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It's Time For MLB To Change The Option Rule

November 30, 2016
With Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement set to expire at midnight Dec. 1, the absence of highly charged dialogue was a sign that an agreement would be reached without any threat of a dreaded work stoppage.

That's not to say it would be easy. As the technical deadline approached, there was a veiled threat that clubs would boycott the Winter Meetings, scheduled to begin at the National Harbor in Washington, D.C., Dec. 5, if significant progress wasn't made before then. Many of the issues could probably be listed as "throwaways" by one side or the other as the deadline approached -- but they often can be of great significance down the road.

One such item is the option rule. Under the expiring CBA, a player has three minor league options once he has been placed on the 40-man roster. The kicker is an option can be used an unlimited number of times within one season, making it probably the most abused rule from a player's standpoint, but one that generally gets overlooked.

In its original form, back in the days when owners had complete control, an option counted every time a player was sent to the minor leagues. If he was optioned out to start the season, recalled and then sent back that constituted two options -- which is why you rarely saw a player returned to the minors in the same year unless he was being removed from the 40-man roster.

I spent most of last season asking a wide assortment of baseball people -- scouts, front office executives, former players, rules experts and some who could be classified as amateur historians -- and nobody could remember when the original option rule was changed. Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, who is as up to date on these matters as anyone, said, "It's been like this as long as I've been in the game."

There may not be many, even any, who remember that change, but this much you can be sure of: it was one of those "throwaway" items the players were glad to give up in the earliest stages of negotiations, back when strikes and lockouts were little more than scary rumors. There no doubt were more important issues on the table at the time, so this was a concession the players were willing to make, but eventually it became a costly one.

The change in that rule has cost a lot of players, many of the fringe variety, a lot of major league service time. It's miniscule on the resume now, but those days add up and can be costly down the road. In the meantime, teams are given a free ride to finding a way to expand the 25-man active roster -- and no team does it better, or more, than the Orioles. I got tired of counting when the number hit double digits, but the estimate I heard was that starting pitcher Kevin Gausman had been optioned to the minor leagues 10 times -- and he has less than three years in the big leagues.

You might have to check airline records, but Gausman could hold the record for number of times optioned; but on the books, those 10 trips only counted for three -- the same number used by Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson in the same amount of time.

The option rule has a direct bearing on the expanded September rosters that everybody seems to complain about -- while at the same taking full advantage. During the course of a season, it has become common for teams to have as many as five or six "optionable" parts -- players who move back and forth between the major leagues and the minor leagues, in effect giving teams the benefit of a 30-man roster.

Young old-timers will recall when MLB had a 28-man roster for the first month of the season. It allowed time for an expanded pitching staff during the early day and a "tryout" period for players on the bubble of a major league roster. The luxury of three extra players undoubtedly coincided with the old rule on optioned players.

Teams do that today throughout the season -- thanks to the option rule. The only difference is everybody just stays in one place in September instead of trading places with someone from the minors. The idea of limiting each day's roster to 25 for the last month has merit, but it would only result in four starting pitchers and any others who pitched at least two innings the previous day being ineligible for any given game. It would clean up some of the book work, but it really wouldn't change game strategy. 

What really needs to be cleaned up is the option rule. Getting a few days' pay, not to mention meal money, is usually a bonus -- but it comes at a price when a player is sent to the minor leagues for no other reason than the team needs a fresh arm for the next game.

It's time to take some of the options out of the option rule.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com