MLB Transactions Part Two: The 40-Man Roster and Option Years

By popular demand (comments in last week's salary arbitration article), in this session of Purple Row Academy, we're going to continue our miniseries on transactions. This week, I explore 40 man roster construction, mostly as it applies to prospects, and in particular, those pesky minor league options.

Subsequent transaction topics for the Academy will include (but are certainly not limited to) sessions on waivers, the DL, trades, the Rule 5 draft, and free agency (topics not necessarily in that order). After all, baseball transactions are a huge topic, and I don't have 2500 word articles in me every week. So, without further ado, let's take the red pill and see how deep this rabbit hole goes!

Minor League Rosters

First, a word about minor league roster sizes, as at any point in time there are quite a few prospects floating around our system that will soon require 40 man roster protection. Courtesy of Cot's, here's how the active rosters stack up by level (and where the Rockies have each type of affiliate):

  • AAA clubs (Colorado Springs): 24 players.
  • AA clubs (Tulsa): 24 players (first 30 days of the season), 23 players (day 31 to August 10) and 24 players (August 11 to the end of the season, including the playoffs).
  • A clubs (Asheville, Modesto): 25 players, with no more than two players with more than five years of minor-league service time.
  • Short-season A clubs (Tri-City): 30 players. No more than 25 players may be used in a single game. As of July 1, the Active List must include at least 10 pitchers. No more than four players may be 23 years old or older. No more than three players may have four or more years of minor-league service time.)
  • Advanced rookie clubs (Casper): 35 players. No more than 30 players may be used in a single game. As of July 1, the Active List must include at least 10 pitchers. No more than 12 players may be 21 years old or older, and no more than two players may be 23 years old or older. No player may have more than two years as a professional, and no player may have three or more years of minor-league service time.
  • Rookie clubs (none): 35 players. No more than 30 players may be used in a single game. As of July 1, the Active List must include at least 10 pitchers. No more than 8 players may be 20 years old or older, including two drafted players and four undrafted players who are at least 21 years old. No player may have more than two years of minor-league service time.

The reserve list limits are as follows: 38 players for AAA clubs, 37 for AA clubs, 35 for A clubs and below. What this essentially means is that at any given time, the maximum amount of players the Rockies can have in their farm system is 215 players (163 of them active)! Of course, teams don't always max out their minor league affiliates with players, especially on the reserve lists. Even so, that's a lot of infrastructure for a 25 man active major league squad.

The 40-Man Roster

Now that we've determined that there are indeed a lot of minor league prospects vying for a shot with the big club, let's look for a minute at how (and why) major league rosters are constructed as they are. First, some delineation between the two, and then some clarification about the 40 man roster.

Obviously, the 25 man roster consists of those players that are eligible to dress for a game for the major league club, while the 40 man roster (officially known as the Major League Reserve List) also includes people on the 15 day DL and minor league prospects. Also well known by fans is that the 40 man roster is eligible to dress and participate in games from September 1st on--a very controversial rule that sometimes leads to glorified minor league games, especially when two teams that are out of playoff contention play. However, what is less known is what differentiates those 15 from other minor league prospects. In other words, what is the rhyme and reason of the 40 man roster?

The answer and more after the jump...

Why put a prospect on the 40-Man Roster? And how does this happen?

Quite simply, players are added to the 40 man roster so that a club can continue to exert control over a player, primarily by protecting them from the Rule 5 draft (to be discussed in a later session of PR Academy) Long story short: a club has 5 years to evaluate a player who signs his first pro contract at 18 years old or younger (from the June 5th preceding signing his contract), but only 4 years to decide on a player who signs at age 19 or above. Those prospects who are not placed on the 40 man roster that meet these requirements are eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. As a result, teams must place their most valuable prospects on the 40 man roster. This year, the Rockies protected prospects such as Dexter Fowler, Hector Gomez, EY2, Chris Nelson, Samuel Deduno, Shane Lindsay, Ryan Mattheus, and Esmil Rogers from the Rule 5 draft.

Another reason for putting a prospect on the ML Reserve List is if they are ready for the Show before their 4 or 5 year evaluation period is up, as was certainly the case for Tulo, Jeff Francis, and others. The procedure is that the major league club must purchase the contract of the prospect from his minor league team (even though they already pay his salary) so that they can sign him to a major league contract--coming with better pay, benefits, MLBPA membership, and the satisfaction of being on the fast track to the Show. For instance, as I pointed out in my Rockpile yesterday, Greg Reynolds, a member or our 40 man roster, will be paid $114,795 in the minors and $402,000 in the majors.

Other ways to add a player to the ML Reserve List is to claim them off of waivers, through a trade, or through free agency. But that is a topic for another article.

Now that a player has been signed to a major league contract and is on the 40-Man Roster, what options does his team have?

Get it? Options? I'm really too much. When a player is first added to the 40 man roster, he is given a total of three option years. While they are often referred to as options, this is a little misleading. In a given option year, a player may be sent down to the minors and recalled as often as the team pleases while only using one option. In other words, an option is a season during which the club may to move him to and from the minor leagues without exposing him to other clubs. Basically, options are another measure of control that a team has on its prospects--one that allows a club to send its prospects that need a little seasoning or are blocked at the major league level down to the minors, where they can get in some good at-bats and work on their issues. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule, however.

One of these exceptions is that a player optioned to the minor leagues may not be recalled for at least 10 days, unless the club places a player from the 25 man active roster on the disabled list during the 10-day window, in which case the prospect may be recalled. Another is that a player with 5 years of Major League service may not be sent to the minor leagues on an optional assignment without his consent. Thus, teams don't have options on some arbitration eligible players due to their service time, as well as all players eligible for free agency. These players are usually designated for assignment, a topic that will be explored later in the waivers session. Let's just look at the prospects for now.

After his three option years are exhausted, a player is out of options. Beginning with the next season, he must clear waivers before he may be sent to the minors again.

An option year is used:

  • If a player is on the 40-man roster in spring training but optioned to the minors before the season begins. This will be the case for a number of our prospects this year, most likely including Fowler, Nelson, Rogers, and EY2.
  • If a player is sent down to the minors during the regular season--even if a player broke camp with the team, like Franklin Morales last year
  • However, an option year is NOT used:

  • If a player is not sent to the minors during a year (obviously). This includes players with options like Tulo and Francis.
  • If a player’s optional assignment(s) to the minors total less than 20 days in one season. However, this is very unlikely to happen as a minimum assignment is ten days. I'm not clear on if this rule also applies to when a player is sent to the minors immediately following Spring Training, but all indications are that it does.
  • If they are called up in September, because as I mentioned above, during September the 40 man roster is technically the active roster.  
  • Also, in very rare cases 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--where a full season is defined as being on an active pro (major or minor) roster for at least 90 days in a season--thus short season leagues like the Pioneer and Northwest leagues don't count as a full season for players.

    This exception is really quite rare though, as teams would have to sign a player to a major league contract immediately (like Matt Wieters or Buster Posey was, I believe), then keep that player in the minors for three full years. It doesn't happen often, as most players are signed to a major league contract when they're about ready to contribute on the major league level.

    So those are minor league options--and since this is a Rockies blog, I'll conclude this session by looking at their 40 man roster, outlining who has options and how many they have.

    The Rockies and Their Options

    Note: This list was compiled based on educated guesswork and might not be completely correct. This information isn't too easy to find in one place. Also, some of these players with less than 3 years' major league service time that have no options (like Morillo, I believe) may be outrighted to the minors--younger players must accept this the first time it happens. I'm still not sure if I completely understand it.

    Three Option Seasons Remaining: EY2, Nelson, Mattheus, Deduno, Gomez, Lindsay, Rogers, Smith (Greg),  Fowler

    Two Option Seasons Remaining: Reynolds, Register, Smith (Seth),  Iannetta, Koshansky, Tulo, Ubaldo, Corpas

    One Option Season Remaining: Stewart, CarGo, Morales, Murton, Hirsh

    One Option Season Remaining (Service Time Constraints): Francis, Hawpe, Street

    No More Options: Speier, Morillo, Quintanilla, Barmes, De La Rosa, Spilborghs, Atkins, Grilli, Buchholz, Baker

    Options Ineligible (Service Time): Embree, Helton, Torrealba, Cook, Marquis

    So there you have it. The Rockies have a couple players that they need to make decisions on this spring--particularly with Speier, Morillo, and Quintanilla.

    Hopefully, after reading this article you have a better grasp on minor league options and the 40 man roster. I'm sorry that I could not go into more depth on some things...but if I'd done that, I wouldn't have future topics to discuss and this article would have been roughly the same length as a scholarly paper.

    Sources and Additional Reading

    These sources were invaluable in writing this article and are highly recommended as supplementary reading:

    Minor League Rosters: Courtesy of Cot's Contracts' Jeff Euston

    Options: Jeff Euston

    Rockies 40 Man Roster

    How the 40-Man Roster Works: Courtesy of Brew Crew Ball

    Cot's Baseball Contracts (Colorado Rockies)

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