Baseball does something in its final month that no other major sports league does, allowing rosters to expand from the 25 active players carried the first five months of the season to as many as 40.
That’s the rule that made it possible for Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia to use 12 pitchers — yes, 11 relievers — in an 11-inning game Monday. As slowly as the game was played, he was well within the rules.
And it’s a rule that draws a lot of scorn from managers and players.
The main argument against it is that more than 80 percent of the season is played with 25 players, but the final sliver of the season — the most important sliver — is a player free-for-all that can decide playoff races.
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There is an immediate competitive advantage to be gained for the playoff contenders, like the Angels. The Texas Rangers, who are carrying 32 players, used the rule to their advantage Wednesday and will seek the right opportunities to do so this weekend in an all-important three-game series against the New York Yankees, who have a 31-man roster.
But there is another avenue clubs take with their September call-ups that can turn into a competitive advantage as soon as the next season.
Prospects can spend the final month of the season getting their first taste of the major leagues, especially on teams out of playoff contention. They learn how to do things at baseball’s highest level, and then have a head start as they enter spring training and compete for a job.
That’s the purpose of September baseball for those players, and it has served as the launching pad for many careers.
“September call-ups can be really useful,” said former Rangers star Michael Young, who made his major-league debut in September 2000. “By the time I got to spring training in 2001, I had a good idea that I was going to Triple A to start the season, but I felt like I was, at the very least, part of the fabric of the big-league team.
“I knew what to expect. I already knew the guys on the team. I knew the staff. I knew what a big-league game felt like. By the time I got to spring training, I was really ready to go out and compete. I knew if I killed Triple A for a bit, I’ll get to the big leagues and get my career going the way I envisioned it. And that’s pretty much what happened.”
Because of an apparent stalemate during negotiations for the new collective bargaining agreement last year, the September roster rule is with us now and will be for four more seasons before another round of CBA talks are required.
Of course, the primary group of baseball types who support the rule are the players and their union. The sooner a player can start the clock on his major league service time (once a player reaches the majors, his contract is under team control for six seasons) the better for him financially and the better for future generations of players.
Some have made major impacts. Others have used September to make impacts down the road. Young tops the September call-up list for the Rangers.
He was promoted in September 2000 and had two at-bats. He had been in big-league spring training, but that experience can’t compare with what it’s like to make a big-league road trip, to see the grind of the final month, to watch teams contend for the postseason and learn what it really takes to be a major leaguer.
He might not have envisioned what was to follow: seven All-Star selections, the 2005 American League batting crown, the 2008 Gold Glove at shortstop, two trips to the World Series and becoming the Rangers franchise leader in multiple offensive categories, including hits, doubles, triples and runs.
“When I got my call-up I knew exactly what to expect. There was nothing that was going to catch me by surprise,” Young said. “That’s part of the experience.”
Boston Red Sox left-hander David Price debuted in September 2008 and as a hard-throwing reliever helped the Tampa Bay Rays advance to the World Series. He went on to win the AL Cy Young Award in 2012 and is in the second year of a seven-year, $217 million contract.
In 2002, Francisco Rodriguez was better than Price was for the Rays as he helped the Angels win the World Series. K-Rod was only 20 when he worked in 11 of the Angels’ 17 postseason games, including Game 7 of the Fall Classic. In 2008, he set the single-season record for saves with 62.
There are also players who aren’t making their debuts and are just looking to make an impact.
Take Will Middlebrooks. The one-time Red Sox prospect has bounced around from team to team and spent time in the minor leagues, and this year was at Triple A Round Rock all season until the Texas Rangers purchased his contract Sept. 1.
On Wednesday, he helped the Rangers win the first game of their doubleheader with the Atlanta Braves with a two-run pinch-hit triple and delivered another pinch triple in the narrow Game 2 loss. He became the first player in MLB history to collect pinch-hit triples in each game of a doubleheader.
All a player in his position wants to do is contribute, and maybe showcase himself for a better opportunity next season. If the Rangers clinch a wild-card spot, Middlebrooks will have had a hand in getting them to the postseason for the third straight year.
“It means a lot,” Middlebrooks said. “I’ve been in a playoff race before, and I know how important it is to have guys come up and try to help out anyway possible. Pinch-hitting has always been tough for me, so it felt good. It felt really good.”
Martin Perez fit the role of a prospect getting the big-league experience. He worked three games early in 2012 before getting a September call-up with the Rangers in the middle of a division race. He didn’t pitch much, but he absorbed all that he could from fellow lefty Derek Holland.
Perez knew after his September that he would be in the majors at some point in 2013, and learned what he needed to do in the off-season to prepare and felt like he was ahead of the game the next spring.
“It helped me a lot,” said Perez, who will carry a six-start winning streak into Friday against the Yankees. “I had a lot of good teammates, and they showed me how to do things. I knew at that time that 2013 was going to be my year, and when I got here, I just started to tell myself that I’m part of this level. They were trying to teach me all the things I needed.”
Yohander Mendez is the lone top prospect the Rangers added this month. It’s his second consecutive season as a September call-up, and he again is likely to be used only sparingly. But the goal is the same for him as it was for Young 17 years ago — open his eyes and ears, zip his lips, and be a sponge.
“There’s going to be a time when Yo is going to pitch,” manager Jeff Banister said. “Pitchers can sit and watch and go through all the throwing programs, go through all the video work, go through all the advance work and just the amount of information this guys can gather ... for young guys like Mendez, to be around an environment like this goes a long way toward preparing every day.”
Maybe Mendez is called up this weekend to get a key Yankees left-handed hitter out, say Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury. He’ll cash in on gaining experience, and the Rangers will potentially cash in on their expanded September roster in the heat of a playoff race.
It’s been done before and will be done again, like it or not. A veteran who has been there might have already said something to Mendez, as Young did to call-ups during his career.
“I let them know there’s a high standard and high expectations,” Young said. “It’s nice for a lot of the young kids to be around that, so they understand what it’s like to have those big-time expectations.”