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
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
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:
- An option is not expended if the player is optioned down for less
than 20 total days in a season. As long the total number of
days a 40-man player is on the farm doesn’t add up to 20,
then an option hasn’t been burned.
Giants outfielder Todd Linden was optioned down to
the minors in three different seasons, as you can sort of tell from
his professional record. Being sent down in 2003 didn’t
count, though. Linden started the year with a minor-league contract in Fresno, and on August 17 he was placed on the 40-man roster for the first time and assigned to the major-league squad in San Francisco. On the 20th, Linden was optioned down,
but he was recalled on the 21st and stayed with the major-league team
for the rest of the year. Since he was only optioned down for a
single day that year, he didn’t burn one of his option years, which
means that the Giants could option him down again in the coming
season if they wanted to.
- A player is eligible for a fourth option season if he has been
optioned in three seasons and has not yet amassed five full seasons
of professional baseball experience. A little slower now: if a player
runs through his three option years very quickly in his professional
career than his team is granted a fourth option.
Consider another Giant, pitcher Kevin Correia. As
you can guess from his professional record he was added to the
Giants 40-man roster in 2003 and optioned down to the minors in 2003,
2004 and 2005. Three options burned so he can’t be optioned again in
2006, right? Well, because his options were burned before he amassed
five seasons of professional experience, he gets a fourth option
Players who sign a major-league contract with their first
professional contract typically burn an option in their first
professional year, so it’s not unbelievable that such players might
run through all three of their standard option seasons within their
first five years. The problem with that logic, of course, is that
such players often make it to the majors and stick there for good.
Guys like Mark Teixeira and Mark Prior both spent options in the first years of their career but
they also stopped expending options pretty quickly.
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
- First, an amateur signed in one year often doesn’t get signed and
into a uniform in time to get 90 days of service for that year. You
have to sign and get on a team pretty quickly to have your first year
counted against you.
- Second, since the short-season leagues never last 90 days, a year
spent only with a short-season team doesn’t count as a year of
service. Looking back at Correia’s record we can
see that the only championship team he played for in 2002 was in the
Northwest League (NWL). The NWL season doesn’t last 90 days, so that
doesn’t count as a season of professional baseball for the option
rule, which means that at the end of last season Correia is only
considered to have had three years of service.
So Correia will enter the 2007 season and still have completed less
than five years of service. If the Giants don’t use their fourth
option on him in 2006 they’ll still have one available on the hurler
- Third, disabled list time doesn’t count towards a season of
service unless it is preceded by at least 60 days on an active list.
This means that a player injured for most or all of a season will
likely not earn a year of service and is that much more likely to get
a fourth option year down the road.
Baseball America‘s Jim Callis tracked one such case in a column last year. Cleveland reliever
Andrew Brown was first added to a 40-man roster at
the end of 2002 and optioned down to the minors in 2003, 2004 and
2005. He signed his first professional contract in 1999, so surely
he’s amassed five seasons of service, right? Nope.
In 1999, Brown was in the Gulf Coast League and didn’t get 90 days of
service. He missed all of 2000 while rehabbing from Tommy John
surgery. In 2001 he was
in short-season ball, so again, no 90 days. In 2003, he had bone-chip
surgery and was on the disabled list the entire year. In six years of
baseball, Brown has amassed just three seasons of service as defined
by the option rule. He’ll have a fourth option year available to him
in 2006 and, just like Correia, if it isn’t used next year he’ll
still have that option in 2007.
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:
- If a player from the active list of the major-league club is
placed on the Disabled List subsequent to the optional assignment,
the optioned player can be recalled to take that roster spot before
10 days have elapsed. Remember when Todd Linden was recalled just a
day after his option down to Fresno in 2003? This was legal
because he was called up to
replace an injured Jesse Foppert.
- If the minor-league club’s season, including any playoffs, ends before the 10-day period
has elapsed, then he can be recalled before
the waiting period is over.
- If the optioned player is being assigned to another major-league
club’s Active List via trade, he can be recalled to that roster before
10 days are up.
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
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
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.
Thank you for reading
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