Domestic Reserve List – A Primer

Back in March, I took an educated guess on how the new 180-player limit could impact roster construction in the minor leagues based on the reporting that was available at the time. Granted, the information was sorely lacking in detail, but it was a valiant effort nonetheless.

To the best of my knowledge, no additional information has been made public regarding this topic, and honestly, I was operating under the assumption that this new rule wouldn’t go into effect until the Complex Leagues started play later in the summer. This appeared to make sense on the surface; despite releasing a small group of players in late April, the Pittsburgh Pirates still seemed to be well over 180 players on Minor League contracts, with no major shakeups occurring since then.

Flash forward to today, and we may have the breakthrough that was needed. I was able to obtain a copy of the Major League Rules for 2021. These aren’t the on-field playing rules; rather, they speak to the off-field regulations that I’m into, which is why I was very happy to receive a copy. As I was giving them my first glance over, I discovered an item regarding a “Domestic Reserve List” of 180 players, and it was clear this was the information I’ve been waiting for all along.

With that in hand, I wanted to try my best to relay the information and apply it to the Pirates’ situation. As I said, I was kind of operating in the dark during my first attempt, but with a better understanding of the rule and how it’s applied, hopefully I can paint a better, clearer picture this time around.

First, let’s start off with how the rules define the Domestic Reserve List:

The term “Domestic Reserve List” shall refer to the list filed pursuant to Rule 2(a) and includes all players, player-managers and player-coaches with whom the Major League Club is party to Minor League Uniform Player Contracts who are assigned to domestic Minor League affiliates (i.e., affiliates in the United States or Canada).

The emphasis on the word “assigned” is my own, and we will get back around to that eventually. First, Rule 2(a) refers to Reserved List Player Limits, with Rule 2(a)(2)(B) reading as follows regarding a Club’s maximum player limit:

180 players on its Domestic Reserve List from the earliest Opening Day of the Minor League season until 5 P.M. ET on the fifth day following the day that the last game of the World Series starts

Remember when I was assuming this new rule wasn’t taking effect until the final level of the minors started play? Well, this thought process seemed to be faulty, as the rules state the Domestic Reserve List needed to be set by May 4th, which was Opening Day across all levels of affiliated baseball in 2021. If that’s the case, the team must be in compliance with the rules and my count has to be off, correct? Let’s take a deeper dive into how the limit is calculated and find out.

By my count, as of May 29th, the Pirates have 321 players under contract across the entire organization, so I couldn’t fathom just how the rules pared down over 40% of them to meet the threshold.

My first guess was that maybe Complex Leagues aren’t considered “affiliates”. Remember, the definition states that “all players…assigned to domestic Minor League affiliates” will go against the count, and Complex Leagues are mentioned independently of affiliates all throughout the rules. Also, only 120 teams received and accepted Professional Development League licenses—thirty teams with four affiliates each—so this is conceivable, no? I thought so, until I saw this nugget:

Once a player on the Reserve List of an affiliate that is located outside of the United States (i.e., Dominican Summer League) is transferred to a domestic Minor League affiliate (including the Club’s Spring Training Complex), that player immediately counts as part of the Domestic Reserve List Limit and cannot be transferred back to an affiliate outside of the United States, unless pre-approved by the Commissioner’s Office.

While not explicitly stated anywhere, this clearly insinuates that the Spring Training Complex is considered a domestic Minor League affiliate and players assigned to the Complex are part of the count. This makes sense, as there’s no maximum limit for any Spring Training Complex League team and an uncapped Complex roster falling outside the Domestic limits would create a major loophole.

So, this means much of the entire organization needs considered. As mentioned, I have a count of 321 players under contract—254 who have played a game at some point in the organization and 67 international free agents signed between the last two classes. Back in March, I speculated that two teams worth of Dominican Summer League players could be removed from the count, and I appear to be correct there, as Rule 2(a)(2)(E) seems to back me up:

A Major League Club may place a maximum number of 35 players on its International Rookie Reserve List for each International Rookie classification Club that it owned or with which it had a PDL during the previous season.

The Pirates operated two DSL teams last time that league played, so removing 70 players checks out, getting us to 251 players.

Originally, I speculated that an entire 40-man roster would be removed from the count, but this does not appear to be the case. Rule 7(a) touches on that very idea:

Players optionally assigned to a Minor League Club will count against the Domestic Reserve List limit…once the player reports to the assignee Club.

Instead of removing a straight 40 from the count, we’ll remove 26 for the active roster, as well as ten players on the Injured List, getting us to 215. Despite being on Minor League contracts, further Injured List subtractions need to be made, per Rule 2(c)(11)(B):

A player on the Minor League 60-Day Injured List shall not count against either a Minor League Club’s Active or Reserve List limit or a Club’s Domestic Reserve List limit.

This speaks to the added importance of placing a player on the 60-Day IL in the minors if they project to be unavailable for any length of time, as much like in the majors, it creates space against an imposed roster limit.

Currently, by my count, there are seven players on the 60-Day Minor League IL, taking the count to 208.

Finally, remove the two players who are currently on the Restricted List—no where is it stated explicitly that they don’t count against the Domestic Reserve list, but it does say players on the Restricted List “shall not count against…the Reserve List”—and we’re down to a final count of 206, or 26 players over the 180 limit. What gives?

To be honest, I’m not 100% certain, but here’s my best guess:

Remember when I highlighted the word “assigned” in the definition for the Domestic Reserve List? Well, currently, there are 74 players assigned to the Dominican Summer League, with another 46 international signees still to go. If you read the definition as technically and literally as possible, it states that only players who are “assigned to domestic Minor League affiliates” are part of the count, meaning none of the 120 international players—53 players remaining from 2019 and 67 signees—go against the count. Substitute 120 international players for the aforementioned 70 international reserve spots and the Pirates are left with a Domestic Reserve List of 156.

Now, this relies on the verisimilitude of online rosters for the GCL, DSL1 and 2, and something simply called the “Pirates Organization Roster”, so we’re on a bit of shaky ground here. However, I can at least verify all the names in question on my spreadsheet—except for Jack Hartman and Luis Nova, who for some reason are unaccounted for online—but your mileage may vary here on what you want to take as gospel. Completely removing all the international players at least makes some sense, and while I don’t like that my procedure kind of falls apart at the very end, I was at least confident enough in it to publish this. It will be interesting to watch what happens as more international free agents get assigned and actual GCL rosters are announced. At that point, it should be easier to verify these numbers and follow the rules to get to a number that makes even more sense.

Once the Domestic Reserve List limit starts to get pushed up against, two final particulars of note bear mentioning. If a club goes over the limit, they “have 48 hours from the time of the transaction or signing that causes the Club to exceed the limit, to adhere to the Domestic Reserve List limit,” so there’s some leeway in the adherence to the threshold. Also, Rule 4(g) states the following regarding drafted players:

A player who signs a Minor League contract with a Major League Club following the player’s selection at the First-Year Player Draft shall be excluded from the Minor League under control limits of the signing Major League Club until the day following the conclusion of the current year’s Major League championship season or when the player has appeared in a championship season game, whichever occurs first.

While I can’t find any verbiage directly tying “Minor League under control limits” to the Domestic Reserve List, it stands to reason there is a connection between the two. If that’s the case, it seems drafted players wouldn’t count against the 180 limit until after the season or until they play, whichever comes first. Players not playing the year they are drafted has become far less common, but in a Brave New World where the Rule 4 Player Draft is in the middle of July—coupled with the restructuring of the minor leagues—it’s totally plausible that players wouldn’t play in their draft year, saving teams the need to make moves until the offseason, when the limit goes up to 190.

I know this is a lot to digest and the rules application still isn’t totally clear, but to be honest, I just couldn’t hold back my excitement after seeing these rules and I just had to write about them. I don’t think I’ve seen this topic covered anywhere, nationally or locally, and I wanted the readers who cared enough about it to have this information at their disposal.

If you’ve made it this far, it’s clear you must care, or maybe you’re just as crazy as I am.