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Injuries and the offseason 40-man roster

Major League teams are regularly asked to carry injured players on the 40-man roster all winter, with no hope of being healthy until late in the season.

New York Yankees v Chicago White Sox Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

In many ways, Major League Baseball revolves around not the 26-man active roster, but the 40-man roster. Since players on the active roster must be on the 40-man (COVID-19 replacements notwithstanding), being added to this roster is almost always the first step a minor leaguer takes when making the jump to the Show. Often over the course of the season, teams are forced to manipulate the 40-man by sending injured players to the 60-day IL (sometimes keeping them out longer than necessary, as was the case with Luis Severino this past year) or designating players for assignment that the team hopes to slip through waivers or feels that they can afford to lose; these types of moves, in fact, typically represent the vast majority of what is found on the waiver wire, with perhaps the noted exception of the trade deadline.

During the offseason, the 40-man roster is perhaps even more important. Prior to the winter meetings, teams are forced to decide which minor leaguers they wish to add to the roster in order to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft, in essence starting their clock towards making their MLB debut. And obviously, any player signed in free agency or acquired via trade or the waiver wire must be added to the 40-man immediately.

Unlike during the regular season, teams have very few tools at their disposal to free up roster spots in the winter. This is, of course, by design. Because there are no games being played, there’s no reason to have anybody sit on the 60-day injured list, especially since most players who were injured at the end of the regular season or underwent surgery soon after it have more than enough time to heal and rehab before spring training begins in mid-February. By forcing teams to empty their IL at the end of the season, Major League Baseball prevents teams from in essence stealing roster spots for the winter.

Overall, the system works. However, as I was looking through the Yankees 40-man roster and wondering which players might be moved to clear up space for Aaron Judge and whatever other targets the Yankees are looking at on the free agent and trade markets, one name continued to jump out at me: Luis Gil.

Gil has had an interesting journey with the Yankees. He made his MLB debut on August 3rd, 2021, the first of three rookie pitchers making their debuts at a time when the Yankee pitching staff was decimated by injuries and illness. He would make three starts over the month of August, allowing just nine hits and striking out 18 in 15.2 scoreless innings. While his three September starts weren’t exactly memorable — he surrendered 11 runs in 13.2 innings — he showed enough to make fans and the front office confident that he would be an important piece of the team going forward.

Gil did not make the Yankees roster out of spring training this past year, but it was clear from the jump that he was the team’s first option when a spot starter was needed. His start on May 12th, in fact, was the only time in the first 43 games that a pitcher not in the Opening Day rotation got the start. A week after that outing, however, disaster struck. He was removed from his start on May 18th with arm trouble, and just four days later, it was announced that he required Tommy John surgery.

Due to the 12-15 month nature of the recovery time, there’s a good chance that we won’t see Gil at the major league level until August or September 2023, if he pitches in 2023 at all. There’s a non-zero chance that he won’t return to a major league mound until 2024. He will certainly be added to the 60-man IL at the first opportunity. So why must the Yankees carry him on the 40-man all winter, keeping that spot from a player who might actually have a shot at forcing their way onto the roster in spring training?

This isn’t a one-time issue, either. The Dodgers have to carry Walker Buehler despite the fact that he had surgery in August and likely won’t be back at all next year. Last winter, the Yankees were forced to carry Zack Britton, despite the fact that he was not expected to return until late September. A few years before that, it was Jordan Montgomery.

With the rising prevalence of long-term arm injuries that force pitchers to miss a year or more, I think it’s past time that Major League Baseball create an offseason roster exemption for injured players whose rehab timeline indicates that they will not be able to return to the diamond more at least half the season. Obviously, this exemption would require downsides in order to prevent teams from abusing it — for example, a team could leave a player on the 60-day IL during the winter, but he is unable to be activated until after the All-Star Break. So long as the downsides are properly balanced, it would allow a team to actually construct the roster with an eye towards Opening Day, rather than carrying dead weight all winter.