One of the lesser-understood factors that impacts Major League Baseball roster construction is minor league options. One reason they are not well-understood is that the information is not readily available. Fortunately for the St. Louis Cardinals, I track this and will share it here. But first, we need to set some ground rules.
Once added to the 40-man roster, players typically are allowed three option years. That means they can be sent down to the minor leagues and brought back up to the big-league club any number of times over three different years.
Why this matters is that after the three minor league option years have been spent, the player is "out of options." That means that the only way the club can send the player to the minors is by removing the player from the 40-man roster and "outrighting" him to the minors. That can only occur if the player clears irrevocable waivers, meaning he was not selected by one of other 29 MLB clubs. Therein lies the risk of potentially losing a valuable player forever.
However, more experienced players are protected from this process. Whether or not a player has exhausted all of his options, he no longer can be sent to the minors without his consent after he has accumulated five years of MLB service time. Worse, these players if optioned, can immediately declare free agency if they so choose. So in reality, this is never going to happen.
There are other options rules twists and turns, but these are the basics.
Let’s get started. We will look at the completely-full Cardinals 40-man roster in five distinct groups, based on each player’s number of option years remaining. Before we get into the names, here are the raw numbers.
Options not applicable
We will begin with the group of non-applicable veterans just explained above.
|N/A (10 players)|
There is not much to say about this group. I guess if one wanted to define an expanded core of key veteran Cardinals players, these would be the ones.
Players who departed from this group since the end of the 2016 season are Matt Holliday, Brandon Moss, Jordan Walden, Jerome Williams and Brayan Pena. With only two new arrivals of five or more year players this off-season in Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil, it seems clear the 2017 Cardinals will feature less experience than the prior year's club.
Another ground rules point. In the following four sections, I am listing the players’ names in an order that approximates my assessment of their likelihood of using one of their options in 2017. The far right column indicates the odds of each on a high, medium, low or almost zero scale.
Three options remaining
|Three options (12 players)||Use?|
|Stephen Piscotty||Almost zero|
|Seung-hwan Oh||Almost zero|
The group with its full supply of options still available is largest, with a dozen of the 40-man roster players among them. The first five players in the above table are the newest prospect additions to the 40-man, from this past fall, and are almost surely slated to return to the minors for 2017.
Next, also at “high” odds, are two players who made their MLB debuts late in the 2016 season in Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly. Without serious injuries to front-line players in spring training, the two are highly likely to open the season in Memphis. That does not mean they won’t be in St. Louis at some point, but all it takes is 20 days in the minors to burn the option for the year. I expect that will occur.
Two players listed with “medium” odds are pitchers Matt Bowman and Alex Reyes. If push comes to shove, I think both will be among the opening-day 25, but they may need help.
For example, if Michael Wacha is strong in the spring, there is a chance Reyes could start the season in Memphis until a rotation opening occurs. Even if he opens with St. Louis, it is not crazy to think Reyes could struggle for a time and get sent down at some point during the season – especially if his command wavers.
Bowman is an interesting case. Before joining the Cardinals as a Rule 5 pick from the Mets 14 months ago, the right-hander had been a starting pitcher. By necessity, he became a reliever, and performed well enough to beat the odds and remain with St. Louis all season long.
With all of his options remaining, Bowman could be asked to return to starting and if so, Memphis would seem the place. More likely, now that he is no longer protected by Rule 5, he could become a swingman between Memphis and St. Louis in 2017 if there is a roster squeeze.
While technically, closer Seung-hwan Oh and right-fielder Stephen Piscotty could be optioned out, the odds of it actually happening seem extremely small, what I call “almost zero”.
That leaves Kolten Wong. I wanted to also assess his odds of being optioned out same as Oh and Piscotty, but the reality that he was sent down in 2016 led me to putting his odds as simply “low”.
Two options remaining
|Two options (10 players)||Use?|
|Jedd Gyorko||Almost zero|
|Carlos Martinez||Almost zero|
This is a very interesting group of 10 players, led by two pitchers and two outfielders whose odds of using an option in 2017 seem highly likely.
The two hurlers are starter Mike Mayers and newcomer John Gant. Both could be in the Triple-A rotation, or Gant could be shifted to relief and join the Sam Tuivailala Memphis-St. Louis shuttle.
Outfielder Anthony Garcia, with no St. Louis experience, is more likely to have to wait behind Jose Martinez, who did a nice job in limited action for St. Louis in September. However, Harrison Bader could pass both in the outfield pecking order by mid-season.
The other six are all established major-leaguers who most likely are going to remain that way.
However, there is a small chance that Trevor Rosenthal could keep starting after spring training with Memphis a logical destination. With problems that are physical, Michael Wacha seems a less-likely choice for Memphis, other than in a rehab stint, perhaps.
Given the Cardinals were ready to send Seth Maness down last May, it could even happen to Kevin Siegrist – if he really struggles. Matt Adams would seem to have nothing to prove in the minors, but he could also get very rusty on the St. Louis bench.
Jedd Gyorko and especially Carlos Martinez would seem to have very stable jobs in St. Louis.
One option remaining
|One option (5 players)||Use?|
The pyramid narrows, as only five Cardinals have just one option remaining. Even when Marco Gonzales is ready to come off the disabled list, the lefty will almost certainly have to prove his durability in the Memphis rotation.
Tuivailala has one more year of doing what he has done at least 10 times already – which is to be called up and again sent down.
With the departures of Holliday, Moss and Jeremy Hazelbaker from the 2016 team, Tommy Pham’s spot as the fourth outfielder seems set. On the other hand, if Wong and Randal Grichuk (twice) could be sent down in 2016, it could certainly happen to Pham after a big slump in 2017.
Speaking of Grichuk, given his recent history, I think “low” odds are a fair assessment. One could argue that Aledmys Diaz is almost certainly in the majors to stay and I would not quibble. On the other hand, he would not be the first to struggle as a second-year player.
Zero options remaining
|Zero options (3+1* players)||Expose?|
|Eric Fryer *||Medium|
There are only three Cardinals 40-man players with no options. I have also listed one who is not currently on the 40-man, but is almost certainly going to be added by the end of spring training, veteran catcher Eric Fryer.
In this table only, I added my assessment of the possibility of any of the four being outrighted and exposed to waivers at some time during the 2017 season. As many probably recall, this happened to Fryer in 2016 when he was claimed off waivers by Pittsburgh. If Kelly shows he is truly ready during the second half of the season – and perhaps has some momentum in St. Louis due to injuries to others – Fryer could again be made available.
First on this list, though, is reliever Miguel Socolovich. The right-hander performed well at Memphis last season, but was usually passed over when a need in St. Louis occurred in favor of Tuivailala and since-departed Dean Kiekhefer. Given the Cardinals have kept Socolovich on the 40-man during a time of roster crunch suggests the right-hander could be in the MLB plans in 2017.
If so, it could be at the expense of a Bowman, for example. Still, I think the chances are at least medium that Socolovich could be placed on outright waivers at some point during this coming season.
If left-hander Tyler Lyons and infielder Greg Garcia are healthy and productive, their jobs should be secure. However, Lyons is coming off injury. On one hand, that gives him time on the disabled list and in a potential minor league rehab stint (which does not require an option) to get ready. On the other hand, if he stumbles, there is a chance he could be exposed to waivers.
As the only true reserve shortstop on the Cardinals bench, Garcia’s job should be firm. However, I cannot forget that he struggled as a semi-regular in August, when Diaz was out, and batted just .200. Prospect Paul DeJong could be ready to step in during the second half if Garcia falters.
This is a predecessor to my annual pre-camp opening day 25-man roster prediction series - not for only St. Louis, but for all four full-season minor league affiliates. Rest assured that these option situations will be fully taken into account.
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