Shortly after the Mets officially announced David Stearns as their President of Baseball Operations and the surprising resignation of General Manager Billy Eppler, reports poured in that Eppler was under MLB investigation for improper use of the Injured List. MLB evidently took umbrage with his use of what is referred to in baseball circles as the “phantom IL,” a widely practiced tradition of placing a player on the Injured List when they are not hurt. Usually the players are given some sort of general reason like arm soreness or a strained calf.
The phantom IL is nothing for baseball to be super proud of, and MLB has made a point of trying to curb its use in recent years. It was an exceedingly common practice in the minor leagues for years, to the point that in 2021, MLB introduced the Development List to the minors, a list specifically designed to place players that otherwise would have been “phantomed.”
In the minors, players who would get placed on the phantom IL (or now the Development List) fall into two broad categories – players at the very end of the roster, and those who are in need of some rest, either physical or mental. For the former, being phantomed (or Dev. Listed) is a sign that their roster spot may be in danger. The team needs to free up a roster spot for another player and they are viewed as a player who is expendable enough that they just won’t play them.
The other category is more likely a pitching prospect where the organization is trying to limit their innings by skipping them a turn in the rotation, but also wants to free up the roster spot to call someone else up. This is where the Development List is particularly helpful to teams – especially since then it doesn’t show years down the road that the player has an injury history that they don’t actually have.
In the majors, teams have long manipulated the phantom IL to get an extra roster spot while not having to option or designate for assignment a player, and some organizations have continued to manipulate the Development List in the minors. MLB clearly wants to end this, and is making an example out of Billy Eppler and the Mets, although in my experience, they are not the organization that is among the most notable abusers.
It really cannot be stressed enough how wide-spread of a practice this is across all 30 teams in the sport, which is what makes Eppler being the fall guy all the more ridiculous. To the outside it looks like the Mets were some rule-breaking outlaws, but in reality they weren’t doing anything that anyone else wasn’t doing, and many on a larger scale.
It’s also not likely that MLB just wants to make an example out of the Mets, per se, but most likely that the complaint that MLB received in a reported anonymous letter was just the spark they were looking for to launch a big investigation into this, and it just happened that the Mets were caught in the crossfire.
Now whether or not this turns out to be an accidental positive, giving Stearns an opportunity to bring in his own GM and truly mold the front office in his vision, remains to be seen. And it is absurd that the Mets be caught up in this “scandal” that isn’t really much of a scandal. But MLB is getting its point across to the other 29 teams who do the same things that they are not going to tolerate the phantom IL anymore.