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Using the 26th roster spot

Specialized offensive players are making a comeback.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This past week the Tampa Bay Rays signed Johnny Davis to a minor league contract. That seems like a non-event, especially considering that they had Davis on their roster last year and let him leave via free agency. He didn’t find any suitors via free agency and the Rays brought back a known player. Davis returning to the Rays is same old-same old stuff unless we look under the hood a bit.

As we open the hood of this deal what immediately jumps out is that Davis is fast. That’s why the Rays signed him in the first place and it’s why there’s more to this deal than meets the eye. The former Milwaukee Brewers draft pick has never had a full season of affiliated ball with an SpD below 6.1. SpD tracks speed and is a useful tool in seeing who uses their speed the best on the basepaths. An SpD of 6.1 is slightly above the great mark.

Now that hood is propped open because a great SpD is far more interesting and with the Rays being the team making the signing there has to be more to this deal. There is and it’s pretty clear that this deal is because of the rule change expanding the rosters to 26 players. When Major League Baseball officially announced a couple of weeks back that there would be a hard cap on the number of pitchers a team could carry that paved the way for the signing of a player like Davis.

The Rays, and other teams, know that they need to maximize the 26th spot on their roster. So do the other teams, but the Rays are the first team to make a move that seems specifically designed to address the new roster spot. It’s possible that some teams will view the 26th spot as a way to roster more positional flexibility. However, the Davis signing should signal a return to something that has been missing from baseball for a while now. Davis, and others of his ilk, could signal the return of specialized players on offense.

This change should manifest itself in the return of pinch hitters and base stealers. Instead of the backup middle infielder who has a mediocre bat getting the call for an important at-bat in the 9th inning, it will be the professional pinch hitter striding to the plate. MLB used to be full of these players, from Randall Simon to Daryle Ward and plenty in between. They were on the roster specifically for their bat-to-ball skills and weren’t expected to contribute in ways beyond pinch-hitting late in games. In recent seasons MLB front offices have moved away from these hitters as they have favored Swiss army knife style roster construction where players are more flexible at multiple spots than highly skilled in one specific area.

While never as prevalent as bat-to-ball pinch hitters, base stealers were sometimes also used as specialty players. Davis, as well as players like Terrence Gore, should thrive in an MLB environment where they can be viewed as the 26th man on the roster as opposed to taking up the 25th spot from a needed positional player or pitcher.

Someone like Billy Hamilton should become highly sought after as not only does he bring A-level speed but top-notch glove work as well. Roster expansion should mean the end of the kind of athletic, ie; not Michael Lorenzen, bullpen pitcher or off-day starter pinch-running in an important moment late in a game. The Rays can now trot out Davis and know that they are making great use of the 26th spot on their roster.

Rooting around under the hood revealed plenty of ways that Johnny Davis could end up being an important signing for the Rays. The rest of baseball should follow suit as the 26th spot is used as a way to supplement the oft-neglected specialized offensive aspects of constructing a baseball team.

There is some irony to be found in teams using the 26th spot to bolster their offense. Other rulings are leading to the elimination of the specialty lefty pitcher while specialty offensive players are making a comeback. The door has opened for the Johnny Davis’ of the baseball world while being rapidly shut on the likes of Adam Kolarek. There’s nothing routine or the same about the Rays signing Davis, it’s the start of a different way of constructing MLB rosters.