The Waiver Claim Pt. 2—MLB Roster Rules

Jacob Resnick
6 min readNov 14, 2021

Welcome back to another installment of the Waiver Claim!

Last week, I laid out the plan for this five-week blogging project. This week, we’ll jump right into our topic: an overview of the roster rules that impact Major League Baseball.

It sounds like a silly question, but have you ever watched a baseball game and thought to yourself, why are these players on the field right now? Obviously, because they’re among the top whatever minuscule percentage of the humans on Earth who can play the game as well as they can. That’s not what I’m asking.

What I mean is, why are these players on the field? What were the moving parts behind the scenes that led to this specific collection of players being available to play today? That’s what I find most interesting about the game.

Roster Limits

There are two rosters that an MLB team must consider when making personnel decisions.

First, the active roster. It’s the 26 players who are eligible to appear in any given game. Not on the active roster? Can’t play in the majors. Simple.

Take a step back, and you’re looking at the 40-man roster. This list, which, as you may have guessed, is capped at 40 players, is comprised of every player who is eligible to be added to the active roster. So yes, that includes the 26 active players. It also includes certain minor leaguers and certain injured players. More on that below.

MLB teams aren’t required to trim their active rosters down to 26 until Opening Day. That means during the offseason the 40-man roster is the only list that matters.

(Even though we’re only focusing on MLB roster rules in this blog, it’s worth noting that teams are limited to 180 minor league players in their organizations. That increases to 190 in the offseason.)

Every year on Opening Day, the 26 active players (and the coaches) from both teams line up on the foul lines to be announced in front of the fans. (Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Adding a Player to the Roster

Of course, teams aren’t limited to the same 40 players for an entire season. Guys get hurt, underperform, or get traded all the time. In those cases, someone needs to take the open active roster spot.

If a team wants to add a player to its active roster who is currently playing in the minor leagues while on the 40-man roster, it’s as simple as recalling said player to the active roster. (That’s the official terminology—the Mets recalled Drew Smith from Triple-A Syracuse.)

If a team wants to add a player to its active roster who is currently playing in the minor leagues while not on the 40-man roster, it gets a little more complicated.

In this case, the player must have his contract selected to the active roster (The Mets selected the contract of Brandon Drury from Triple-A Syracuse). But wait, doesn’t a player have to be on the 40-man roster first in order to be added to the active roster? Good catch!

Selecting a player from the minor leagues accomplishes both of these things, but sometimes the corresponding roster move that opens up a spot on the active roster doesn’t clear the necessary space on the 40-man roster. That’s why it’s helpful to have a strong stable of 40-man players in the minor leagues ready to be recalled at any time.

In certain situations—for example, a catcher suffers a short-term injury and the team doesn’t have any 40-man catchers in the minors, or a pitcher is scratched from his start the day of, and the only pitcher in Triple-A whose schedule matches up is not on the 40-man — the team must make additional moves to clear space.

Removing a Player From the Roster

The simplest way to take someone off the active roster is to place an injured player on the 10-day injured list. This removes him from the active roster for a minimum of 10 days but keeps him on the 40-man roster. (The 60-day injured list—guess the minimum period of inactivity—does remove the player from the 40-man.)

What if a player isn’t hurt? He might be underperforming, or the team wants a different look out of that roster spot (like an extra relief pitcher or another lefty bat off the bench). In this case, the team can option him to the minor leagues, which, like the 10-day injured list, keeps him on the 40-man roster.

It’s essentially the inverse of recalling a player, though he can’t return to the majors until 10 days have elapsed (unless a different player gets injured. Then the optioned player can be recalled as the replacement).

Check-in. Doing okay? Deep breath. This is where things get complicated, so try to follow along as intently as you do when that guess-which-cap-has-the-ball-hidden-under-it game comes on the jumbotron between innings.

Cool! A team can just option all of its underperforming players to the minors and get them off the active roster while keeping them on the 40-man roster at any time, right? Seems convenient!

But of course, there are limitations. A player can only be optioned in three separate seasons. They don’t have to be consecutive seasons, and the player can come and go as many times as necessary in each one, but once that third “option year” is used, he’s stuck to the active roster as long as he’s healthy (forever? Slow down, read on).

To remove a player whose three option years have all been used—this player is said to be “out of options”—from the active roster, the team must send him outright to the minor leagues. Before that can happen, though, the player needs to be placed on outright waivers, which functions through the MLB league office as an electronic bulletin.

When a player is placed on outright waivers, the other 29 teams have a chance to claim him for a $50 thousand fee and inheritance of his contract. If multiple teams enter a claim, the one with the worst record is awarded the player, who then goes on his new team’s 40-man roster. If all 29 teams pass, the player can then be outrighted to the minor leagues, where he is removed from both the active and 40-man rosters. (Yes, that means he must be selected to the 40-man roster again, with the necessary space cleared, if the team wants to bring him back up to the majors.)

Occasionally, an out-of-options player, or even a player with options but on the fringes of his team’s roster, bounces from team to team on the waiver wire rollercoaster. In June of 2012, Chris Schwinden, an uninspiring depth pitcher, was placed on outright waivers by the Mets. The Toronto Blue Jays claimed him but did the same just days later, so he went back on waivers where the Cleveland Indians scooped him up. He was on the move again later that month, this time being claimed by the New York Yankees. And finally, Schwinden’s monthlong nightmare came to an end when the Mets re-claimed him from the Yankees, placed him on waivers for the fifth time, and outrighted him when the other 29 teams were clearly tired of seeing his name pop up on the wire.

On one hand, it’s advantageous for a player to be out of options since it forces the team to expose him to other clubs and risk losing him on waivers. But if the player isn’t good enough to be worth keeping around in the first place, those who are out of options are typically the first to go when a roster spot is needed.

Chris Schwinden wasn't a great baseball player, but he was good enough to be claimed on outright waivers four separate times in the span of a month in 2012. (Source: Associated Press)

There is so much more I could get into here. Designating a player for assignment, the right to refuse an outright assignment, release waivers…

But instead, we’ll stick to the basics for now. This post should give you a basic understanding of why a team adds certain players to its roster and makes moves to remove others. So when someone surprisingly makes your team’s Opening Day roster in March, you can tell your friends “Doesn’t surprise me, he’s out of options!”

That’s it for this week! As always, I’d love to hear from you. Drop a comment or tweet me at @Jacob_Resnick. Until next time!

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Jacob Resnick

Digital contributor at SNY.tv. Tweeting about the Mets and their minor league system. Quinnipiac University communications student.