Baseball Roster Rules

In the game threads recently, there have been a lot of questions about baseball's roster rules. I figured this was a good time to write a post that outlines the basic rules. Baseball's roster rules are a lot more complicated thanthose of most sports, and there are a lot of things that a GM has to manage to avoid losing players that a team wants to keep. We'll start by discussing the 40-man and 25-man rosters. Put your good reading glasses on, because this is going to take a while.

The 40-Man and 25-Man Rosters

The purpose of the 40-man roster is to prevent teams from hoarding good players in their minor-league system, and to provide major-league-ready players with some opportunity to move to a team that can use them if they are stuck in another team's minor league system. The various rules surrounding 40-man roster moves provide opportunities for players to connect with teams that want them, and prevent a wealthy team from signing lots of players to large minor-league contracts just to keep the opposition from signing them. The 25-man roster is the roster of players who are actually active with the major league club at the moment. In order for a player to appear in a major league game between the start of the regular season and September 1, the player must be on the 25-man roster. However, before a player can be placed on the 25-man roster, he must first be on the 40-man roster. Here's how these two things interact.

The 40-man roster is actually the core of a team's roster management. It is in effect all year round. During the season, being on the 40-man roster is a prerequisite to appear in a major league game, and moving a player off of the 40-man roster involves taking the risk of another team getting that player. During the offseason, the 40-man roster factors into which players are exposed to the Rule 5 draft, or have the chance to become free agents. We'll go over 40-man roster moves, and their effects, later in the article.

The 25-man roster is in effect from the first day of the regular season through August 31. During this time, in order to appear in a major league game, a player must be on the 25-man roster. However, a player cannot be placed on the 25-man roster unless he is first on the 40-man roster. When you see in the transaction listings that a team "selected the contract of" or "purchased the contract of" a player who has just been called up, it means that the player wasn't on the 40-man roster and had to be added to that roster first, in order to add him to the 25-man roster. The agreement with the players' union requires that during the regular season, the 25-man roster must be kept full at all times. However, the 40-man roster does not have to be kept full, and it is not unusual for a team to have as few as 35 players on its 40-man roster at a given time.

For most purposes, the 25-man roster goes out of effect on September 1 of each season. From then until the end of the regular season, any player on a team's 40-man roster is eligible to appear in a major league game. This is the period that is often referred to as "roster expansion", which is somewhat of a misnomer, since the 25-man roster doesn't actually get bigger. Playoff rosters are also 25-man but are drawn up separately. Teams which appear to be playoff-bound have to submit their playoff rosters a certain number of days prior to the end of the regular season. In theory, in order to be eligible to appear on the playoff roster, a player had to be on that organization's 40-man roster (or an exempt list) on September 1, but there are a lot of ways around that rule. The one thing that is very hard to do is to put a player who was signed or traded for after September 1 on the playoff roster, which is one reason you don't see many September trades.

So, to summarize, from the beginning of the season through August 31, the 25-man roster controls who may appear in a major league game. But in order to be on the 25-man roster, a player must first be on the 40-man roster. So where are the other 15 players on the 40-man roster? We'll talk about that in the next two sections, as we discuss options and the disabled lists.

The one exception to the 25-man roster is the so-called "26th man rule". On the day when a team has to play a doubleheader, between the start of the season and August 31, it is allowed to have a 26-man roster for that
day. A minor league player may be called up to be the 26th man, and then sent back down at the end of the day.

It is not permitted for a team to make roster moves while a game is in progress. However, a team can make roster moves between games of a doubleheader, or between the suspension of a game and its resumption. This can result in some weird-looking stats when players who weren't on a team's roster at the start of a suspended game appear in the game after it is resumed.

Options and Outrights

What does it mean for a player to be "optioned" to the minor leagues? Once a minor league player is placed on a team's 25-man roster for the first time in his career, the team is granted three (or, in a few unusual cases, four) options on that player, which allow the player to be removed from the 25-man roster and sent back to the minor leagues without needing to expose the player to waivers. It is always the case that a player who has been optioned remains on the 40-man roster; this is one of the essential points of managing the 40-man roster.

Options are exercised on a per-year basis, meaning that once an option has been exercised on a player, the team may subsequently recall and send down that player as many times as it wishes during that same year (subject to some constraints on how long a sent-down player has to stay before being called back up). Options go with the player, meaning that if a player who has options left is traded to another team, the new team has use of the remaining options. Unused options expire after six(?) years have elapsed from the first year that the player was added to a 25-man roster.

When all the options on a player have been used or expired, the player is said to be "out of options". When such a player is on the 25-man roster and the team wishes to send him to the minors, the rules require that the player be removed from the 40-man roster. In order to do so, the team must "outright" that player. Outrighting involves a waiver process, under which every other major league organization gets a chance to claim that player (there is a short period of time to do so, about one day). If a team claims the player, he becomes property of the claiming team, and the team that outrighted him loses him. (If two or more teams place a claim, there is a priority order, which we'll talk about further down.) Unlike some waivers, the outright waiver is irrevocable; once a team has requested the waiver, the process cannot be stopped or reversed

If the player is not claimed, once the waiver period expires the player is outrighted and is off the 40-man roster. If the player has never been outrighted in his career before, the team may now assign him to a minor league affiliate. However, players can be forced to accept an outright assignment only once in their careers. If the player has been outrighted before, he now has the option to either accept the assignment, or become a free agent. This is what it means when you read in the transactions list that a player "refused an assignment"; it meant the team attempted to give him an outright assignment, but he elected his option for free agency. (It's not always a given that the player will elect free agency. If he accepts the assignment, the team has to continue to pay him under the terms of his existing contract. If he elects free agency, the team has no further obligation to him.)

The status of being on a 40-man roster is something that goes with a player. Other than becoming a free agent or voluntarily retiring, the outrighting process is the only way that a player is ever removed from a 40-man roster. If a player on the 40-man roster is traded or claimed off waivers, he of course comes off of that team's 40-man roster, but the team receiving him is obligated to put him on their 40-man roster unless they attempt to outright him.

Disabled Lists

A player who is injured to the extent that he is unable to fulfill his role with the club may be placed in a disabled list. Putting a player on a disabled list gives the club certain relief from the roster rules, which varies depending on which list is used. The tradeoff is that the player becomes ineligible to appear in a major league game for a certain number of days. In deciding whether to place an injured player on a disabled list, and which list to use, the team makes a guess as to the extent of the injury and how long they think the player will be unable to play, versus how much the team thinks they need the player's roster slot.

The two most used lists are the 15-day and 60-day disabled lists. When a player is on the 15-day list, he does not count against the 25-man roster (but he does still count against the 40-man roster). This allows the team to replace that player with another player during the time that he is recovering from his injury, so that the team doesn't have to play a man short. That other player can come from any source the team has available; he could be a minor-league call up, a recall of an optioned player, or a free agent signing. (But of course, that player must first be on the 40-man roster.) When the injured player is ready to play again, and the 15 days is up, the team will have to make another roster move to clear a slot on the 25-man roster to make way for the injured player's return.

The 60-day disabled list works in a similar fashion, with one important difference: a player on the 60-day disabled list does not count against the 40-man roster (or the 25-man roster). As one might guess, this is usually used for players who are expected to need significant recovery time. Giving relief from the 40-man roster encourages teams to retain and rehab severely injured players whom they might otherwise just release (e.g., pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery, which typically has a 12-18 month recovery time). There is a special rule for using the 60-day disabled list: it may not be used as long as there is an open slot on the 40-man roster. What often happens is that a player is severely injured, but is initially placed on the 15-day DL because the team's 40-man roster is not full. Later, when the 40-man roster is full and the team needs to add another player, it will move the severely injured player from the 15-day DL to the 60-day DL in order to open up a 40-man roster slot.

There is a special 7-day DL reserved for players who have suffered head injuries. The average recovery time for a mild concussion is about 7 days, so MLB created this DL a few years ago to encourage teams to give concussed players time to recover, rather than expecting them to play through it, as often happened previously. Except for the shorter duration and the limitation on the type of injury, the rules are the same as for the 15-day DL.

The beginning of a disabled list stint may be back-dated to the date that the player suffered the injury, or the last date that the player appeared in a game, whichever is later. Except for the 7-day DL, it does not matter what type of injury it is, or whether it was an on-field or off-field injury. (Unlike some sports, baseball does not have separate disabled lists for players who suffer non-sport-related injuries.) It is not mandatory to activate a player from the DL at the end of the specified stint; the player may be kept on the DL as long as he is unable to play. However, both MLB and the players' union take a dim view of teams using the DL to "hide" healthy players. A player who is placed on the DL but thinks he is able to play can file a grievance, and if an arbitrator thinks the player is able to play, it can force the team to rescind the listing and put the player back on the roster.

A player who is on a DL may be assigned to a minor league team for rehab purposes, for up to 20 days. During this time, the player is still roster-exempt (according to which DL he is on) even though he is permitted to appear in games for the minor league club he is assigned to.

At some point between the end of the season and the date of the Rule 5 draft, all disabled lists go out of effect. The main impact to teams of this is regarding the 60-day DL; players who are on that disabled list have to either be added back to the 40-man roster or outrighted (unless they become free agents). This can put teams in a bind if they aren't careful; a team that ends the season with a full 40-man roster and four players on the 60-day DL will have to move four players off of the 40-man roster in order to make room.

You will sometimes see that a team says a player is "day to day". This isn't an official roster status. It just means that the team has decided not to put an injured player on the disabled list, in hope that he will be able to play again in a few days and won't have to sit out the duration of the DL listing.

Designated for Assignment

You often see in the transaction listings that a player was "designated for assignment", or "DFA'ed". What does this mean? It is used when a team wishes to remove a player from its 40-man roster, or otherwise figure out what to do with the player, and the team thinks the player may have some trade value. A DFA period lasts for a maximum of 10 days, and during the DFA period the player does not count against either the 25-man or 40-man rosters. During the DFA period, the team may attempt to trade the player, or may run him through the outright process, or may make some other roster move (such as releasing the player). At the end of the 10 days, if the team hasn't made any move with the player, it must add him back to the 40-man roster. Usually, a player who has been DFA'ed will be outrighted in a few days if the team doesn't succeed in trading him. The usual rules for the outrighting process apply; the player may be claimed off of the outright waivers by another club. Note that it is not mandatory for a DFA'ed player to be outrighted; the team may use any roster move it has available during the 10-day period. During the 2013 season, there were two instances where a team DFA'ed a player that they still had options on, and ended up optioning the player instead of outrighting him.

(Note that the DFA is not itself part of the outrighting process. It's usually a predecessor to a player being outrighted, but not necessarily. Don't confuse the two things.)

There has been some controversy regarding the DFA process in 2013. Several teams have repeatedly claimed a player on waivers and then immediately DFA'ed the claimed player, waiting until near the end of the 10-day period to ask for the outright waivers. This has the effect of leaving the player in limbo for an extended period of time, as he cannot appear in any game at any level while in DFA status. There has been some discussion of imposing restrictions on this, such as requiring that a player who is claimed off of outright waivers must be kept on the 40-man roster by the claiming team for a certain number of days before he can be DFA'ed again. This may come up in the next Basic Agreement negotiations.

The Rule 5 Draft

So to summarize, the 40-man roster consists of:

  • Players who are on the 25-man major league roster (between the start of the season and August 31)
  • Players who are on the 7-day and 15-day disabled lists. (Remember, players on the 60-day DL do not count against the 40-man roster.)
  • Players who have been optioned to the minors.
  • Certain minor league players who have not yet been called up.

What's with that last category? Well, there are several reasons why a team might place a player on the 40-man roster that they don't intend to call up right away, but the main reason has to do with the Rule 5 draft. The purpose of this draft is to prevent teams from "hiding" major-league-ready players in their minor league systems. The Rule 5 draft occurs each year during the winter meetings, which are usually held in late November or early December. A team may draft players from other teams' minor league systems during this draft. However, there are two ways a player can be exempt from being selected in the Rule 5 draft. First, players who have been in professional baseball for less than a certain number of years (usually 4(?), depending on how old they were when they first signed and some other factors) are exempt. Second, players on a team's 40-man roster are exempt. This is one reason you often see a bunch of roster moves right before the winter meetings; if a team has a Rule 5-eligible player that they think might be selected by another team, and they don't want to lose that player, they have to place the player on their 40-man roster in order to eliminate the Rule 5 exposure.

When a team selects a player in the Rule 5 draft, it commits to keeping that player on its 25-man roster for the duration of the subsequent season. The only exception is if the player is injured; in that case, he may be placed on a DL. (This often leads teams that have Rule 5 selections to try to stretch the rules regarding the disabled lists. There are some restrictions; if the player spends more than a certain number of days on the DL, the 25-man roster requirement can extend into the subsequent season.) If a team does not want to retain a Rule 5 selection, it must first run that player through the waiver process, in which another team may claim the player. (However, if so, the claiming team inherits the Rule 5 responsibility to keep that player on its roster for the remainder of the year.) If nobody claims the player, he must then be offered back to the club he was drafted from. Only if the original team does not want the player back may the team that drafted him then move him off of the 25-man or 40-man roster through the usual processes (options or outrighting, as applicable).

Releasing Players

A player who a team wishes to simply release must go through waivers first. Like the outright waivers, release waivers are irrevocable; if a team claims the player, he goes to that team. If no one claims the player, he becomes a free agent. It is unusual for a player to actually be claimed off of release waivers; generally, a team voluntarily releases a player only when the player's contract is an albatross, or the player is severely injured and will not be able to play again for a long time. Under either of these conditions, it is unusual for another team to claim the player since the claiming team assumes the player's existing contract. But it does happen occasionally.


There are two types of waivers: irrevocable and revocable. The rules apply them to different situations. When a player is placed on irrevocable waivers, he can be claimed by another team; if this occurs, the team that placed him on waivers loses him. With revocable waivers, if another team claims the player, the team that requested the waiver has the option of revoking the waiver (thereby keeping the player) or allowing the claim to go through.

Outright waivers and release waivers are irrevocable. Trade waivers for trades to be executed between the July 31 trade deadline and the end of the season are revocable. It is not unusual for a team to place most of its roster on revocable waivers on September 1 just to see what kind of interest they draw. It can be a way of judging the market for a player, for offseason trades or for measuring how much market interest there is in a player who is about to become a free agent. A team can ask for a revocable waiver on a player only once per season. If another team claims the player and the original team pulls the waiver back, they cannot get another revocable waiver on that player that season, which means they cannot trade him (without running the risk of exposure to an irrevocable waiver) until the offseason. Teams often put in claims on players on revocable waivers just to block that player's team from being able to trade him to a contender. However, that can backfire if the player has an expensive contract: the team asking for the waiver could simply allow the claim to go through, and then the claiming team is stuck with the player's contract.

For any kind of waiver, there is a priority order for waiver claims, in case two or more teams claim a player. The priority order is:

  • Other teams in the same league, in reverse order standings (worst to best W-L record at that point in the season)
  • Teams in the other league, in reverse order standings. (As I write this, the Braves have the best W-L record in the National League, which means they are dead last in priority for players being waived by any American League team.)

A Note

I am far from being the expert on these rules. I'm writing based on Internet research and what I've learned over the years. Please feel free to correct me in the comments if I've said something wrong.

This FanPost does not express the views or opinions of Talking Chop.

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