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Why the Blue Jays can option reliever Matt West to the minor leagues

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Although Matt West had already chopped off his majestic locks by the time he was claimed on waivers by the Blue Jays this winter, he still brings to Toronto three big assets: a 95 mph fastball, a power curveball, and an remaining minor league option. Ideally, West would stand out in camp and make the roster, but if he doesn't the option allows the Jays to send him down to the minor leagues without exposing him to waivers.

What we often read from sportswriters (or hear from sportscasters on the radio or television) is that players "have three options." What they mean is that a player who has been added to a major league 40-man roster can be sent down to a minor league team in three separate seasons without being eligible to be picked by the 29 other teams on waivers. The time players spend in the minor leagues while being on the 40-man roster is referred to as serving an "optional assignment." (Note that there are no set limit to the number of times someone can be sent down or called up during an option year; players like Mike McCoy and Chad Jenkins know that well.)

The reason why I am writing this post is that there is something that stands out about West's situation: he has already been optioned in three separate seasons. According to the rule outlined above, that should mean that West should be "out of options," but of course there is a rare exception to the rule that gives some players a fourth option year.

Matt West is one of those players. You can just accept that as a fact and go back to your life, or you can venture further and find out exactly why.

For The Brave

Let us turn to the exception clause of Major League Rule 11(c), which reads:

EXCEPTION: Contracts of Major League players who, prior to commencement of the current season, have been credited with less than five seasons in the Major and Minor Leagues [...] shall be eligible for a fourth optional assignment [...] 90 days or more on the Active List during a championship season shall constitute a "season of service." While time spent on any Inactive List shall not be counted toward the 90 days required before a season's service is credited, if a player is placed on the Disabled List after the player has been credited with 60 or more days of service in any particular season, the Disabled List time shall be counted to the player's credit.

In short, players must spend at least 90 days active on a roster in a calendar year to be credited with a professional season, unless he gets placed on the disabled list after accruing 60 days of service. That means that players who spend an entire season in a short-season league, which runs from mid-June to early September, do not get credit for a pro season. Players with up to four pro seasons of service, who have already run out of their three option years, will get a fourth option year.

Let's take a look at Matt West's career transactions (via Rangers.comBaseball-Reference, and Pro Sports Transactions):

  • 2007-06-07: Drafted by the Texas Rangers as a third baseman
  • 2007-06-19: Signed
  • 2007: Assigned to the Arizona League Rangers (Rookie, short season)
  • 2008: Assigned to the Spokane Indians (short season-A)
  • 2009: Assigned to the Hickory Crawdads (single-A, full season); completed PROFESSIONAL SEASON 1
  • 2010: Assigned to the Hickory Crawdads (single-A, full season); completed PROFESSIONAL SEASON 2
  • Became a pitcher between the 2010 and 2011 seasons
  • 2011-06-18: Assigned to the Spokane Indians (short season-A)
  • 2011-09-05: Assigned to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (A-advanced, full season)
  • 2011-11-18: Contract selected, added to major league 40-man roster
  • 2012-03-03Sprained UCL in spring training, decides to rehab elbow instead of surgery, later proves Adam J. Morris's cynicism was well-placed
  • 2012-03-15: Optioned to the minor leagues; on inactive list. [OPTION 1]
  • 2012-06-17: Activated and assigned to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (A-advanced, full season)
  • 2012-08-12: Aggravated UCL injury. Has Tommy John surgery on 2012-08-22.
  • 2012: Completed PROFESSIONAL SEASON 3 (completed at least 60 active days before injury)
  • 2013-03-06: Optioned to the minor leagues; on inactive list. [OPTION 2]
  • 2013-08-20: Recalled from the minors, immediately placed on 60-day disabled list
  • 2013-08-27: Assigned to the Arizona League Rangers (Rookie, short season) for a rehab stint
  • 2014-03-07: Optioned to the minor leagues. [OPTION 3]
  • 2014-04-04: Assigned to the Frisco RoughRiders (double-A, full season)
  • 2014-05-04: Assigned to the Round Rock Express (triple-A, full season)
  • 2014-07-10: Recalled from the minor leagues, makes major league debut
  • 2014-07-21: Optioned to the minor leagues
  • 2014-09-26: Recalled, not-to-report; completed PROFESSIONAL SEASON 4
  • 2015-01-05: Designated for assignment
  • 2015-01-14: Claimed on outright waivers by the Blue Jays

So we can see that West has gone through three option years (in 2012, 2013, and 2014) in just four professional seasons (2009, 2010, 2012, and 2014), thus by Rule 11(c), he is eligible to be optioned for a fourth year in 2015. After this season, he will have completed five professional years which means that his fourth option cannot be "carried forward" into 2016 unless he fails to stay active for the requisite number of days.

West nearly avoided this whole fourth option year business because he was very close to gaining a professional season in 2012. He accrued 56 days of active service for the Pelicans before going on the disabled list with 25 days remaining in the season. If he had gotten back from his first rehab stint just five days earlier, he would've gotten 61 days of active service plus 30 days on the disabled list, giving him the 90 he needed.

On the other hand, the Rangers could have "saved" an option year by putting West on the major league 60-day DL at the beginning of 2013 instead of optioning him down to the minors and letting him serve on a minor league DL. However, his second UCL injury happened in the minor leagues, and as we saw from Neil Wagner's case last season, teams generally would trade an option and a roster spot for the large salary difference and major league service time that West would've accrued on the 60-day DL. (Especially how, by that time, the Rangers would've figured out that a fourth option year was very likely.) He was eventually placed on the 60-day DL in August when Texas needed a roster spot for Travis Blackley.

TL;DR

Matt West can be optioned for a fourth season in 2015 only because of an exception in the rules, and that is why he has a "Yes" in the "Opt 4" column of MjwW's fantastic table that lists all the Blue Jays' option and outright statuses. His fourth option likely cannot be carried forward into 2016.