That Kris Bryant will begin the season in the minors for financial purposes is a subject that should rile up fans. The way teams are encouraged to send down prospects so that they can control them for 6.9 years, rather than 6.0, is a problem, one that lacks any sort of obvious fix. Others have tried ways around it. But it’d take a major revamping, as well as a players union willing to make concessions on behalf of players often not currently part of the union.
So, don’t hold your breath.
My purpose today, though, is to address a different sort of roster problem, one that affects more players. And whereas the Kris Bryant-type situations tends to affect players likely to make tens of millions of dollars in their careers, mine affects the fringe players, the ones who probably won’t ever get the big payday.
I speak of option rules, and the need to change the system.
This right now is the time of year that teams are settling their final few roster spots. Frequently, those spots come down less to performance and more to who can be easily sent to Triple-A and who can’t. When it comes to relievers and the bench, teams would rather preserve their organizational depth and keep players without options remaining
(For those unaware, out-of-options players have to go on waivers, and thus can be claimed by any team, before they can be sent to the minors. Players typically have three option years, which kick in once they are added to the 40-man roster (players with fewer than five seasons of professional experience can be awarded a fourth option year). Players can be sent down many separate times in a season, but it still only accounts for the one option year.)
My problem with the option rules is that age plays no part in the process. A 16-year-old kid signed out of the Dominican Republic can be added to the 40-man roster at 20-21 and run out of options at age 23-24. The Mets’ Wilmer Flores is this year’s best example; he’s just 23, but the Mets won’t be able to send him down if he gets off to a lousy start as their shortstop. The Tigers’ Hernan Perez turns 24 on this very day. Detroit would almost surely prefer to send him down to play regularly in the minors, but they know there’s a good chance he’d be claimed on waivers.
On the other hand, a 22-year-old player drafted out of college doesn’t have to be added to the 40-man roster until he’s 25 or 26. He might not run out of options before age 29. The Phillies’ Darin Ruf is 28. He’s spent time in the majors the last three years, hitting .251/.339/.466. If he were placed on waivers, he’d surely be grabbed by some team looking for a right-handed hitter with power. The Phillies, though, can and probably will continue to jerk him around between Triple-A and the majors, perhaps because they’ll want to carry 24-year-old Cesar Hernandez, who is out of options.
The Pirates’ Jared Hughes is 29, and he had a 1.96 ERA in 64 1/3 innings last year. However, he has an option year left, whereas fellow bullpen options Radhames Liz, Stolmy Pimentel and Arquimedes Caminero don’t. There’s no way the Pirates would choose any of those guys over Hughes given a level playing field, but since it isn’t, there’s the chance Hughes could be optioned out.
It can be even worse for late bloomers. The Blue Jays sent down 31-year-old Steve Delabar on Thursday. Since he’s a former indy leaguer, he still has the option year. Judging from his anger, he’d much rather be on waivers and get claimed by another team. The Reds are counting on 31-year-old Jumbo Diaz as a big part of their pen this year, but if he struggles for a couple of weeks, he can be sent down.
I’d like to see option rules altered to account for age of players. I don’t think a team should be able to send down a 28-year-old another team could use, and I don’t think a team should be forced to keep a 24-year-old who isn’t ready for the majors. There should be a compromise available somewhere, right? The owners would go for it, since they’d just as soon play the best players. It might be a bit tougher sell for the union, since the younger players being held back have more long-term earnings potential than the older fringe players. Still, I would hope the union would rather see players judged on merit than on how many options they have remaining.
My compromise wouldn’t be too drastic. I’d leave the 40-man roster and Rule 5 draft rules intact and simply propose that no player by allowed to run out of options before his age-25 season and that players would automatically go on the out-of-options list at age 28. Whether a player has options at age 25, 26 and 27 would still be governed by he’s used up his three options years or not.
Of course, I’m not holding my breath for this kind of alteration, either. Change comes very slowly, unless it’s a change that translates quickly and obviously into dollars gained. This doesn’t really do that. It just makes things a bit more fair for the non-Kris Bryants in the game.