Minor league options a boon for Orioles, a bane for players

Orioles starter Kevin Gausman pitches in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Camden Yards on July 02, 2015 in Baltimore.
Orioles starter Kevin Gausman pitches in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Camden Yards on July 02, 2015 in Baltimore. (Mitchell Layton / Getty Images)

Kevin Gausman didn't know what they were until one of his was used, sending him on one of his now-frequent trips between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk. Chris Parmelee is out of them now, but says they're a "blessing and a curse" for a young player.

Minor league options have been a part of the game, formally or not, for nearly a century. Their use has evolved to the point where the Orioles, to keep their pitching staff fresh, regularly send down and call up a number of players from the minors.

The Orioles' recent roster crunch aside, keeping optionable players on the roster is a now-emulated tactic that the front office and manager Buck Showalter use to keep the team competitive.

"It's a constant balancing act with the roster," executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "We do the best we can every day to have the most competitive team we can have out there every day. We look at it every day and night, and sometimes long into the night. If you have depth, you can keep things going, and hopefully, we keep things going."

When the term "option" became part of the baseball lexicon over a century ago, it referred to major league clubs' sly practice of selling players to minor league clubs, with the option of buying them back later for a nominal fee.

It was a way to control players off the 25-man major league roster other than "farming" them out to the lower leagues, a practice that was banned at the time but is now commonplace, with organizations affiliated with over a half-dozen minor league teams apiece.

Over time, baseball rules were codified to say that players on the 40-man roster were allowed to be optioned to the minors in three different seasons before the organization had to expose them to waivers or release them.

A player's option year is used once he spends 20 days in the minor leagues on assignment, and though he can be called up and sent down any number of times while he still has options, a player must spend at least 10 days in the minors before being called up — unless the player he replaces goes on the disabled list.

Before being added to the 40-man roster, a player doesn't need options to be in the minor leagues. Once he's added, regardless of age or experience — you can be 26-year-old Wei-Yin Chen in 2012, with seven years of experience in Japan, or Gausman in 2013, a 22-year-old with less than a year in pro ball under his belt — the player has three options.

The Orioles use them liberally.

Chen, somewhat controversially, was optioned to High-A Frederick to skip a start in mid-June, partly to have him avoid a heavily right-handed Toronto Blue Jays lineup and partly to add Parmelee to the major league roster.

Chen's agent, Scott Boras, called it "grossly irregular" for a pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA who had won 16 games in 2014 to be sent to the minors, even for one start.

The team also has sent down Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez, similarly established pitchers in the starting rotation, near the All-Star break in years past to free up a roster spot without having them miss a start.

Conversely, young pitchers such as Gausman, T.J. McFarland, Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, Oliver Drake and Mychal Givens have been summoned as stopgap starters and relievers this year, using what amounted to a revolving door for the final two or three spots on the pitching staff.

Gausman has been sent down eight times since his debut in May 2013, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks, but always affecting his young career. He learned quickly not only that he had options, but also that being called up and sent down multiple times in a given year counts only as a single option used.

"I just saw it as the first time you're kind of told you're not good enough to be on this team," he said. "It's pretty tough to deal with the first time you do it, but the more time you're around it, the more you understand it."

Despite his inconsistent schedule this year, Gausman's third option hasn't been used. He was in the major league bullpen until a shoulder injury put him on the DL in May, and while he pitched extensively in the minors on a rehabilitation assignment, he wasn't using an option then.

If he does spend 20 days optioned to the minors this year, he could have another option year added under a provision that gives players who use all three option years in their first five professional seasons a fourth.

But eventually, all players run out of options, leaving the team with little wiggle room, even if the player can feel a bit more secure.

Parmelee ran out after parts of four major league seasons with the Minnesota Twins, who selected him in the first round of the 2006 draft. Like Gausman, Parmelee had to learn the rules on the fly when he was optioned for the first time, in 2011.

Now that he's out of options, Parmelee is part of what Showalter said is a system that ensures that players who are established in the majors can stay there if their current club no longer needs them. Since such a player cannot be optioned, he must be designated for assignment if a club wants him removed from its 25-man roster. That gives other major league teams a chance to trade for him or claim him off waivers if no trade can be worked out.

Too many players who lack options can limit the flexibility the Orioles crave, though, and last week's move to designate outfielder Delmon Young for assignment was a consequence of that. In adding Nolan Reimold and Parmelee in June, the Orioles lost some of their flexibility, especially with young pitchers with options.

That crunch likely will continue with second baseman Jonathan Schoop now activated from the DL, and might continue through the summer, until the Orioles re-establish a spot or two on their roster — filled by players with options — that again can be used as that revolving door to the minors.

Discussing Young's move off the 25-man roster, Duquette said it's "always the first choice" to keep players in the organization.

"We work hard to keep as many players active in the organization that can capably help the team," Duquette said. "We're not successful all the time, but we work towards that end."