Within a fortnight, pitchers and catchers will report for duty, thus marking the beginning of the spring and starting the countdown until the league-wide roster crunch. As difficult as picking the best 25 players can be, the occasionally arcane roster rules add even more complications to the equation. Options are the most notorious and popular forms of restrictions placed upon the teams. The goal is simple: to limit talent hoarding and to assist players in finding opportunities.
Despite the notoriety, options remain shrouded in mystery. Thomas Gorman’s primer from early 2006 remains an indispensable resource for those seeking deeper understanding. The casual observer should keep three rules of thumb in mind when thinking about options:
A team exercises a player’s option if the player is on the 40-man roster, and demoted to the minor leagues for more than 20 cumulative days during a season.
Most players have three option years, not options. The distinction is that players can be optioned up and down endlessly throughout a season, and they will only burn one option.
There are exceptions to the three-option rule. For instance, a player with fewer than five years of professional experience has a fourth option (to protect teams from unready draft picks) or, in the case of a debilitating injury, teams can apply for a fourth option year.
Using those rules as guidelines, one can pore through the fringe players on each team’s 40-man roster and come up with a list of out-of-options players. Like so:
Diamondbacks (5): Tony Abreu INF, Juan Miranda 1B; Armando Galarraga SP; Ryan Robert UT; Carlos Rosa RP
Braves (3): Brooks Conrad INF; Joe Mather UT; Scott Proctor RP
Orioles (5): Jeremy Accardo RP; Robert Andino INF; Jake Fox 5C; Craig Tatum C; Rick VandenHurk RP
Red Sox (3): Matt Albers RP; Scott Atchison RP; Darnell McDonald OF
Cubs (2): Fernando Perez OF; Max Ramirez C
Reds (2): Jose Arredondo RP; Homer Bailey SP
Indians (1): Jensen Lewis RP
Rockies (1): Jonathan Herrera MI
White Sox (4): Alejandro De Aza OF; Lucas Harrell SP; Brent Lillibridge UT; Jeffrey Marquez RP
Tigers (2): Don Kelly UT; Brad Thomas RP
Marlins (1): Emilio Bonifacio UT
Astros (4): Jason Bourgeois OF; Ryan Rowland-Smith SP; Angel Sanchez MI; J.R. Towles C
Royals (4): Gregor Blanco OF; Melky Cabrera OF; Mitch Maier OF; Lucas May C
Angels (3): Jason Bulger RP; Rich Thompson RP; Bobby Wilson C
Dodgers (3): Ronald Belisario RP; Hector Gimenez C; Dioner Navarro C
Brewers (5): Brandon Boggs OF; Luis Cruz MI; George Kottaras C; Wil Nieves C; Manny Parra RP
Twins (2): Clay Condrey RP; Jim Hoey RP
Mets (5): Manny Acosta RP; Nick Evans 1B/OF; Luis Hernandez MI; Chin-Lung Hu MI; Pat Misch SP
Yankees (2): Boone Logan RP; Romulo Sanchez RP
Athletics (1): Joey Devine RP
Phillies (4): Brian Bocock UT; Ross Gload 1B/OF; Scott Mathieson RP; Wilson Valdez INF
Pirates (6): Jose Ascanio RP; John Bowker 1B/OF; Kevin Hart SP; Jeff Karstens SP; Charlie Morton SP; Steve Pearce 1B/OF
Padres (3): Jarrett Hoffpauir INF; Dustin Moseley RP; Oscar Salazar UT
Mariners (3): Garrett Olson SP; David Pauley SP; Josh Wilson INF
Giants (1): Nate Schierholtz OF
Rays (3): Sam Fuld OF; Elliot Johnson UT; Justin Ruggiano OF
Rangers (2): Andres Blanco MI; Matt Treanor C
Blue Jays (3): Shawn Camp RP; Dustin McGowan SP; Jo-Jo Reyes SP
Nationals (2): Alberto Gonzalez INF; Mike Morse UT
Only the teams themselves know the exact standing of their players and options, so this is hardly an official representation. The players are sometimes lost about their status too. Upon his demotion in 2007, then Rays’ reliever Seth McClung expressed confusion after the move, stating his belief that he was out of options. Instead, the team had requested (and won) an additional option year after McClung had a season wiped out due to Tommy John surgery.
The complexion of this list is mostly bench players and bullpen arms for good reason. The good players are unlikely to burn through many options, while the truly bad players are unlikely to remain on the 40-man roster long enough to cause harm. Even the more tantalizing names on the list, like the Reds’ Homer Bailey, are unlikely to reach the waiver wire, as their teams will either shuffle the roster or send them packing in advance.
Instead, the more intriguing players on the list are victims of circumstance. Whether that circumstance is injury, positional overcrowding, or the wrong Zodiac sign, this is the segment of the list where teams may find morsels of value.
Of particular note is Dustin McGowan appeared on his way to becoming a front-line staple for the Blue Jays in 2008. Two labrum injuries and missed seasons later, McGowan’s 2011 season – like his future – is bleak. Likewise, Joey Devine conquered the American League in 2008, tossing 45 innings with a sub-1.00 ERA. Tommy John surgery claimed his 2009 and 2010 seasons, leaving him with the unenviable task of breaking into an Athletics bullpen that runneth over with above-average arms.
J.R. Towles is good for a scar himself, having missed most of the 2010 season with a torn ligament in his right thumb. Unlike McGowan and Devine, Towles’ big-league performance (.189/.273/.327 through 300 plate appearances) will not be enough to ensure a roster spot somewhere. However, his former prospect status and minor-league numbers (.289/.375/.455 in the PCL) could give him second life in the majors, perhaps elsewhere, especially if the Astros decide to roll with Jason Castro and Humberto Quintero, following the philosophy that one struggling young backstop is enough.
Not every situation involving someone interesting comes stamped with a band-aid. The Pirates face the greatest roster crunch of out-of-option players. What Neal Huntington’s roster may lack in talent, it makes up for with inflexibility. More disheartening is how many of the out-of-option players were acquired by Huntington in trades. Kevin Hart and Jose Ascanio are still attempting to equal the value of Tom Gorzelanny’s 2010 season, while Charlie Morton (Nate McLouth), Jeff Karstens (Xavier Nady/Damaso Marte), and John Bowker (Javier Lopez) look to reassure the Bucs’ fans and front office of their potential. The Pirates added enough veteran talent over the offseason to be able to toss some players of this sort without blinking; meaning competition on the fringe will be a common narrative around McKechnie Field.
If the buzzword around the Steel City is competition, then the anthem in Kansas City is ambivalence. A messy outfield figures to include the unlikely pair of Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur, leaving the final three spots to some combination of the out-of-options triplets (Gregor Blanco, Melky Cabrera, and Mitch Maier), the reincarnation of Tom Goodwin (Jarrod Dyson), and one piece from the Zack Greinke trade (Lorenzo Cain). Blanco is the most practical choice, while Cabrera is the most famous, meaning Maier is probably on his way to another locale, while Cain could find himself back in Omaha.
Not every roster decision will be of dire consequence. Some teams, namely the Rays and White Sox, can flip a coin to see who wins their final bench spots. Sam Fuld versus Justin Ruggiano and Alejandro De Aza against Brent Lillibridge may lack in intrigue and appeal, but could create some buzz on the waiver wire for teams in desperate need of depth in the outfield or in a utility role. Ultimately, that's why the options system exists.