Blue Jays' J.A. Happ To Start In AAA, But "Unwritten Rule" Will Keep Him From Be Getting Claimed Via Optional Waivers

Brad White

According to Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, pitcher J.A. Happ will likely begin the season as a starter with the AAA Buffalo Bisons even though he has been an established big league starter since 2009 when he finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year award. The 30-year old "Peruvian" (he grew up in Peru, Illinois) was the main piece in a 10-player trade with the Houston Astros in July 2012 and pitched 10 games with the Blue Jays (six starts) going 40 innings with a 4.69 ERA and a 1.289 WHIP, with an impressive 46 strikeouts on just 17 walks.

Happ is not being demoted because of any particular incident or personal struggles, in fact the southpaw was slated to be the Blue Jays' fourth or fifth starter until he was pushed off the rotation by Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, and Josh Johnson. Instead of having him sit in Toronto's bullpen pitching the odd mop-up game or one-inning appearances, it was decided that he would best serve the club by keeping his arm stretched out by throwing six or seven innings every five days down in the minors. One of Toronto's glaring weaknesses last season was its lack of rotational depth, and it was demonstrated when Tom Dakers came to Toronto and caused three starters to get hurt in the four games that he was at the Rogers Centre.

It is still very early--the best laid plans of mice and men can go awry during spring training--but it looks like Happ will get the ball for the Herd on Opening Day, April 4 against the Rochester Red Wings. According to BlueJays.com's Gregor Chisholm, Anthopoulos is "almost 100% certain" that the Blue Jays won't go through the season with just five starters, so there is a very good chance that Happ would pitch in the Majors in 2013. I'm sure Happ has already circled the dates when Tom is planning to go see games.

The Blue Jays are able to demote J.A. Happ because he has less than five years of Major League experience and has one remaining option. He will have to clear waivers but there is almost no chance that another club would pick him up.

During the season, Major League clubs have two rosters: the 25-man "active list" and the 40-man "reserve list." The 15 players who are on the reserve list but not on the active list generally play in the minor leagues and are considered to be on an optional assignment. Most players have three option years in their career, meaning that they can spend parts of up to three seasons in the minor leagues after being added to the 40-man roster. An option year is used whenever a player on the 40-man roster spends more than 20 days in the minor leagues in any given season. Of course there are loads of exceptions, but for simplicity (and your sanity) I will leave them for another piece. The advantage of options is that when a player gets optioned to the minor leagues, he does not generally have to go through any waivers, meaning that other teams cannot claim him nor can they block him from being sent down.

According to some fine research compiled by Bluebird Banter reader MjwW, Happ had been sent down to the minors four times in his career (2007, 2008, 2010, 2011), but has used only two of his three option years because he spent fewer than 20 days off the 25-man roster in 2010 and 2011. That means he has one option year left, and the Blue Jays are looking like they will take full advantage of that. However, there is a little wrinkle to the rules when dealing someone like Happ (of course there is).

J.A. Happ made his Major League debut with the Philadelphia Phillies on June 30, 2007, which was five-and-a-half years ago. According to Major League Rule (MLR) 10(b)(3), a player who is optioned must go through optional waivers upon hitting his third anniversary the day he first reported (not necessarily played) to a Major League club. (There is an exception regarding players who have been optioned prior to reporting to the Major Leagues but that can wait until another post.) This means, that Happ would have to be exposed to these rare type of waivers before being optioned.

However, according to Anthopoulos, both through Chisholm's article linked above and his comments after the Buffalo Bisons' Hot Stove Luncheon event, there is very little risk that the Blue Jays would lose the lefty to another club. First, during a particular waiver period, optional waivers are revocable the first time (after that it becomes irrevocable). That means, should another team place a claim on Happ after Toronto asks for waivers, Toronto can simply pull back their request.

While this is technically possible, there is an unwritten convention among Major League Baseball executives to ignore players on optional waivers and to not make any claims in an attempt to acquire a player, or to block another club from optioning him down to the minors. If a club breaks this "gentlemen's agreement" it may lead to open warfare between rival clubs and will make sending players down to the minors very difficult and risky, something that no club wants.

The Blue Jays actually had to deal with optional waivers last season with Jesse Chavez. That situation was complicated and required a designation for assignment because Chavez was recalled on the first Saturday of a new waiver period, but the Commissioner's office only takes waiver requests on weekdays.

There are three optional waiver periods, according to MLR 10(c)(4)(B):

  • February 16 to 5:00 pm Eastern on the 30th day of the regular season
  • The 31st day of the regular season until 5:00 pm Eastern on July 31
  • From August 1 until 5:00 pm Eastern on October 1

Assuming that the club plans to option Happ to begin the season, they must obtain the waiver some time between February 16 until Opening Day. If Happ was recalled back to the Majors for a start in April, he could be optioned back to Buffalo any time in April without having to go through waivers. However, if he is with the big club between May and July, he would have to go through optional waivers again in order to be sent down. Same goes for the last waiver period after August 1. Of course, these are just formalities, as no one is expected to claim him on those waivers.

One more little complication to Happ's case involves his service time. He is about 125 days away from having five years of Major League experience, so if he stays in the big leagues for 125 more days (from the beginning of the season to early August), he could elect free agency instead of accepting the optional assignment. But of course this is not expected to be an issue here.

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