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How the Yankees are solving their September roster crunch

Since the Yankees can no longer call up copious minor leaguers in September, decisions loom for expansion.

Double-A baseball Staff photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

For most of my life — and indeed, most of baseball history — Major League Baseball rosters sat at 25 for most of the season before expanding to 40 on September 1st. While few teams actually utilized the entire roster, this practice afforded teams greater flexibility in the final month of the season. Contending teams would bring up depth pieces, such as a third catcher and a few additional relievers, as well as pinch-runners, pinch-hitters, and defensive specialists meant to aid in their quest for a postseason berth. Teams out of the hunt, meanwhile, would promote prospects on the cusp of a big league call-up, giving them a cup of coffee in The Show with an eye towards the future.

Concerns over competitive balance (teams were allowed to carry different sized rosters) and length of games (the army of relievers available in the bullpen greatly increased the number of pitching changes in a game) prompted Major League Baseball to change the rules after the 2019 season. Now, the active roster only expands from 26 to 28 on September 1st.

And therein lies the problem for the 2023 New York Yankees, who have some major questions as expanded rosters approach. With Everson Pereira and Oswald Peraza already in the big leagues, the general expectation seems to be that Austin Wells will be up next. Not only did Aaron Boone refer to him as somebody “on their radar” when Pereira and Peraza came up, he also mentioned the possibility of him getting some reps at first base a few days later. This certainly sounds like a player that the team is looking to find at-bats for, even if he’s behind Kyle Higashioka and Ben Rortvedt at his natural position of catcher.

Wells is not the only prospect pounding on the door, however. Although he has only been in Scranton a little more than a week, Jasson Domínguez has gotten off to such a hot start at Triple-A that he’s caught the attention of the Yankees coaching staff. Could a call-up in September be in the cards? While I would have called this unlikely yesterday morning, Brendan Kuty reported yesterday that the organization was considering exactly that, with even Hal Steinbrenner joining the conversation.

Prospects aren’t the only question marks the team is currently facing. When the day began yesterday, both Anthony Rizzo and Josh Donaldson were rehabbing from their respective injuries, as both players took batting practice against Luis Gil late last week. While neither player looked to be ready for September 1st, a return to the lineup within a couple of weeks did not seem out of the question.

Under the old rules, none of this would be a problem. Wells could be promoted on the first, The Martian could join him a couple of weeks later for a brief end-of-season cameo, and Rizzo and Donaldson could return from injury whenever they’re ready with no major negative effects on the rest of the roster. Now, however, the Yankees need to make choices. If the Yankees want to give Domínguez a look on, say, September 20th, where do they find the spot? When a rehabbing player is ready to go, who gets sent down? With only two extra roster spots — in truth, likely only one, considering one of those two will likely be used to add another arm like Ron Marinaccio or Randy Vásquez — the Yankees will have some difficult decisions to make.

Yesterday, we began to see how the front office is approaching those decisions — and that’s by ripping the Band-Aid off. Early in the afternoon, the Yankees announced Donaldson’s release, ending the ignoble pinstripe career of a player who we will forget was a Yankee while doing the Immaculate Grid in 2028. Then, right before their matchup against the Detroit Tigers kicked off, Erik Boland revealed that the organization had placed center fielder Harrison Bader on waivers. With both players eligible for free agency this winter, it seemed unlikely that either player factored into the team’s long-term plans.

At this point, with the exception of Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Luis Severino, there aren’t any other players of note eligible for free agency; both players are probably safe, simply because the team needs bodies to get through the season. Unless the team wants to risk losing Jake Bauers by designating him for assignment, this pair likely represents the extent of the team’s moves to mitigate their roster crunch. Still, in this case, that might be just enough.