Most baseball fans can tell you that players have three options (assignments from the Major League roster to the Minor Leagues) before their teams have to go through hoops to send them back to the farm. True enough. The options system was designed to protect players from being buried in the Minors forever.
But while common sense might suggest that a team can therefore send a big league player down to the farm three times before his options are exhausted, common sense is not particularly useful when it comes to understanding options.
Take the case of R.A. Dickey, the 31-year-old right-hander who has been Texas Rangers property for 10 years. Amazingly, despite the fact that he's been in the Minor Leagues every year since turning pro, and in the big leagues for parts of four seasons, he's only used up one option.
Dickey earned non-roster invites to big league camp in 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003, and in each case he was assigned to Triple-A Oklahoma out of camp. But none of those March assignments required an option, since he was not on the 40-man roster at the time.
In 2001, Dickey was 2-0, 4.00 in his first three RedHawk starts when he was purchased by Texas on April 19 to make his debut in the Major Leagues.
It would be short-lived. On May 8, after making four relief appearances, he was sent back to Triple-A, which meant Texas was burning his first option. But the Rangers designated Dickey for assignment eight days later, successfully running him through waivers, and outrighted him to the RedHawks roster on May 18.
Those dates are key. If a player is sent down on an optional assignment for fewer than 20 days combined in any one season, the option is wiped away. In other words, if a player is sent down once but then recalled to the big club before 20 days elapse, the option is never used. (Examples: Juan Dominguez in 2003, Scott Feldman in 2005.) Or, as in Dickey's case, if he's removed from the 40-man roster before the expiration of 20 days, the optional assignment effectively ends, and no option is used.
Because Dickey started the 2002 season off of the 40-man roster, no option was needed when he was assigned to Oklahoma, where he spent the entire year.
Dickey's 2003 started out like his 2001 season: he began the year in Triple-A, off the roster, but was in Texas before April was over. After two months of pitching in middle relief, Dickey was sent back down to Oklahoma on June 19, making room for left-hander Mario Ramos, a key winter acquisition. But Ramos went 1-1, 6.23 in three Rangers starts, and on June 30 -- just 11 days after Dickey had been farmed out in favor of Ramos -- the club reversed the move, sending Ramos back to Triple-A and recalling Dickey to Texas, where he'd remain the rest of the season. His 11-day "option," then, was no option at all, since it lasted fewer than 20 days.
Dickey, finishing 2003 on the active roster and keeping his roster spot all winter, went to big league camp conventionally in 2004, and he made the staff out of camp, actually earning the club's Opening Day start. He would make four Double-A Frisco starts during the season, but those came on two separate DL rehab assignments -- which don't require options.
In 2005, Dickey made the Opening Day staff but, after one week, he landed on the disabled list. Upon activating him on May 25, Texas sent him to Oklahoma, where he pitched for nearly four months, returning to Arlington on September 12 as a knuckleball pitcher.
It's the first and only option that Texas has used on Dickey.
Good for the team, in terms of roster flexibility. Not so good for Dickey, who could conceivably outpitch a guy like Jon Leicester this spring but lose in the battle for a spot on the staff because Leicester is out of options, and Dickey is not.
So from Dickey's career, we know that only players on the 40-man roster require options. Even those can be erased if the optional assignments to the farm last fewer than a total of 20 days in one season. And rehab assignments don't count.
A couple other important points: A player on the 40-man roster who spends an entire season on the farm does use an option. When Texas sends Joaquin Arias to the Minor Leagues at some point in March, the club will be using its first option on him, even though he probably won't see Texas all year.
An option is good for an entire season, no matter how many times a player is sent down and brought back up. Nick Regilio was sent from the Major League club to Triple-A three different times during the 2004 season, four different times in 2005. Each season, only one option was exhausted.
While a club can avoid burning an option by sending a player down for fewer than 20 days, generally an optional assignment has to last at least 10 days. The primary exception is that a player can be recalled sooner if he's replacing someone who is being placed on the disabled list.
There are other idiosyncrasies in the options rules. Fourth options for certain players who reach the big leagues quickly, for instance. The right of players with certain amounts of big league service to refuse an optional assignment. The nullification of an option when a player is active for fewer than 90 days in a Minor League season.
It's also important to note that a player who isn't on the 40-man roster but gets added to the big club during the season, and then finishes the year without returning to the farm, is never optioned. Edison Volquez is an example from 2005. He goes into 2006 with all three options remaining.
Meanwhile, though it defies logic, Dickey, nine years older than Volquez, goes into the season with a couple options himself, while pitchers several years younger like Leicester and Joaquin Benoit have the leverage of being out of options.
In most walks of life, the idea is to position yourself so that you have options. For big league ballplayers, however, the key is just the opposite: it's all about getting rid of them.