As teams navigate through this offseason, they are doing so with the knowledge that their 2020 rosters will feature an extra player.
That’s due to one of the rule changes taking effect for the upcoming season. From Opening Day through Aug. 31, rosters will feature 26 players instead of 25 -- and they will expand to 28 on Sept. 1. The number of pitchers also will be capped at a certain to-be-announced threshold, and there will be limitations on position players taking the mound.
For this offseason’s major free agents, it’s an inconsequential change. Gerrit Cole was going to get his $324 million either way, and the top players still on the market entering the new year -- Josh Donaldson, Nicholas Castellanos and Marcell Ozuna, notably -- will be signed to serve as major cogs in someone’s starting lineup.
But for some of the less heralded remaining free agents, the addition of the 26th man could provide a boost, or even a lifeline. With an extra roster spot to work with, and taking into account the pending limitations on pitchers, clubs have an opportunity to bolster their rosters with a position player at a time when the size of big league benches has been eroding.
With that in mind, here is a look at seven roles that some clubs could create for 2020, and the free agents who could fill them. To be clear, these players aren’t necessarily dependent on the extra roster spot -- many undoubtedly would be signed either way -- but it certainly can’t hurt.
The role: Third catcher
More teams are relying on multiple catchers, trying to keep them fresh at a grueling position. At the same time, managers tend to be hesitant to use their backup during a game, fearing that a subsequent injury or ejection would cause an emergency. A third catcher creates flexibility, allowing a skipper to fearlessly deploy one of his backups as a pinch-hitter or a late-inning defensive replacement.
The free agent: Robinson Chirinos is still available, and he should grab a more prominent job, but Russell Martin makes a lot of sense in a reduced role, if he’s willing. The 14-year veteran (he turns 37 in February) would be a valuable resource to a club’s pitchers and catchers, remains an excellent pitch framer and still finds ways to get on base (OBPs of .343, .338 and .337 since 2017).
The role: Left-handed slugger
This is a player who could see a lot of work as the strong side of a platoon, perhaps at first base and/or designated hitter. Or he could be more of a bench bat -- a weapon the manager holds in reserve for a big moment against a right-handed pitcher. With the three-batter minimum also coming in 2020, opposing managers may be less eager to counter by bringing in a lefty specialist.
The role: Right-handed slugger
Same idea here as above, except that a righty batter gets the benefit of the platoon advantage less often. In fact, this is exactly the sort of player who might have been squeezed off a 25-man, 13-pitcher roster. But the 26th spot provides a little more wiggle room for an extra power threat.
The free agent: There are quite a few options here, including some who could hold down a prominent defensive position (Brian Dozier, Todd Frazier). Ryan Zimmerman also continues to crush lefties (1.055 OPS since 2017), but he seems ticketed for a return to the Nationals (or retirement). So how about Hunter Pence? The 13-year veteran is limited defensively at this point and battled some injuries in 2019, but he slashed .327/.378/.636 off southpaws as part of a comeback season with Texas.
The role: Utility man
A defensive jack-of-all-trades was already highly prized in the era of the short bench, but there’s no reason that should change now. Such a player saves a manager quite a few headaches.
The free agent: Brock Holt has played every position except pitcher and catcher in his career, and he spent time at six of those seven spots in 2019. After struggling mightily at the plate in ‘17, he posted a .366 OBP and a 105 OPS+ over the past two seasons, adding a solid bat to his defensive versatility.
The role: Burner
A team could take this to the extreme and use its 26th spot on a player who is primarily a pinch-runner. Think Terrance Gore for the Royals last year. But it obviously helps if the player has more than just speed.
The free agent: Jarrod Dyson and Billy Hamilton fit the bill here. Both have been liabilities at the plate of late, although Dyson has the superior overall track record there. On the other hand, both are well above average on the bases and with the glove. Hamilton, who is six years younger, gets the edge for his 97th-percentile sprint speed and plus-58 outs above average since 2016 (plus-7 in ‘19), per Statcast.
The role: Extra outfielder
There are still starting outfielders on the board (Castellanos, Ozuna, Yasiel Puig). Then there are those whom teams might not see as everyday players but still could be a useful piece of the puzzle. A part-time starter who can get a big hit off the bench and play all three positions would be ideal.
The free agent: Cameron Maybin can do a bit of everything. In a surprising 2019 performance for the Yankees, Maybin began to use his size and strength to drive the ball in the air like never before, more than doubling his barrel rate while batting .285/.364/.494 in 82 games (65 starts). He can still play center if needed, with sprint speed that ranked in the 87th percentile. Matt Joyce doesn’t bring the same sort of speed or defense, but he leads the Majors in pinch-hit appearances since 2016, with a solid .754 OPS in that role.
The role: Swingman
It remains to be seen how the aforementioned pitcher limit and three-batter minimum will affect bullpen construction. But with all that in play, and with teams continually trying to take the load off their starters, a swingman could help. That’s a pitcher who might spot start -- perhaps giving a team a temporary six-man rotation for a turn or two -- but also provide innings out of the bullpen at other times. Perhaps that even means being a "bulk guy," pitching behind an opener as teams continue to experiment with usage.
The free agent: Collin McHugh had a good four-year run as a starter for the Astros from 2014-17, shined as a full-time reliever in ‘18 and then did both last season. Two disastrous starts out of his first eight sent him to the bullpen in early May, where he pitched well until a season-ending right elbow injury arrived at the end of August. If that issue extends into '20, Trevor Cahill, Andrew Cashner and Robbie Erlin are three more with experience on both sides of the equation.