This is the time of year in which we’re supposed to be immersed in baseball transactions, or at least wildly speculative rumors of such transactions. Instead, the impending expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement has dominated the headlines. With said expiration getting closer and closer — Thursday, to be exact — both sides are jostling for position in the media. Leaks are coming out all over the place, and they seem to point to some distance between the players and the owners. The good news is that the former may have succeeded in their attempt to squash the rumored international draft, the bad news is these negotiations may last long enough to cause teams to skip the Winter Meetings. If this is the case, it could be a quiet couple of weeks around the league.
Whatever ends up happening in the near-term, though, baseball will return. More likely than not, it will return without any real action being missed. A new agreement will probably be reached before the new year, and things will progress normally (if a bit more frantically than usual) from there. There will be some changes from the new CBA, however, and one of them looks to be a near-certainty. Starting in 2017, there’s a good chance teams will have 26 players on their active roster, with September rosters being reduced by at least ten.
It’s that first part that’s so interesting, though. For almost all of baseball’s history, teams have had 25 players on their rosters. How those spots are used have shifted slightly over the years, but the basic structure has been the same for a while now. Teams carry five starting pitchers, seven or eight relievers, the eight or nine men of the starting lineup (depending on how/if they handle the DH) and then fill the rest with bench players. Adding one more roster spot doesn’t seem like a massive change, but it can alter strategies quite a bit. With that in mind, let’s try to figure out how the Red Sox could theoretically use this possible extra spot.
The obvious way to utilize a 26th man, and the way most teams most likely would, is by carrying an extra reliever. We’re in an era of baseball that features an almost absurd level of specialization in major-league bullpens. That, combined with a greater focus on a starter’s workload and a reluctance to throw three times through the order, has led to large bullpens and tons of pitching changes. While such a strategy is certainly not aesthetically pleasing (even a reliever lover like me can admit this trend is mind-numbing), it’s not one I see going away any time soon. As such, the place to start with this question is on the outer edges of the team’s bullpen.
The biggest beneficiary of such a change in the CBA would be either Heath Hembree or Matt Barnes. As the roster stands right now, both of these guys would be part of the bullpen. Of course, the Red Sox are expected to add at least one more reliever in free agency or via trade, and such a move would push either Hembree or Barnes out of the picture. Based on usage towards the end of last season, the latter is the more trusted arm by John Farrell. On the other hand, the former is out of options and would have to go through waivers, where he’d likely be claimed. If the team were granted an extra roster spot, both pitchers could be kept.
Of course, injuries could happen in the spring, making that decision meaningless. In such a world, a couple other arms could potentially be given an Opening Day spot that they otherwise wouldn’t have if rosters remain at 25. The first is Robby Scott, who was impressive in a small sample size at the end of 2016. With Robbie Ross and Fernando Abad likely shoo-ins for the Opening Day roster, they don’t necessarily need another lefty. However, Ross isn’t exactly a LOOGY and Abad is...well, you know, so Scott could be a nice luxury as a potential left-handed weapon. There is also Kyle Martin or Luis Ysla, both of whom were protected from the Rule 5 draft and could be given an early chance if they impressed in spring training.
It’s also possible that the team could surprise us and decide to keep an extra bench bat rather than another reliever. As is typically the case when we’re talking about fringe (and in this case hypothetical) roster spots, the most obvious answer is boring. Here, that’s Marco Hernandez. Now, the infielder showed he’s a perfectly capable utility infielder who has sold bat-to-ball skills and the ability to play all three infield spots, albeit not all at the same level. He’d likely be the hitter pushed of the roster if/when the team signs their David Ortiz replacement, but perhaps a 26th roster spot could save his job, even if it’s a bit redundant with Brock Holt.
If they wanted to be exciting, though, there’s another route the Red Sox could take to add an extra bat to their bench. They could go with Yoan Moncada, who struggled in his major-league debut this past year. This admittedly wouldn’t make a ton of sense, as there are clearly holes in his swing that need to be addressed in the minors. However, a hot spring combined with the team’s messy third base situation could make the idea tempting.
The other option would be Blake Swihart, who had an underratedly weird 2016 in which he was pushed off his position after a bad week then lost time to injury. Looking forward to 2017, the team reportedly wants to put him back behind the plate, but he’ll probably start the year behind Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez on the depth chart. In an ideal world, he could work on his craft on a consistent basis in Pawtucket. On the other hand, catcher has the potential to be a black hole in this lineup, and Swihart could serve as a third catcher with offensive punch as well as a left-handed bench option in the outfield. It’s unlikely, but not impossible.
The 26th roster spot isn’t official, and tense negotiations could change things, but right now it seems likely. If it does come to fruition, teams have a major adjustment to make. Most teams will probably use the extra player in the bullpen, and for the Red Sox that probably means being able to keep both Hembree and Barnes. If they are so inclined, though, there are some more exciting options at their disposal.