January 10, 2006
The BP Guide to Transaction Rules
Our third entry tries to explain the complicated "option" rules, as outlined in Major League Rule 11 (MLR 11). Most fans have heard of options, most serious fans know basically what they are, but few outside the Commissioner's Office understand all their ins and outs. The provisions of this rule take up just four and a half 9" by 5" pages in the Major League Rules, but they're complicated and confusing, so bear with me.
To be placed on the 40-man roster, a player needs to be given a major-league contract. When teams want to assign those contracts to a minor-league club (that is, when teams want one of their 40-man players to play for an affiliated minor-league franchise) they give the player an "optional assignment" down to the minor-league team (as opposed to an "outright assignment," which we'll leave for another day). An option is not used only when a player is shifted off the 25-man roster and down to the minors. An option is also expended when a player on the 40-man is assigned to a minor-league roster. For example, a player with a 40-man contract who spends his entire season in the minor leagues does use an option even though he never made it to the 25-man active roster of the major-league squad.
The optional assignment language signifies that the team has reserved a "right of recall" and can recall the player to the active list of their major league roster. Optional assignments are not subject to waiver approval from the other 29 clubs, and they give a team a great deal of freedom to move players onto and off of their major-league active rosters.
That's the basics of an option. It's an agreement to assign a player with a major-league contract to a minor-league roster, and the assigning organization reserves the right to recall the player to the active list of their major-league club. There are a number of rules that limit the use of options, and there are exceptions and caveats that further complicate the rules. These details are what make options so difficult to understand.
First, there is a limit to how many times a team can option a player down. Once a player gets a major-league contract (viz. "is added to the 40-man roster") he is typically eligible for optional assignment in three different seasons. He can be optioned down and called back up as many times as the club likes in each year, but the club only has that right in three individual seasons. There are some exceptions and qualifications to this hard three-season limit:
What counts as a season of professional baseball for the option rule? Generally speaking, a player has to be on the active list of a major-league or minor-league team for at least 90 days during a championship season to be credited with a season of service. This creates three important caveats that complicate the fourth option year exception:
In the course of each option year, there are limitations on the major-league club's right of recall. Once a player has been optioned down to the minors he can only be recalled if 10 days of the optionee club's season have elapsed from the time he reported to the farm. There are three exceptions to this rule:
Let's review a couple of the last esoteric bits. A player can spend part of his season in the minors and part of his season in the majors and not have exhausted an option. Consider a player like Texas reliever Frank Francisco. Francisco started 2004 on a minor-league contract so his time on the Frisco roster that year wasn't an "optional assignment." He was added to the 40-man roster and called up to the majors in one swoop on May 17 that year and spent the rest of the season in Texas. At no point in 2004 was he both on a 40-man roster and also assigned to a minor-league roster, so no option was used. In 2005, though, an option was expended to send him to the minors.
Also important to remember is that a player with at least five years of major league service (MLS) can refuse any assignment to the minor leagues, including an optional assignment. These situations are rare, as a player with five years of MLS is unlikely to still have an option remaining, but the Newberg Report's Jamey Newberg astutely found one in Tim Crabtree in 2000. Crabtree reached five years of service 71 days into the 2000 season, and from that point forward had the right to refuse a minor-league assignment. This right is guaranteed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement in Article XIX(A)(2)(a).
Finally, a player on the major-league disabled list can be sent to the minors for a rehab assignment that doesn't expend an option. In fact, players on the major-league disabled list cannot be assigned to the minor leagues by any means, including an optional assignment, by virtue of a right guaranteed the players in the CBA (Article XIX[C]).
Hopefully you're still with us, as that's it. A player with a 40-man major league contract can be optioned down to the minors a limited number of times. As tricky as it is to calculate everything out, the basic principle is straightforward. Of course, if a team has no options remaining on a player and they want to send him to the minor leagues they need to pass him through outright waivers, but we'll leave that can of worms for our next piece.