One of the more esoteric aspects of the roster management of a baseball team is that of the 40-man roster. The 40-man is less widely understood than the 25-man active roster that teams trot out every day, yet the pressures the 40-man exerts regularly influence MLB transactions.
40-man roster pressure might have played a role in the Yankees’ moves at last year’s trade deadline, namely when they traded Zack Littell and Dietrich Enns for Jaime Garcia. At this year’s deadline, the story is no different. The Yankees won’t be forced into any move, but a constantly looming 40-man roster crunch was likely some sort of factor in the Zach Britton trade.
The Yankees’ main concern when it comes to the 40-man right now is the Rule 5 Draft, which occurs every winter. Any player on the 40-man roster is protected from being selected by another team in the Rule 5 Draft. In theory, this keeps teams with lots of young talent from stockpiling it in the minors, when those young players could be starting for other teams.
In practice, the Rule 5 Draft does penalize teams like the Yankees a little. The Yankees’ farm system has been overflowing with depth in recent years, and it has become impossible for them to use their 40-man to protect every potential major-leaguer in the upper minors.
For a player to be eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 Draft, he must have either been 18 years old or younger when he signed and have played five seasons professionally, or 19 years old or older and have played four seasons professionally. Not coincidentally, Josh Rogers, Dillon Tate, and Cody Carroll, the three pitching prospects the Yankees yielded for Britton, all were 19 or older when they signed and were in the midst of their fourth professional season.
None of Rogers, Tate, and Carroll were on the Yankees’ 40-man roster, and each would have had to have been added if the Yankees wanted to protect them. Given each of those prospects has progressed into the upper minors, is in his early-to-mid 20’s, and has solid statistics this year, it would have been no surprise if any of them were selected by an enterprising, rebuilding team that was willing to gamble they were almost ready to handle the majors.
In a world in which 40-man roster crunches and Rule 5 Drafts don’t exist, the Yankees would have more liberty to cash in on certain prospects whenever they felt the time was right. In the world we inhabit, the Yankees must accelerate their decision making at times; either move non-40-man prospects for whatever rentals and current assets that can be had, or risk losing useful prospects for nothing.
The Yankees have done an admirable job ducking 40-man crunches in recent years. Their trades at last year’s deadline helped ease the pressure slightly. The biggest prospect they’ve actually completely lost due to the Rule 5 might be Luis Torrens, a catcher the Padres stashed on their MLB bench all last season despite his .446 OPS on the year.
Plenty of 40-man spots will open up when the season completes, as a number of upcoming free agents, such as Britton, Brett Gardner, or CC Sabathia could decide to walk. There’s no guarantees that relievers like A.J. Cole or Chasen Shreve will hold onto a spot entering next year. The Yankees just opened up a couple more spots in flipping Brandon Drury and Billy McKinney for J.A. Happ.
Yet there’s always a handful of prospects that will eat up those openings every winter, and this offseason, that list could include the likes of Justus Sheffield, Chance Adams, Erik Swanson, and more. It would not have been easy to continue to squeeze in guys like Rogers and Carroll. Trading them erases that concern.
In all likelihood, the Yankees won’t be pressured into a bad overpay because of the 40-man. GM Brian Cashman is good at his job, and won’t give up tons of excess value just because the Rule 5 Draft looms. Still, potential roster crunches are probably at least somewhat at play every time the Yankees flip closer-to-the-majors prospects in deadline deals. While on-field baseball reasons drove the Britton and Happ deals, the 40-man probably played a small role too.