A retired baseball executive who had served as big league general manager and assistant scouting director for three-plus decades recently told us that, in his day, clubs never worried about losing players who were out of minor league options.
If a player had not established himself as a big league-caliber talent in six or seven years as a professional, the thinking went, then the chances seemed remote that the player would develop enough at the big league level in his mid- to late-20s to warrant a precious 25-man roster spot. What's the rush? A player without at least one option remaining cannot be sent to the minor leagues without first clearing waivers.
Options remain one of baseball's most confusing bylaws governing player transactions, ranking somewhere between irrevocable outright waivers and super two arbitration eligibility. In essence, once a club adds a player to its 40-man (or big league) roster, it has three seasons in which it can send that player to the minors on an optional assignment—and they can do so practically without limit in a given year. It still counts only as one option.
Nor do the option years need to fall consecutively. A club might exhaust a player's options by sending him to the minor leagues in 2007, ’08 and ’09; just as valid would be the pattern 2005, ’07 and ’09. In fact, many current big league stars still have option years remaining. Albert Pujols, for example, never has been optioned to the minors. He signed in 1999, played in the minors and ’00 and debuted with the Cardinals the following year, never to look back.
But once that final option year comes to a close, the player can be returned to the minor leagues only on a rehab assignment or if his club first places him on waivers, making him available to the other 29 teams. For a comprehensive rundown of option rules and other transactional fine print, check out Jeff Euston's work published at the Business of Baseball.
Wider Window For Evaluation
Teams now have the luxury of evaluating players for seven or eight professional seasons before they must cast their vote yay or nay. This rule took effect when baseball's current Collective Bargaining Agreement was negotiated in the winter between the 2006 and ’07 seasons. Its effects were first felt that winter on the Rule 5 draft, when players who had qualified for selection under the old rules had their eligibility pushed back a year.
Under the current guidelines, a player who turns pro at age 19 or older, i.e. most two- and four-year college products, does not have to be added to his club's 40-man roster for four years after signing. (Doing so ensures that the player cannot be selected in the Rule 5 draft.) Tack on an additional three option years, which could be spent exclusively in the minors, and the club has seven seasons to find out what the player can do to help and/or hinder the big league club.
The rules are similar for players who sign at age 18 or younger, i.e. most high school and international prospects, except that they can be shielded from the 40-man roster for five years after signing. Add the three option years and that's eight years of club control, all of which can transpire in the minor leagues.
Let's take a look at these rules in practice and how they affect players. First, we'll chart development paths for players signed out of the three most common sources of talent: high school, college and the international market. Mileage will vary. Here I'm illustrating only the most conservative promotion schedule, one where the team moves a player one level per season and exhausts all three options before making a big league commitment. In such a case, the club could get a look of as many as 3,500 plate appearances or 1,000 innings before they must carry the player on the active roster.
Following that, we'll examine real-life examples, using players who enter spring training this year out of options for the first time. How did they get to this point in their careers?
Players Signed Out Of High School
|CONSERVATIVE DEVELOPMENT PATH FOR PLAYER SIGNED AT AGE 18
|YEAR||AGE||LEVEL||TRANSACTIONS / NOTES|
|1||18||Rookie ball||First pro contract|
|2||19||Short-season||Extended spring training, June assignment|
|3||20||Low Class A|
|4||21||High Class A|
|5||22||Double-A||Added to 40-man roster after season|
|6||23||Triple-A||Option No. 1 used|
|7||24||Triple-A||Option No. 2 used|
|8||25||Triple-A||Option No. 3 used|
|9||26||Big leagues?||Out of options|
Angels third baseman and occasional shortstop Brandon Wood would seem to be the paradigm for the heavily-seasoned young player. He's a seven-year pro who has spent pretty much all of the past three seasons serving an "optional assignment" with Triple-A Salt Lake, batting .287/.354/.547 over 1,383 plate appearances. In fact, the 25-year-old holds the Salt Lake franchise record with 76 home runs.
He won't have the chance to build on that total because he's now out of options. But had the Angels resisted calling up Wood to Anaheim (thus adding him to the 40-man) in April ’07—and abstained until rosters expanded in September—then the ’03 first-round pick would still have an option available this season. No, we need to go back in time eight full years, to the ’02 draft, to find a player drafted out of high school who has taken up continual residence on a 40-man roster and consumed all three of his minor league options. (If a player is booted from the 40-man for a stretch, then he typically will qualify for minor league free agency before his option count comes into play. That was the case with ’02 Tigers second-rounder Brent Clevlen, who departed via free agency to the Braves last winter.)
The most prominent (and perhaps only) example from the ’02 draft that I could find was Astros' second-round pick Mitch Talbot, a prep righthander from Cedar City, Utah. His progression, in chart form:
|MITCH TALBOT, RHP, INDIANS
|YR||AG||LVL||TRANSACTIONS / NOTES|
|02||18||DNP||Signed by Astros, Aug. 20|
|03||19||R||12 starts for Martinsville (Appalachian)|
|04||20||LoA||27 starts for Lexington (South Atlantic)|
|05||21||HiA||27 starts for Salem (Carolina)|
|06||22||AA||Traded to Devil Rays, July 12
27 starts in Texas & Southern leagues
Added to 40-man roster, Nov. 20
|07||23||AAA||Option 1, March 14; 29 starts for Durham (International)|
|08||24||AAA||Option 2, March 13; 28 starts for Durham|
|09||25||AAA||Option 3, March 16; 10 starts for Durham + 5 rehab
Traded to Indians, Dec. 21
|10||26||MLB?||Out of options|
Note that Talbot was eligible for the 2005 Rule 5 draft because the rules at the time gave teams just four years to evaluate high school draftees. [Correction: Because he signed a contract for 2003, Talbot did not become eligible for the Rule 5 draft until 2006. My mistake. ME.] No team took a chance on Talbot, who had gone 8-11, 4.34 for high Class A Salem but with a mediocre rate of 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings. He came out firing in ’06, fanning 9.6 per nine for Double-A Corpus Christi and being traded to the Devil Rays in July as part of the package for Aubrey Huff. Tampa Bay added Talbot to its 40-man roster after his breakout Double-A campaign—10-7, 2.76 with 155 strikeouts in 157 innings—though he's made just three appearances in the big leagues since then, all in September ’08. Elbow trouble precluded another callup last season. Knowing that they wouldn't have room for him in their crowded rotation, the Rays traded Talbot to the Indians for Kelly Shoppach last winter.
Cleveland has few established starters, so Talbot stands on equal footing with other hopefuls like Justin Masterson, David Huff, Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers and Carlos Carrasco. He sure has had plenty of time to showcase his stuff over the course of 905 minor league innings.
Players Signed Out Of College
|CONSERVATIVE DEVELOPMENT PATH FOR PLAYER SIGNED AT AGE 21
|YEAR||AGE||LEVEL||TRANSACTIONS / NOTES|
|1||21||Short-season||First pro contract|
|2||22||Low Class A|
|3||23||High Class A|
|4||24||Double-A||Added to 40-man roster after season|
|5||25||Triple-A||Option No. 1 used|
|6||26||Triple-A||Option No. 2 used|
|7||27||Triple-A||Option No. 3 used|
|8||28||Big leagues?||Out of options|
|These guidelines also apply to players who sign out of junior college after their first or second years. Adjust the start and end points to ages 19-26 (JC freshman) or ages 20-27 (JC sophomore).|
At the time the Padres held the fourth overall pick in the ’03 draft, they could not fathom the nightmare that awaited them one year in the future. Nightmare, thy name is Matt Bush. But back in June ’03, San Diego thought it had snagged a bright, young pitching prospect in Tim Stauffer, a stud righthander from Richmond. Unfortunately, a pre-draft physical turned up weakness in his right shoulder and he settled for a well-below slot bonus of $750,000. To his credit, Stauffer proved to be quite durable in his first four pro seasons, averaging 26 starts per year. Then he missed the entire ’08 season after having shoulder surgery, and the Padres dropped him from the 40-man roster after the season.
Our story has a reasonably happy ending. Stauffer worked his way back on to the 40-man roster by pitching well in Double-A and Triple-A last season, and he made 14 second-half starts for San Diego, going 4-7, 3.58 with a modest 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Now the 27-year-old enters spring training out of options, yes, but also with a chance to make the Padres as either a starter or reliever.
Because of Stauffer's injury history, let's cast a wider net to find an ’03 college draftee who enters camp out of options, someone who has followed a more traditional development path. Ah, there he is: Royals' first-rounder Mitch Maier, a catcher (now outfielder) from Toledo.
|MITCH MAIER, OF, ROYALS
|YR||AG||LVL||TRANSACTIONS / NOTES|
|03||21||R||Signed by Royals, June 4; 51 G in Arizona League|
|04||22||LoA/HiA||133 G for Burlington (Midwest) & Wilmington (Carolina)|
|05||23||HiA/AA||130 G for High Desert (Cal) & Wichita (Texas)|
|06||24||AA||138 G for Wichita (Texas)
Added to 40-man roster, Sept. 20
|07||25||AAA||Option 1, March 13; 140 G for Omaha (Pacific Coast)|
|08||26||AAA/MLB||Option 2, March 29; 85 G for Omaha|
|09||27||AAA/MLB||Option 3, April 4; 12 G for Omaha|
|10||28||MLB?||Out of options|
Like Talbot, Maier also passed through the ’05 Rule 5 draft without being selected. That season he batted a mediocre .287/.322/.482 as a 23-year-old who had just reached Double-A for the first time. A closer look reveals that he did the vast majority of his damage while playing for high Class A High Desert, a notorious hitter's paradise where he batted .336/.370/.583 with eight homers in 227 plate appearances. Maier entered the ’05 season with nine home runs in 181 games, so one can't blame teams for being skeptical.
Since then, Maier has developed into a quality player, if not exactly the prototype first-division regular. He bats lefthanded, plays a quality center field (as well as both corners) and has batted .291/.337/.449 in his 455 games at Double-A Wichita and Triple-A Omaha from 2005 through ’09. But after seeing him make 2,976 pro plate appearances, the Royals still aren't sure they want to commit to him. Maier enters spring training with no options remaining, and he's got a lot of competition for a big league spot in the form of veteran outfielders David DeJesus, Jose Guillen, Rick Ankiel, Scott Podsednik and Brian Anderson.
Players Signed Internationally
|CONSERVATIVE DEVELOPMENT PATH FOR PLAYER SIGNED AT AGE 16
|YEAR||AGE||LEVEL||TRANSACTIONS / NOTES|
|1||16||Does not play||First pro contract|
|2||17||Rookie||U.S. or Latin summer league|
|3||18||Short-season||Extended spring training, June assignment|
|4||19||Low Class A|
|5||20||High Class A||Added to 40-man roster after season|
|6||21||Double-A||Option No. 1 used|
|7||22||Triple-A||Option No. 2 used|
|8||23||Triple-A||Option No. 3 used|
|9||24||Big leagues?||Out of options|
If it's the mark of an elite prospect to be traded for an established big league star, then Carlos Gonzalez's credentials are almost unparalleled. The Venezuelan center fielder with the Rockies (for now) has been dealt for both Dan Haren and Matt Holliday. (Gonzalez would have to eat 10 bowls of Colon Blow a day, every day, for eight and a half years to equal the career VORP of that duo.) In between blockbuster trades, Gonzalez has suited up for nine different minor league clubs, including three Pacific Coast and two Southern league franchises. Along the way, he won MVP honors in the low Class A Midwest League in 2005, appeared in two Futures Games and won our Winter Player of the Year honors in ’06, in the offseason after he tore up the high Class A California League.
Gonzalez's time down on the farm during the past three seasons has been on optional assignment, so the Rockies have no minor league recourse as they race toward the ’10 season. For his part, Gonzalez removed any doubt about his fate by smashing 13 home runs and compiling an .878 OPS in a second-half audition with the Rockies last summer. Then in Colorado's Division Series matchup with the Phillies, he went 10-for-17 (.588) with a homer, two doubles, two walks, two steals, five runs scored and only one strikeout.
Gonzalez timed his coming-out party perfectly. Not only did he struggle as a rookie with Oakland in ’08, but in 2,729 minor plate appearances he batted .290/.348/.484, a rather ordinary performance when you consider some of his home parks along the way, like Lancaster, Colorado Springs and Tucson.
|CARLOS GONZALEZ, OF, ROCKIES
|YR||AG||LVL||TRANSACTIONS / NOTES|
|02||16||DNP||Signed by Diamondbacks, Aug. 3|
|03||17||R||72 G for Missoula (Pioneer)|
|04||18||SS/LoA||87 G for Yakima (Northwest) & S. Bend (Midwest)|
|05||19||LoA||129 G for South Bend|
|06||20||HiA/AA||122 G for Lancaster (Cal) & Tennessee (Southern)
Added to 40-man, Nov. 20
|07||21||AA/AAA||Option 1, March 13
130 G for Mobile (Southern) & Tucson (Pacific Coast)
Traded to Athletics, Dec. 14
|08||22||AAA/MLB||Option 2, March 30
46 G for Sacramento (PCL) + 85 G for A's
Traded to Rockies, Nov. 10
|09||23||AAA/MLB||Option 3, March 30
48 G for Colo. Springs (PCL) + 89 G for Rockies
|10||24||MLB||Out of options|
In addition to being a prodigious talent, Gonzalez also is notable for being among the first wave of minor league players affected by the new CBA guidelines. Rather than making a 40-man decision on Gonzalez in ’05, as they would have had to do under the previous winter's rules, the Diamondbacks were granted another year to evaluate their 19-year-old prospect. [Correction: My apologies for this second error. Gonzalez signed a contract for 2003; therefore, the Diamondbacks added him to 40-man roster after four seasons, which was the standard in place at the time. ME.]
No other segment of the baseball populace was aided as much by the extended window than were young international players, who often sign at 16 or 17 years old. Now teams can evaluate young Latin, Asian, European or Australian prospects for five years, taking them through their age-20 seasons. The best of them, like Gonzalez, might even have a modicum of Double-A exposure.
Thank you for bearing with me as I indulge in two of my favorite baseball subjects: transactions and young players. Up next: the mysterious fourth option year and a closer look at players who enter spring training with no options remaining.
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