In the minutes after we posted our annual list of out-of-options players earlier today, several readers pointed out players they believed to have been omitted. In following up with various team and agency sources around the league, it became clear that there’s some uncertainty as to how the 2020 season will impact some players’ number of minor league options.
Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch explores the situation at greater length, reporting that Cardinals outfielder Justin Williams isn’t even sure whether he has a minor league option remaining. Neither, according to Goold, are the Cardinals themselves. Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register writes that the Angels are in a similar spot with right-hander Jaime Barria. Goold lists the Cubs’ Adbert Alzolay as another player currently in this state of limbo.
The reason? The commissioner’s office, the MLB Players Association and Major League teams still need to determine whether last year’s shortened slate of games counts as a full season under the league’s option structure. An arbiter is expected to make a final decision sometime this month, per Fletcher. Goold writes that a decision is expected “any time now,” adding that the Cardinals have been awaiting clarity for weeks.
By rule, players are given three option years after being selected to a team’s 40-man roster. Being optioned to the minor leagues, even if it’s out of Spring Training, counts as an option year — so long as the player spends 20 days down on the farm. Players are granted three option years, but there’s no limit to the number of times they can be optioned back and forth throughout the course of one of those individual option seasons.
It is possible for some players to be granted a fourth option year. This is most typical among players who have missed considerable time due to injury. Players who are on the 40-man roster and have exhausted those three minor league options before accruing five full seasons of play can be granted this exemption. A “full” season by that definition entails 90 or more days on an active Major League or Minor League roster (but not the injured list).
As Goold explains with regard to Williams, he fell shy of 90 days on an active roster in 2013, 2014 and 2019. His fifth “full” season would’ve been 2020 — you can see where this is going — but the season itself was not 90 days in length. Beyond the fact that the season itself was only 67 days long, players who were “optioned” weren’t sent to the minor leagues to compete in games but rather to alternate training sites to participate in simulated game settings against others in the organization.
Generally speaking, Major League clubs are keenly aware of the out-of-options players on other rosters, but it was clear in asking around today that there’s presently a disconnect because of last year’s shortened season. Even if you were to downplay the significance of one team not being clear on another team’s player, the reports from Goold and Fletcher underscore the confusion surrounding the issue.
It seems something of this nature should have been planned for during last year’s return-to-play negotiations, but as we saw with the months-long back-and-forth between MLB and the MLBPA, the March agreement under which the season was renewed had many issues that were not fully addressed. It’s not necessarily a surprise that 2021 option status wasn’t a major talking point up front, but it’s nonetheless a bit perplexing that an entire offseason has elapsed without a resolution. Minor league options — or a lack thereof — will be a considerably driving factor in spring roster moves around the game over the next four weeks.