely yield similarly disappointing results. The runaway specialization of bullpens, driven by baseball's obsession with the closer rule as much as true righty-lefty match-up considerations, has given us the 12-man (and occasionally 13-man) pitching staffs that are tying managers' hands in late-game situations, exacerbating situations when position players suffer day-to-day injuries, and stiffing very capable, but somewhat flawed players out of major league jobs. Give a manager another spot to work with, and he'll likely add that eighth or ninth reliever, as hard to resist and bad for their survival as that next bottle of booze.

If we want a return to greater roster flexibility, better player usage and more optimal late-inning match-ups, we'll need GMs with the will to push for 11-man pitching staff limits. We'll need managers with the confidence and self-confidence to eschew the strict closer usage that puts the wrong pitchers in the wrong spots and often limits the best arms to low-leverage situations. We'll need a new generation of capable, multi-inning relievers, able to fill the true firemen roles that Joe Page, Goose Gossage, and even Pedro Martinez, once occupied.

Otherwise, we might as well clone Tony Fossas 30 times and be done with it.

Cross-posted at JonahKeri.com

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