Once a player is added to an organization's 40-man roster, he has three "options," or three separate seasons during which the club may move the player back and forth between the major and the minor leagues without his consent and without exposing him to the potential of being lost to another organization.
A player that is on the 40-man roster but playing in the minors is on what is called an optional assignment. Within any option season, there is virtually no limit on the number of times a club can put a player on optional assignment – in other words, demote and recall the player. But beginning the next season after the final of those three options are exhausted, the player must clear irrevocable waivers each time prior to him being returned to the minors again.
Many St. Louis Cardinals fans and media assumed that right-handed starting pitcher Anthony Reyes had exhausted all his minor league option years during the 2005 through 2007 seasons. If out of options, Reyes would not be able to be returned to the minor leagues in 2008 without first clearing waivers.
For a player of his considerable talent, the odds of one or more of the 29 other organizations claiming him would be high. Because those waivers are irrevocable, meaning they cannot be taken back, the Cardinals could have been in a real jam if Reyes does not prove in the spring that he is finally ready to stick at the major league level. After a 2007 that was difficult on the mound for the 26-year-old, both in terms of his results as well as potentially his relationship with his coaches, the risk would only increase.
There is good news for Cardinals fans, however. A little-known rule states that a player may be eligible for a fourth option year if he has been optioned in three seasons but has not yet amassed five full seasons of professional experience. Reyes fits the bill.
While drafted in the 15th round of the 2003 draft, the former USC star did not sign until the end of August. In 2004, he began his first season as a professional between A-Advanced Palm Beach and Double-A Tennessee, going 9-2 with a 3.49 ERA in 19 starts. It was good enough for Reyes to be named the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Option #1: 2005. Reyes was promoted to Triple-A Memphis in 2005 and continued to impress. After getting a brief look-see in spring training (photo), he made his official MLB debut on August 9 as an emergency starter, then returning to Triple-A until a September call-up. That winter, Reyes was ranked as our top prospect in the Cardinals minor league system, just ahead of Adam Wainwright.
Option #2: 2006. Reyes began with Memphis again, returning to St. Louis to take turns for injured starters Sidney Ponson and then Chris Carpenter in late May. He would go on to make 17 starts for the Cardinals but not before he went down to Triple-A again between mid-August and early September. The latter move was made to make room on the 25-man active roster for newly-acquired outfielder Preston Wilson.
Reyes was left off the National League Divisional Series roster in favor of veteran Jason Marquis. The two changed places in the NL Championship Series, where Reyes started Game Four. He delivered his career highlight to-date in his next appearance. With the other starters needing rest, Reyes was given the ball for Game One of the World Series, spinning eight innings of two-run ball.
Option #3: 2007. It seemed unlikely that Reyes would regress, but that is precisely what happened last season. Amid the backdrop of controversy over the use of a four-seam vs. a two-seam fastball, the righty began the season with an 0-8 record and a 6.08 ERA in the bigs. It seemed small consolation that the Cardinals offense did not help him, with Reyes receiving the worst run support in the majors to that point.
The Cardinals optioned Reyes to Memphis on May 27. Having been recently claimed off waivers from the Kansas City Royals, Todd Wellemeyer replaced him in the Cardinals starting rotation. Reyes rebounded nicely at Memphis and returned to St. Louis for the last half of June before being optioned out again at the start of July. He was back in the majors at the tail end of the month, but in early September was banished to the bullpen. He received one more spot start before being shut down early with a bit of shoulder tendinitis.
Option #4: 2008? Reyes' option status for this coming season seems clear, right?
In fact, having that fourth option year could be a primary reason the Cardinals did not feel the urgency to "sell low" on Reyes this winter. Otherwise, they might have been tempted to deal him now rather than potentially having to wait until the end of spring training to do so, when roster space everywhere is at a premium. But with the fourth year, none of that matters.
Well, as Lee Corso says, "Not so fast, my friend!"
You see, there is another of MLB's many rules that could partially trump the fourth waiver year in Reyes' case.
When optioning out a player who has options remaining but who is more than three calendar years removed from his first appearance on a Major League roster, he must pass through waivers first. Though these "option waivers" are revocable, it could inhibit the Cardinals from sending Reyes down in the latter part of the 2008 season.
Remember that August 9, 2005 major league debut noted above. Reyes was initially added to the Cardinals' 40-man at that time. Therefore, his ability to be optioned out without requiring waivers will end in early August, 2008.
One might assume that Reyes would be claimed and therefore waivers withdrawn if he is attempted to be optioned out following that August anniversary date. That may not actually occur, however. In reality, option waivers are informally governed by a gentleman's agreement that has been in place between clubs for years, meaning they allow each other to option these kinds of players out with no claims made against them.
Given the claiming team has no virtually chance of actually getting the optioned player, Reyes in this case, the claiming team would only attempt a claim to interfere with the club trying to option the player. After all, assuming the player is still wanted, the waiver request would simply be revoked if the player was claimed.
Yet, in the heat of a pennant race, might an NL Central foe decide to break this unwritten agreement? Maybe one of the Cardinals' enemies not have anyone they want to pass through waivers in 2008 and therefore not care about reciprocity? Who knows for sure what will happen?
In this particular case, it seems the safest route would be for the Cardinals and Reyes to get all the ups (and especially the downs) out of their collective systems prior to August 9. Again, if Reyes were to be put on optional assignment to the minors any number of times prior to then, waivers would not need to be secured.
It is worth noting however, that Reyes was sent down during August in both 2005 and 2006 and for the majority of the month of July last season. So, it is far from out of the question that the Cards might again want to do it late in the 2008 season.
The difference this year is that if the Cardinals were to decide after the August anniversary date to option Reyes to the minors either due to his ineffectiveness or to make room for another player, he would have to clear revocable option waivers.
A small risk? Perhaps, but who knows if what we will see from Anthony Reyes and the Cardinals this coming season.
Note: For those interested in more details on such topics as options and outrighting, I encourage you to read my four-part series from February, 2006:
Options and Outrighting – Part One of Four
Options and Outrighting – Part Two of Four
Options and Outrighting – Part Three of Four
Options and Outrighting – Part Four of Four
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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