So... what exactly IS an option anyway?
When you hear someone referring to a player "having options", or perhaps being "out of options", they are referring, in a nutshell, to whether or not a player signed to a MLB contract is contractually allowed to be sent to play in the minor leagues during the current season without fear of losing the player to free agency or to another franchise via waiver claim. The term "options" refers more specifically to the capabilities of a player being assigned to a Minor League team despite being signed to a Major League deal without any side consequences for the team or the player.
Okay, fancy language is fancy. What does this really mean? Let's break it down piece by piece and address some of the most common misconceptions about how optional assignments work and refine our definition a little bit with each step.
1. a player signed to a MLB contract
Players signed to MLB contracts exist on what you know as the 40-man roster, a list of players that are currently eligible to appear on the active roster for the Major League team in a baseball franchise. In other words, options only apply to players who sit on a team's 40-man roster, and are used when one of said players does not appear simultaneously on the active (aka "25-man") roster.
2. allowed to be sent to play in the minor leagues
Any instance in which a player on the 40-man roster is sent to play for a Minor League team (not including things like rehabilitation assignments for players on the disabled list) represents and instance in which a player is "optioned" to the minors. Here we must refine our terms a little bit. "Option" is a nice, pithy way to explain this phenomenon, but there are key details that clarify exactly what constitutes an "optional assignment". When someone uses the word "options", it isn't merely the individual act of sending them to the minors that is being analyzed here. Let us read on.
3. during the current season
One of the things many people don't realize about optional assignments is that the optional assignment itself does not refer directly to the exact transaction of someone being optioned that was mentioned above. The optional assignment itself actually refers specifically to the amount of time during a single MLB season that a player spends in the minors after being optioned.
That means that a player can theoretically be optioned to the minors a dozen separate instances during one season, because the only thing that matters is the fact that they spend time on optional assignment during the season. Thus, when someone refers to "options" or "optional assignments", they are in fact referring to "option years", or for the layman, "seasons in which the player can be sent down in this manner", not in fact to individual instances of players being optioned away.
4. without fear of losing the player to free agency or to another franchise via waiver claim
Another fun secret of options: anyone can be optioned to the minors. Yes, it's true! A player can be optioned to the minors, my friends, even if they are out of options. Why? Because the contract and the rules of the assignment don't forbid the act of optioning a player to the minors. What they forbid is the act of optioning a player to the minors... without consequence. So for the final time, we adjust our definition. When someone refers to "options" or "optional assignments" or "option years" they are actually referring to "free option years", for players who have used a specific amount of options or who have been in the Majors for enough time see this definition apply differently. We will discuss those restrictions at a later point in the article.
So, to clarify: "options" refers, in its most specific and clear form, to the amount of remaining years (point 3) in which any player on a 40-man roster (point 1) can spend a specific part of the season playing for a minor league team (point 2) without fear of consequence (point 4). If you understand these four individual elements, you can understand what specifically is being referenced when you hear someone use any of these terms. But understanding the concept is just the tip of the iceberg. How about their usage?
So... why are options/optional assignments/option years/free option years a thing?
To contextualize their purpose for existence, we can simply imagine a little dialogue between the individual teams, the players and the league itself. Let us put on a little skit to demonstrate.
League: Okay teams, it's time for another wonderful season of baseball. But it has come to our attention that there is a bit of a problem here: nothing is stopping teams from using however many player they well please! Thus we are going to cap the rosters at 25 players.
Teams: Whoa, hold on there just a second. What happens if we want to keep more than 25 players signed to MLB contracts? Are you seriously saying we have to keep just barely enough players to field a team on our roster at any given time? We need some breathing room here so we have more able bodied players available if one of our players struggles or gets hurt or something.
League: Fair point. In that case, we will allow you to carry 15 additional players on contracts that you may swap out on your active roster as you see fit.
Players: Uhm, that's all well and good... but what's to stop a team from bouncing us around constantly, or from signing us to MLB contracts and then keeping us in the minors for years and years, ruining our chance at a real career?
League: Teams will have restrictions on the situations in which they can actually do this.
And the optional assignment was born.
Optional assignments exist as a compromise between these three parties. Teams must promise the league that they have an evenly sized roster with their opponents, while leagues must promise the teams that they have separate available players in case they need to make a change to their roster. In turn, both the teams and the league must promise the players that they will not allow for a player to be "looked over" by being eternally stuck in the minors while they wait for Todd Helton or somebody to retire.
But we still must explore the restrictions themselves.
So... why is it always such a big deal figuring out if a player can be optioned to the minors freely or not? How do these things freaking work already?
Let's start with the really simple stuff that everyone probably already knows. The simplest and easiest restriction to understand: all players have three option years. ... right? Well, sort of but not exactly. Not all players actually do. Some have more. Some have less. Some end up with none at all.
"All players" in that definition should read "all players that sign as amateurs". This means players who get signed via the draft, as well as players who sign as amateur free agents (whether international or domestic) begin their careers with at least three of these suckers inherently attached to their contract. Players who sign as professionals from other countries, most frequently Japan, Korea or Cuba, may have restrictions on how many options they may have, if any at all.
Now the Rockies very rarely sign professionals from other leagues, so I am not as familiar with how these restrictions work, but they likely have to do with translating service time from their earlier professional leagues into benefits that would be equivalent to MLB service time. For example, even though a player like Masahiro Tanaka has 0.000 MLB service time, he has likely been awarded benefits equal to higher service time calculations based around his time as a professional outside of Major League Baseball.
Further, as some of you may have gleaned by my frequent ramblings here on Purple Row, some players end up with more than three options. There are two main ways that this happens, and the Rockies actually happen to havean example of each on their roster as we speak.
Case #1: Jordan Lyles
When Jordan Lyles was first acquired from the Houston Astros, several people who did a quick cursory glance at his status panicked at the fact that he seemed to be out of options. Not to worry, I told them; Lyles does in fact have one option remaining. But how? He used three already right? Well, not quite, because we must remember Point 2 from earlier: options aren't instances of a player being optioned, they are instances of a player spending time on optional assignment.
Jordan Lyles has indeed been optioned to the minors in three separate seasons: 2011, 2012 and 2013. But let's take a look at that 2011 option. Lyles was optioned to the Oklahoma City Redhawks on August 21st, 2011. He was then recalled on September 2nd. Hey, someone is raising an important question in the skit! Let's tune in.
Team: Let's say we option down one of our players and then like four days later we need them back? Does that really actually burn one of their three options?
League: Nope. Players will need to spend 20 cumulative days on optional assignment during a season for the option to actually be used.
And there you have your answer. August 21st to September 2nd is 12 days, far less than the 20 needed for the option to burn. So even though Lyles was optioned down in 2011, it didn't actually tick off one of his three guaranteed options, and so we can consider him a candidate for free options this season.
This is the same reasoning behind why Jonathan Herrera has had that hilarious phantom option that we liked to joke about. He still has it, by the way, in case any Boston fans are reading this. But there's a good chance it'll be gone by the end of this year, even if it's not used. More on that in a minute.
Players: How is that fair, for the team to just send us back and forth in tiny intervals?
League: Players will receive MLB service time for all unburned optional assignment time, as though they had never left.
If you take a look at Corey Dickerson and Rex Brothers on Rockies Roster, you will find that both still have three options listed. However, those of you with sharp memories may remember that both players have actually been optioned in their time with the Rockies; Dickerson last year, Brothers in 2012. Both of these options were for less than 20 days, and thus both retain all three. These two players, in addition to Jordan Lyles, all have had extra service time added to their totals in compensation for these short optional assignments.
Case #2: DJ LeMahieu
There is another way that players can end up with excess options, usually called "bonus options", at least by me. Players like Lyles, Brothers and Dickerson have all gotten the chance at extra years with free options, but it's really only because some of their regular three didn't count. Some players, however, get access to a bonus fourth option, and we have one on our roster today, Mr. LeMahieu.
Team: What if we option down a player and they spend all season hurt? Further, what if we purchase a player to our roster when they're just starting their professional career and we need extra time to continue to develop them in the minors?
League: We will establish a set of requirements for a player to pass before they lose their chance to be optioned a fourth time.
Those requirements are what I believe to be the most difficult thing about optional assignments, and when I do my research to out whether a player qualifies for that fourth option or not, it can be a real pain to determine whether or not that qualification is there if the line is blurry.
In order to determine whether or not they qualify, we have to look at a totally arbitrary definition of a player's professional career that as far as I know is not used for any other measurement and is there for not quantified in any effectively accessible manner anywhere. It is a measure called "years of professional service", and it has more to do than just MLB or even MiLB service time. It has to do with how many specific seasons a player has been a professional baseball player. If a player has less than five of these, and has already burned their three regular options, they gain access to their bonus option but only one...
Players: Even if we're hurt for a long time or we start our careers earlier than we should, we're still getting older. It's not fair for a team to be able to generate unlimited bonus options if our careers are delayed.
League: We will cap bonus option years teams can use on a player at one extra.
Even if a player still has less than five years of professional service and they have burned through all three options plus their bonus fourth, they do not get a fifth. Only one bonus allowed in this way. And, of course it disappears if the player reaches five years of professional service before they use their bonus. This happened a few years Back to Esmil Rogers, who qualified for a fourth bonus option, but it was never used. He has since acquired enough years of professional service, and the option disappeared.
So what quantifies a "year of professional service". It's admittedly rather complicated. A "full year of professional service" is defined as one individual season in which a player spent at least 90 days on an active roster for a professional team (which are MLB teams, officially licensed MiLB team tied to a MLB franchise, as well as the aforementioned exceptions for international pro leagues MLB recognizes as such).
Now, one little roster quirk that some of you may or may now know is that players on the disabled list are actually technically on the active roster. They don't count towards the roster limit and aren't eligible to play in games, but they continue to remain "active" (this is why MLB players continue to earn service time while injured). This is redefined in this instance: only 30 of that 90 days on an active professional roster can be spent on the DL (so players who spend less than two months/sixty days active and able to play while spending the rest of the season active but on the DL don't see their "full year of pro service" counter go upward for that season.
The reason this is frustrating is because without proper recordkeeping (and MiLB's official transactions lists are sometimes disastrously poor at this), it can be hard to tell if one of these full years of pro service was actually used or not. Obviously, a player who played in 100+ games or so is a pretty good bet to have used one. Starting pitchers who start more than 15 games or so, pretty fair bet as well. Relievers are more erratic, but if they've made 30+ appearances, they've usually used one up, unless they somehow pitched that many times in just two months. But it's never guaranteed. The best thing to look for would be to simply add up all days active on the rosters, but that information (other than the last 4 years of Rockies players at Rockies Roster) is not readily available. Sometimes it requires educated guesswork.
DJ LeMahieu is a fairly easy one though. LeMahieu was drafted and signed by the Cubs in the 2009 draft. He was purchased to the 40-man roster much earlier than most players are, in 2011, just barely two years into being a professional. Players who play after signing from the draft very rarely see their first season of pro ball last long enough to count. LeMahieu played professionally for just about seven weeks after signing, not anywhere close to a full professional season as defined. So 2009 is out.
LeMahieu did, in fact, play full pro seasons in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. But that only adds up to four. LeMahieu burned all three of his regular options in '11, '12 and '13. But because he doesn't have that fifth full season under his belt yet, the Rockies can option him freely again this year. If LeMahieu gets a full pro season here in 2014, whether he uses the option or not, it will disappear next year.
Another player on this line is Christian Friedrich. Friedrich still has one regular option remaining, with was just put into use a couple of days ago. Friedrich also happens to have four total full pro seasons, in his case being 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 as his 2013 was wiped out to injury. If Friedrich were to spent most of 2014 also out with injury, he would qualify for a bonus next year despite burning his last regular option this year.
So... what happens when a player is out of options?
Players who exhaust all of their options must clear waivers to be optioned back to the minors again, meaning any random team can have their go. Most of the time, players who are out of options are sent back to the minors via outright assignment rather than an optional assignment; players on outright assignment are sent through waivers anyway, and unlike an option, they don't keep occupying a spot on the 40-man roster.
But there is another way that players can lose their free optionability. You may recall earlier I said that one way or the other, Jonathan Herrera is likely to finally, after all these years, lose that pesky option at the end of this year with Boston. The reason is because this year Jonathan Herrera projects to pass 5 years of MLB service time, and it just so happens that when you cross five years of MLB service time, all players gain the right to reject any minor league assignment and become a free agent instead.
Troy Tulowitzki has never been optioned, but if you look at Rockies Roster, it will say he has zero free options remaining. The reason is because he now has over 5 years of MLB service time. His three options are still there... he could be sent to the minors at any time without needing to clear waivers. But because he can just decide to opt out of the assignment at any time, those options are no longer "free". There is risk involved.
It's uncommon to see players optioned in this fashion, but it does happen on occasion. Last year, both Jeff Francis and Manny Corpas saw themselves optioned to the minors, with the Rockies basically deciding that both players were worth keeping but not so worth keeping that they didn't allow both of them to have the opportunity to just up and opt out of their contracts.
One final note: here is my options flowchart, which you are all free to use if you ever want to follow the research path along to see how many players an option has on your own.
And there you have it. Everything you ever or never wanted to know about this nonsense.