Oakland Athletics outfielder Adam Piatt knows the stretch of I-80 between Oakland and Sacramento all too well. He’s driven the stretch of road a dozen times in the past three years, going back and forth on the Sacramento Shuttle between the A’s and the Triple-A River Cats. Driving the 90 miles between Network Associates Coliseum and Raley Field means a lot more than wear on your car; it means the difference between being in the majors and being one of thousands who are trying to get there.
“I didn’t quite understand the process when I got to the majors,” says Piatt. “I figured they had brought me up to play. Then I got optioned down, and it was hard for me. But by about the fifth or sixth time I got sent down, I learned that it wasn’t personal, that it’s just how the system works.”
The rules that govern baseball on the field are complex. But there is another rulebook, one that governs the movement of players and roster management. A large part of this book details the world of options and waivers, and we’re here to try and make these often-confusing subjects as simple as we can.
Each time Piatt was sent back to Sacramento, it was on what is called an “option.” Players who are on the 40-man major league roster, but not on the 25-man active roster are usually on what is called “optional assignment” to a minor league team. Options are a big factor in the progress of a player’s career, especially in the early years.
Take Piatt, for example. His path through the A’s organization is a typical one. The A’s drafted him in the 7th round of the amateur draft in June 1997, and he spent the ’97, ’98, and ’99 seasons in the minor leagues. But after those first three professional seasons, the A’s had to make a decision about Piatt’s future. As soon as a player is signed or drafted, their “option clock” starts ticking. The team has three years before they have to either put a player on the 40-man roster or risk losing him in the Rule 5 draft, which allows teams to draft players from other team’s minor league systems.
So after the 1999 season, the A’s had to decide whether they wanted to put Piatt on the 40-man roster, or risk losing him as a Rule 5 draftee. They chose to put Piatt on the 40-man roster on Nov. 17, 1999. Sounds simple, right? Well, at that point a second options clock started to tick for the A’s outfielder. Once a player is added to the 40-man roster, he gets a total of three years during which his team can move him between the major leagues and the minors whenever they want. The 2000 season was Piatt’s first option year, and he spent the next three years on the shuttle between Oakland and Sacramento, his destination depending both on his performance and that of those players above and below him on the food chain.
The A’s keep close tabs on Piatt and all their young players, since option years are an important tool in determining the direction the team will take. There’s a lot to know about each player, but according to A’s assistant general manager Paul DePodesta, “If you stopped me in the hall and asked me something about a specific player, if I didn’t have the information in my head, I could certainly pull it out of my wallet.”
Many people think that a player can only be brought up and down a total of three times, but in fact the player can be brought up and down as many times as necessary during his three option years. In Piatt’s case, that meant six trips in three years. Also, even if a player doesn’t appear in a major league game during a season, he still ends up using an option if he spends the season on the 40-man roster.
The option period is very important, both for the team and the player. According to Jim Young, Director of Public Relations for the A’s, the team uses the option period to determine whether or not a young player is going to be part of their future. The player gets three years to prove himself at the highest levels, and the team can allow him to gain major league experience, or send him back to the minors for more playing time, without worrying about another team taking the player away from them.
After three years, once that second option clock runs out and the player is out of options, his team can no longer move him up and down at will. Therefore, the beginning of the 2003 season was critical to Piatt’s marriage with the A’s. As the season started, Piatt was out of options, and if the A’s wanted to send him back to Sacramento, he would have had to pass through waivers. The A’s decided to keep him on the Major League roster.
If you think options are confusing, wait until you get a load of waivers. Waivers are the single most complicated rule in baseball, even more complicated than the balk rule. Even the people in the front office don’t know all the waiver rules. “You know the rules you’ve come up against, but there may be other things that you don’t know about until you have to deal with them,” says DePodesta. “We know about 90% of the rules, but we call the Commissioner’s Office to get rulings on things we don’t know about.”
The waiver system was instituted to help players–especially promising young ones–who might otherwise find themselves stuck in the minors forever. As new Athletic Erubiel Durazo knows from his days with Diamondbacks, nothing is more frustrating than being blocked from advancement because your team has an excess of players at your position. Without waivers, a team would be able to hold a player in the minor leagues indefinitely; the waiver system allows those players the possibility of moving to a team where they can have a chance to play in the major leagues.
There are two types of waivers: outright waivers and major league waivers. Outright, or irrevocable, waivers are the type that a player is exposed to if he has been on a 40-man roster for three years, and is therefore out of options, and his team wants to send him to the minors. These waivers cannot be reversed–if, for example, the A’s put Adam Piatt on outright waivers in order to try to send him back to Sacramento, and he is claimed by another team, the A’s lose him to that team.
If the player clears outright waivers, the team can then take that player off the 40-man roster, and send him to the minors. This is called “outrighting” a player. Of course, there are rules around outrighting players as well. The most important of these rules is that a player can only be outrighted once without their permission; if a team wants to do it again, the player can either accept the assignment, or choose to become a free agent. For instance, Jason Grabowski refused an assignment to Sacramento last year, and became a free agent. He ended up resigning with the A’s.
The other type of waivers, major league waivers, are the kind you usually hear about around the July 31st trading deadline. Many teams put a large number of players on waivers near the deadline in order to clear room on the 40-man roster and give themselves more flexibility when it comes to making last-minute trades. If a player clears these waivers, his team can then trade him or outright him. Unlike outright waivers, major league waivers are revocable–if a player is claimed, his team has the option of “pulling him back” and not losing the player. If this happens, though, the player cannot be traded or sent to the minors for the duration of the waiver period.
How important are waiver wire pickups and options to the makeup of a team like the A’s? The A’s haven’t made a waiver wire pickup in more than a year, since they claimed Allen Levrault off waivers from the Brewers (he was released by the A’s after the 2002 season). According to DePodesta, the A’s have a very stringent set of criteria regarding what sort of players they’re looking for, and those type of players rarely come up on waivers. Also, picking up a player on waivers means cutting someone from your 40-man roster. “In order to make a claim,” says DePodesta, “you have to ask yourself, ‘How much better is this guy that the guy we already have?'”
Options, on the other hand, have a significant impact on decision-making, especially at the beginning of the season. The A’s philosophy is always to try to break camp with the 25 best players. Younger players are often brought up to the major leagues on option when the team thinks highly of them, and they are given the chance to prove themselves. When their options are gone, it’s decision time.
In some situations, option status can be used as a sort of tie-breaker when two players are competing for one roster spot at the end of Spring Training. It might be two young players, one with options and one without, or it might be a young player competing against a veteran who’s out of options. As DePodesta puts it, “If we think a guy is going to be a part of the future of the club, we might choose to go with him, and avoid trying to put him through waivers, rather than going with a veteran who has had a good camp.”
As for Piatt, he hopes that his rides on the Sacramento shuttle are over. “You just have to deal with the situation the best you can,” he says. “You have to understand that it’s a long haul. You wish you could be an Eric Chavez or a guy like that where options don’t matter, that you get to the majors and stay, but unfortunately, that’s not the case for most players.”