The previous blog post about minor league options generated a fair amount of discussion among readers, so I want to address a few points before we delve into specific players whose futures could be shaped by their expired option clock.
The Incredible Vanishing Evaluation Year
As touched on previously, baseball's current Collective Bargaining Agreement, ratified in the fall of 2006, granted an extra year to clubs for the purpose of evaluating players through the prism of the Rule 5 draft. Generally speaking, clubs could delay adding high school and international players to the 40-man roster until after they had completed five seasons. Collegians and junior collegians could play for four years before a club had to decide if it wanted to risk losing them in the Rule 5 draft.
However, with the new CBA and the institution of the signing deadline for the ’07 draft, a player's service clock began ticking once he signed on the dotted line. No longer could he sign a contract for the following season. (Players who sign after the minor league season concludes are held to a different standard, which we'll get to.)
Though a number of drafted players hold out until the mid-August deadline each year, those who ultimately elect to sign chew up one of their evaluation years, even if they don't play in a pro game that summer. For example, the Rockies last year agreed to terms with California prep lefty Tyler Matzek, the draft's 11th overall selection, at the Aug. 17 deadline. But even though Matzek did not play for a Rockies affiliate that summer, his time under contract (and on the sidelines) still counts against his five-year evaluation period. Instead of first becoming Rule 5 eligible five years from now, in 2014, he'll be eligible a year earlier, in 2013.
Four years still ought to be ample time for Matzek to prove himself worthy of 40-man inclusion. The same is true for most every draft pick out of high school who holds out until the 11th hour. But the five-year window also encompasses players who sign as international free agents out of Asia, Australia, Europe and Latin America.
One agent who is active in the Latin America market noted: "This is where things differ between most drafted high school players and the overwhelming majority of international players. Under the new rules, MLB added a fifth year for players who sign at 18 or under, but MLB also simultaneously began crediting international players for the year in which they sign their first contract, despite the fact that perhaps 95 percent or more of all international players sign a 'next year' contract."
Each year, July 2 serves not only as the midpoint of the calendar year but also as the opening bell for the international signing period. Teams offer millions of dollars to unproven 16-year-olds from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela in the hope that they can land the next Hanley Ramirez or Johan Santana.
Even though many international players sign at age 16 (compared with 18 for most high schoolers), they are prohibited from playing in an affiliated minor league—even the Dominican or Venezuelan summer leagues—unless they will turn 17 by the end of the season, which typically falls on or around Labor Day in early September. This rules out practically all of the premium international signees.
Let’s use two prospects signed last July to illustrate the point. The Yankees signed Dominican catcher Gary Sanchez and the Mets Venezuelan lefty Juan Urbina. Naturally, they would not bother trying to secure U.S. work visas for Sanchez and Urbina to play in the GCL for the balance of the ’09 season. But both organizations have Latin America summer leagues in each player’s native land, eliminating the need to secure a visa. Neither Sanchez (who turned 17 last Dec. 2) nor Urbina (who turns 17 on May 31) were eligible to participate in ’09—they signed 2010 contracts.
So each will make his debut this season, probably in June in the GCL, with only four years remaining on his Rule 5 eligibility clock. So while a player like Matzek at least had the opportunity to gain pro experience last summer, that was not an option available to players like Sanchez or Urbina. Fast forward to 2013 when the Rockies, Yankees and Mets might be making 40-man decisions on these players. Matzek will be 22; Sanchez and Urbina will be just 20.
Teams gain a real advantage when they sign international prospects after the minor league season has concluded. They buy themselves an extra development year for the prospect before he must be added to the 40-man roster. The Twins offer us the perfect study in contrasts.
Minnesota made a splash in ’09, signing two top international prospects for a combined $3.95 million. Both Dominican third baseman Miguel Sano and German outfielder Max Kepler signed at age 16 and catapulted into our Twins Top 10 Prospects list. However, Kepler signed in July, during the minor league season, and Sano in September, after the season had ended. Because of this, the Twins will have an extra year to evaluate Sano because his Rule 5 clock begins ticking this season. Kepler’s started last July.
To cite another example, the Braves on Feb. 20 handed out their largest-ever bonus to an international amateur, signing 18-year-old Dominican shortstop Edward Salcedo. The aforementioned agent notes that Salcedo will be “among the small minority of international signees—at least among non-Cubans and non-Japanese—who sign and then make their pro debuts in the same year. That should mean the Braves will have Salcedo for five seasons instead of the usual four (for international signees) before they'll need to protect him.
"I'm sure most teams that sign an international player to a seven-figure deal hope/believe the ‘extra’ year will be irrelevant, but it seems like an added bonus for the Braves with Salcedo, as it could or would have been for all MLB teams in general had the 2006 revisions been worded differently for international signees."
The "offseason rule" also applies to ’09 draft picks who were not subject to the Aug. 17 signing deadline because they had no college eligibility remaining. Examples include independent league players like Aaron Crow (first round, Royals, signed Sept. 17) and Tanner Scheppers (first round supplemental, Rangers, signed Sept. 17) as well as college seniors like Nick Christiani (13th round, Reds, signed Oct. 5) or Erik Gregersen (37th round, Angels, signed March 6).
All four of these 19-and-older signees will receive the full four years of evaluation time, beginning with the ’10 season. Actually, the Royals will need to navigate Crow’s option clock because he signed a big league deal, but it should not be an issue because of . . .
The Fourth Option Year
Righthander Luke Hochevar enters this season as a 26-year-old with an ERA that shot from 5.51 as a Royals rookie in ’08 to 6.55 as a sophomore last year. That's not the type of return on investment that Kansas City had in mind when it signed him to a four-year big league deal worth at least $5.25 million as the No. 1 overall pick in ’06.
Hochevar has had his moments. In 11 starts for Triple-A Omaha over the past two seasons, he's gone 6-2, 1.79 with a 48-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 65 1/3 innings. Indicative of a pitcher with quality life on his fastball, his 3.6 groundout-to-flyout ratio rates at or near the top of the heap for starting pitchers at the Triple-A level.
But to this point what's perhaps most interesting about Hochevar's career is that he is one of the few players to qualify for a fourth minor league option.
Added to the Royals' 40-man when he signed his major league contract in August ’06, he was on optional assignment while he made four starts for low Class A Burlington later that month. He also pitched in the minors on optional assignment in ’07, ’08 and ’09, making 37 more starts for Double-A Wichita and Omaha. But after expending four options on Hochevar in four seasons, the Royals cannot send him to the minors again without first exposing him to waivers. The Royals were granted an additional option year on Hochever because of a little-known (or at least a little-cited) rule that reads as follows:
A player may be eligible for a fourth option year if he has been optioned in three seasons but does not yet have five full seasons of professional experience. A full season is defined as being on an active pro roster for at least 90 days in a season. (Source: The Business of Baseball)
So in Hochevar’s case, the Royals used three options to send him to the minors in his first three years as a pro, thus triggering a fourth option year, which they took advantage of in ’09 to send him to Omaha. (Note that his ’06 stint with Burlington does not count as a "season" under the rules, being that he did not spend 90 days on the roster. So as the rulebook sees it, he had been optioned three times in just two seasons.)
As one would expect, the fourth option year comes into play most often with college draft picks who move quickly through the minors, establishing early residence on the 40-man roster but not playing so well as to secure big league deployment on a full-time basis. Some recent examples of players, in addition to Hochevar, who have qualified for a fourth option year: David Aardsma, Craig Hansen, J.P. Howell, Philip Humber, Dan Meyer, Kendry Morales, Xavier Nady, Jeff Niemann, Jon Rauch and Brendan Ryan.
This spring, a smattering of players will qualify for a fourth option year for the first time, among them Yankees first baseman Juan Miranda, Cubs righty Jeff Samardzija and Mariners lefties Garrett Olson and Jason Vargas.
Let’s use Jeff Niemann to illustrate the ways of the fourth option year. In this example, PS stands for pro seasons (using the 90 days definition) and OP is shorthand for option tally.
|JEFF NIEMANN, RHP, RAYS
|YR||AG||PS||OP||TRANSACTION / NOTES|
|04||21||0||—||Drafted fourth overall by Rays|
|05||22||1||1||Signed big league deal, Jan. 20
Optioned to Double-A, March 18
|06||23||2||2||Optioned to Double-A, March 11|
|07||24||3||3||Optioned to Triple-A, March 14|
|08||25||4||4||Optioned to Triple-A, March 22|
|09||26||5||—||Out of options; made 30 starts for Rays|
That’s fairly straightforward. In three pro seasons, the Rays optioned Niemann to the minors three times. Therefore, he qualifies for a fourth option, which they also used. Now he’s out of options.
The fourth option year is not the sole domain of the college draft pick, however. Because time in the short-season leagues does not qualify as a “season” because it transpires in fewer than 90 days, many international players can attain a fourth option year. Even though it sounds counterintuitive to credit an eight-year pro who signed in 2002, as did the Twins’ Jose Mijares, with just five seasons, that’s exactly how the law (of options) sees it. In more detail, using the abbreviations from the Niemann example:
|JOSE MIJARES, LHP, TWINS
|YR||AG||PS||OP||TRANSACTION / NOTES|
|02||17||0||—||Signed by Twins, March 2
Pitched in Venezuelan Summer League
|03||18||0||—||Pitched in VSL|
|04||19||0||—||Pitched in Gulf Coast League|
|05||20||1||—||Pitched in Midwest/Fla. State leagues
Added to 40-man roster, Nov. 17
|06||21||2||1||Optioned to Fort Myers, March 14|
|07||22||3||2||Optioned to New Britain, March 13|
|08||23||—||3||Optioned to New Britain, March 9
Recalled by Twins, Sept. 5
|09||24||4||4||Optioned to Rochester, March 31
Recalled by Twins, April 21
|Correction: Mijares did not accrue 90 days of active service in 2008 due to the injuries sustained in the car crash. Therefore, that season does not count as a "pro season." ME
Prior to the ’07 offseason, teams had just four seasons to evaluate whether players like Mijares, who signed out of Venezuela at age 17, were worthy of 40-man roster spots. Leave him unprotected and one of the other 29 clubs can select him in the Rule 5 draft.
After his fourth year in ’05, Mijares was 20 and had worked mostly as a reliever in A-ball that season, walking 6.1 batters per nine innings. Of course, his ridiculous arm strength contributed to 12.9 strikeouts per nine. The Twins made the easy decision to add him to their 40-man roster, meaning that all future minor league development (and Mijares had all of 12 innings above the low Class A level) would require the use of optional assignments. Conservatively, the Twins could expect Mijares to need one season in high Class A, one in Double-A and another in Triple-A, a scenario that would require the standard three option years.
As it played out, Mijares spent ’06 in high Class A and both ’07 and ’08 in Double-A (for the most part). He appeared in just 23 games in ’08, however, taking detours to the restricted list and then the 60-day disabled list. He returned to make a positive impression during a September callup to Minnesota. Following the ’08 season, Mijares pitched well in the Venezuelan League but then injured his pitching elbow and shoulder in a car crash.
Mijares made a full recovery for ’09 and proved to be ready to go by April. The Twins, though, held a fourth option year on him, which they used to send him to Rochester. Mijares qualified for that option because at the time (April ’09) his “pro seasons” clock had only been ticking for four years [Correction: three years. ME.], since he had completed his first year in full-season ball in ’05. At no time in the 2002-04 period did Mijares spend the requisite 90 days on an active roster. [Note: As per the correction following the Mijares table (above), he did not accrue 90 days of active service in 2008, so it did not count as a "pro season." ME.]
Since Mijares had been optioned three times in those three “pro seasons” of 2005-07, he qualified for one additional option. Remember, teams are granted a fourth option year on any player who is optioned three times before he accumulates five full seasons of experience. A sampling of other international players who have qualified for a fourth option year under similar circumstances: Wilson Betemit, Santiago Casilla, Edgar Gonzalez (the righthanded pitcher), Juan Gutierrez, Hernan Iribarren, Hong-Chi Kuo, Juan Morillo, Fernando Nieve and Merkin Valdez.
Freedom Delayed (And Then Delayed Some More)
My assessment of out-of-options players from last week was incomplete. In rare cases, teams can extend their rights of exclusivity with a player beyond the cited eight years, all the way to a full 10 seasons. Thanks to Jim Goulart of Brewerfan.net for pointing this out.
I took into account only players, like Mitch Talbot and Mitch Maier, who followed a reasonably natural progression to the 40-man roster. For other players, though, making the 40-man roster entails six and a half seasons of beating the bushes (without so much as a big league cup of coffee) as well as going unselected in the Rule 5 draft as many as four times. Not that a player in this situation has much to be sore about. Life on a 40-man roster is good, and worth waiting for. (Shameless plug: Be sure to check out our feature on minor league salaries, which can be found in our Minor League Preview issue or online in the coming weeks.)
Brewers third baseman Adam Heether illustrates our case perfectly. An 11th-round pick out of Long Beach State in 2003, he has toiled in Milwaukee’s farm system since signing that June seven years ago. He played in 237 games for Triple-A Nashville during the past two seasons, adding a generous helping of middle-infield utility, but has not so much as received a September callup. But after putting in all that time in the minors, Heether never got the chance to file for minor league free agency. The Brewers added him to their 40-man roster last Nov. 9—the day he would have been able to file his walking papers.
So after seven years as a pro, Heether remains bound to the Brewers so long as they retain him as a member of the 40-man roster. Of course, they now hold three option years on him, which they can begin making use of this season. And if they so choose they can station him in Nashville for all of the next three years. Such a scenario would would give the Brewers the first 10 years of Heether's career (though such a scenario seems unlikely).
|ADAM HEETHER, 3B, BREWERS
|YR||AG||LVL||TRANSACTIONS / PRIMARY ASSIGNMENT|
|03||21||LoA||Signed by Brewers, June 9
Beloit (47 G)
|04||22||LoA||Beloit (128 G)|
|05||23||HiA||Brevard County (93 G)
First eligible for Rule 5 draft, Dec. 8
|06||24||AA||Huntsville (70 G)|
|07||25||AA||Huntsville (120 G)|
|08||26||AAA||Nashville (124 G)|
|09||27||AAA||Nashville (113 G)
Added to 40-man, Nov. 9
|10||28||?||Option No. 1 available|
|11||29||?||Option No. 2 available|
|12||30||?||Option No. 3 available|
As a player signed at 19 or older, Heether first became eligible for the Rule 5 draft following the 2005 season, his third. He passed through that draft without being selected, and he also passed through the next three drafts. As a 40-man roster player, he was not eligible for the ’09 draft. (Note: These days, the Brewers would have four years before they would have to add Heether to the 40-man.)
Heether isn’t alone. The Mets added third baseman Shawn Bowman and the Tigers righthander Jay Sborz to their respective 40-man rosters last winter, so that neither qualified for free agency. Neither has yet appeared in the big leagues, and each has been optioned to the minors already this spring—Bowman to Double-A and Sborz to Triple-A. Other players who fit this description can be found in our run-down of players added to 40-man rosters last November. They’re the players offset in [brackets].
And one final side note . . . calling a minor league free agent a six-year free agent is a misnomer in most every case. While true that players must accrue six years of service to qualify for free agency, most do so after seven years in the pro ranks. Their first season usually counts at half credit because it’s spent in short-season ball. This is why we never use the term six-year free agent. In most cases, it's really six and a half years.
Players from the draft class of ’09, to cite an example, will first begin qualifying for minor league free agency following the 2015 season, seven years after being drafted.
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