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The 40-Man Roster: How Does It Work?

You may have noticed a change to the left side of this site in recent weeks. Gone is the batting order and rotation, replaced by the Brewers' 40-man roster and non-roster invitees to spring training. Each player on the list has helpful links under his name to give you all the information you could want about him. I've been trying to keep it updated as players are signed to major league deals or are invited to camp. Hopefully the list can be a quick reference point for information on Brewers players.

I think it's safe to say most fans understand the concept of the 40-man roster. Simply put, it's a list of players on a team's active roster and minor leaguers who can be quickly and easily called up in case of need at the major league level. But how does the 40-man roster really work? Some roster rules are simple and commonly understood, but some are pretty esoteric and confusing. In this post I plan on detailing the rules relating to the 40-man roster. Hopefully there's something illuminating for everyone.

Roster Basics

As I said above, the 40-man roster is essentially a list of players available to appear in the major leagues. Defined in Major League Rule 2, the 40-man roster is also known as the Major League Reserve List. This name hearkens back to baseball's past when teams reserved the rights to a number of their players, making it impossible for any other team to sign those guys. In time, a team's reserve list was expanded to all players under contract to that team until the player was released (potentially never). In the 1970's, free agency allowed players achieving certain conditions the opportunity to leave their original team. The system has undergone further changes since then, but there are still players under reserve from year to year on each team. Those players include most minor leaguers and, you guessed it, players on the Major League Reserve List.

So How Are Players Added to the 40-Man Roster?

Obviously, there are advantages for a team placing a player on the 40-man roster. If the player has less than six years of major league service, the team has control over that player until he reaches six years. All teams, especially those in small markets, take advantage of this mechanism for keeping their young players around cheaply. Likewise, players also benefit from being added to a 40-man roster. Not only does a player have to be put onto the 40-man roster to make the majors, but being added makes it easier for players to eventually achieve free agency. It also makes it a little harder to be booted off the 40-man roster (more on that later). Thus, both players and teams benefit from the 40-man roster system. So the question now is: how are players added to the 40-man roster?

There are a number of different ways for players to make their way onto a team's 40-man roster. Perhaps the most interesting additions (at least to fans of teams that rely on prospects to compete) are players being protected from the Rule 5 draft. Players meeting certain conditions must be added to their organization's 40-man roster or they become eligible for the Rule 5 draft. The eligibility requirements: Players who were 18 or younger on the June 5th preceding the signing of their first pro contract must be added after five minor league seasons. Players who were 19 or older must be added after four minor league seasons. This offseason saw the Brewers add Omar Aguilar, Alexandre Periard, Mark Rogers, and Cody Scarpetta to their 40-man roster rather than expose them to the Rule 5 draft. On the flip side of the equation, players who are picked in the Rule 5 draft are automatically added to the selecting team's 40-man roster. Eduardo Morlan is an example of this on the Brewers.

Not all top prospects take four or five years to make it to the majors, however. Ryan Braun took just under two years from the time he was drafted until his major league debut. Rickie Weeks made his major league debut just months after he was drafted. So how are these guys put on the roster? In Weeks' case, he signed a Major League contract after being drafted, meaning he was put on the 40-man roster as soon as he signed. He was special, however, and the overwhelming majority of draftees sign Minor League contracts, making them members of an MLB organization but not on the 40-man roster. If a team wishes to promote a player signed to a minor league contract to the majors, they first purchase his contract from his minor league team. Now that all minor league teams are affiliated with the majors, I'm not sure if any money exchanges hands anymore, but the term comes from years ago when minor league teams operated independently from major league clubs and thus demanded compensation for letting go of their best players. When Mat Gamel was called up to Milwaukee on September 1 last season, his contract was purchased from Nashville.

In addition to adding players from within the organization, teams fill out their 40-man rosters with players acquired through other means. One common way of picking up players is through waiver claims. If a team no longer wants a player on their 40-man roster, they place him on waivers, allowing any other major league team to claim him and put him on their roster. The Brewers' most recent roster addition through this route was Casey McGehee.

The final, simplest ways to fill up slots on the 40-man roster involve trades and free agency. If a player on one team's 40-man roster is traded to another team, he is automatically placed on the other team's roster. Pretty simple, really. Free agents who sign Major League contracts are automatically added to the signing team's 40-man roster. Free agents signing Minor League contracts (with or without invitations to major league spring training) are not added to a team's 40-man roster. Also pretty simple.

So a Player's Been Put on the 40-Man Roster...What Happens Now?

Now that I've covered the ways a player might find his way onto a 40-man roster, what does it mean for his career that he's made it that far? The most important thing in terms of player development is probably the "options" system. Once a player is added to a 40-man roster for the first time in his career, his team has three option years on him. This means that he can be sent to the minors for part or all of three different seasons. If a player is added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft but his team thinks he still needs some more time in the minors, options allow the team to send him to the minors to develop while making sure he's not kept out of the majors indefinitely.

Many players on 40-man rosters are also subject to contract renewals. This means that if the player and team can't agree on a salary for the next season, the team is allowed to arbitrarily set whatever salary they want, provided it's above the league minimum and isn't more than a 20% pay cut. Players not yet eligible for free agency or arbitration fall under this rule. Last March, Prince Fielder's contract was renewed by the Brewers after Prince and the team couldn't agree on a salary.

There are also some less tangible effects of players being on the 40-man roster. As I noted above, teams get to control the first years of a player's career. From the time the player is added to the roster, this control can extend as long as nine years (three option years and six major league seasons). The player also has a cheap salary during his first couple major league seasons. Players aren't completely taken advantage of, however. They eventually can cash in as free agents. Even if they don't become regular major leaguers, once a player is added to a 40-man roster, it's difficult to be taken off since any attempt to do so gives every other major league team an opportunity to pick up the player.

Depending on how many players are on a team's 40-man roster, it's easier to call up players from the minors if they're already on the roster. For example, a team with all 40 roster spots filled would first have to boot someone off the roster if they wished to purchase the contract of a minor leaguer. This helps those fringe players that always seem to exist somewhere on every team's roster continue to have a chance at being called up year in and year out. It also explains why getting a guaranteed spot on a major league roster is very important to some lesser free agents. To keep some roster flexibility, most teams prefer to leave a roster spot or two open even during the season.

Removing Players from the 40-Man Roster

Just as there are many different ways to be put on a 40-man roster, there are many different ways to be removed from a 40-man roster. The flashiest, most familiar way to leave a team is through free agency. After a player accumulates six years of major league service time, he is eligible for free agency. Once he becomes a free agent, he can sign with any team. But you already knew that.

Players also can be removed from the 40-man roster if his team declines to tender him a contract for the next season by December 12. Teams may do this if they think the player's salary for the next season will be too high or if they no longer want the player around. The Brewers non-tendered Chris Capuano a month ago, making him a free agent (he later re-signed with the club).

By far the most common way players leave a team's 40-man roster is through waivers. By placing a player on waivers, a team effectively says they no longer want the player and are giving all 29 other teams a chance to pick him (and his current contract) up for $1. If a team successfully claims the player, he is added to that team's 40-man roster. However, if the player goes unclaimed, he is said to have cleared waivers, giving his team a few different options: he can be released, sent to the minors, or traded to another team even if the July 31 trading deadline has passed.

Why would a team wish to place a player on waivers? Obviously, releasing or trading the guy are two reasons. Another is if he's out of options and his team wants to send him to the minors. Teams often hesitate to do this (think back to Jorge de la Rosa) because of the very real chance of the player being claimed by another team.

If the team is running low on roster spots, a player might be designated for assignment. This means he's taken off the team's roster and put on waivers. If he goes unclaimed, the team has ten days from the time he was designated for assignment to decide whether to trade him, send him to the minors, or release him. Basically going this route gives the team a little more time to decide a player's fate after opening up his roster spot.

If the team wants to send a player who has cleared waivers to the minors, there are a couple hurdles. First, a definition: this way of being sent to the minors is known as being outrighted. If a player has more than three years of service time, he can refuse the outright assignment and become a free agent. He also can accept the assignment but defer his free agency until after the season. He might do this because he wants to stay with the organization and thinks he'll be added to the 40-man roster again before the end of the season. If he is re-added, he no longer can become a free agent. Even if the player has less than three years of service, outrighting him isn't automatic. If the player is being outrighted for at least the second time in his career, he has the same rights as a player with three or more years of service.

Finally, Salomon Torres can tell you all about the last way to leave the 40-man roster. Upon retirement, players are no longer considered a part of a team's 40-man roster, though that team retains rights to that player so long as he isn't a free agent.

Whew, That Was Too Much

I hear you. The number of rules concerning team control of players is overwhelming. Hopefully this post has made the process of adding and removing players from teams' 40-man rosters a little clearer. Even if you knew the definition of contract purchases, options, designated for assignment, and outrighting, it never hurts to have a refresher, right?