Stay or go? Options mean big decisions
Out-of-options players make it March madness for many clubs
March Madness can take on an entirely different connotation for managers and general managers this time of year.
In hoops, it's about brackets and seedings. In baseball, it's about options and waivers.
More precisely for Major League teams, it is about players who have run out of Minor League options.
Options are basically rights to move players to the Minor Leagues. Once a player is placed on a team's 40-man roster, he can be moved to the Minors through an optional assignment (option) without being exposed to the 29 other clubs. Each option covers one season. Players are limited to three such options.
Such players must clear waivers before they can be sent down. In the case of certain talented youngsters, that is not an option teams would prefer. But looming deadlines means somebody must go.
Teams have to be pared down to 25 players by Opening Day, and have until 2 p.m. ET on March 26 to place a player on unconditional release waivers and pay only 30 days termination pay.
Those considerations are secondary to determining whether the player will actually clear waivers.
"A lot of factors go into [roster decisions] and options, and Rule 5 [status] are of course part of the equation," Houston manager Cecil Cooper said. "But for me, the main consideration is evaluating the player's performance."
An out-of-options roster candidate who performs well in Spring Training makes the decision to keep him easier. In some cases it can make it tougher because it could then be more difficult for the player to clear waivers.
A GM with another team, who didn't want his name used because his club has out-of-options players, said losing talented young players this way is why teams are very careful about "burning options" on a player too quickly.
"Sometimes you don't have any choice because there's a need," the GM said. "And you don't want to tie up a roster spot for a guy who's just going to sit all year. So you try to [clear him through waivers]. A lot of times they clear. But sometimes they don't, especially if it's a guy with a lot of potential, so you have to weigh the risk carefully."
Teams have their scouts out gathering up-to-date reports on out-of-options candidates just in case they pop up on the waiver wire in the days ahead.
Here's a few out-of-options players who have been attracting attention this March:
Andy Marte, Indians: The 24-year-old is behind Casey Blake on the depth chart at third base. Marte is batting .242 (through Sunday) this spring. He's been taking some infield at first base, a position he played infrequently during winter ball. He's also been shagging balls in the outfield, though that appears to be an unlikely scenario for Marte for 2008.
Marte hasn't performed as well as some of the other backup candidates in camp, such as outfielder Ben Francisco (.382, team-high 22 total bases), but Francisco has options and Marte almost certainly would not clear waivers.
Mike Morse, Mariners: With three left-handed-hitting outfielders in the lineup, the Mariners want a right-handed hitter as fourth outfielder. Morse would appear to have the advantage over the two other candidates in camp, Charlton Jimerson and Wladimir Balentien. Jimerson is also out of options, but Morse has made a stronger case thus far -- .581, two homers, 10 RBIs and 28 total bases. Morse has displayed prodigious power this spring.
Hong-Chih Kuo, Dodgers: The 26-year-old lefty is 2-10 with a 5.38 ERA in 45 career games, including 1-4 with a 7.42 ERA last year. But he's been lights-out this spring, with a spotless ERA and just two hits allowed in four appearances. The reliever, who is trying to claim a swingman job, earned praise from manager Joe Torre following his recent stint against the Padres in China.
Delwyn Young, Dodgers: The Dodgers' crowded outfield situation, with starters Juan Pierre in left, Andruw Jones in center and either Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp in right, leaves just one opening if Torre decides to go with five outfielders -- and Jason Repko has a team-high 10 RBIs.
Young came up as a second baseman, and has seen time there and at third base this spring. Look for Young to make the team even if he is batting only .159.
Scott Thorman, Braves: Thorman is one of several Braves out of options, along with left-handed Royce Ring, right-hander Chris Resop, Blaine Boyer and catcher Brayan Pena. Thorman has ample power, but hasn't hit well this spring (.179), and with Mark Teixeira entrenched at first and better pinch-hitting options than Thorman in camp, the Braves have a tough decision to make. Pena, who can also play third and catch, might make more sense.
Jimmy Gobble, Royals: The left-hander blossomed in the bullpen in 2007, going 4-1 with a 3.02 ERA in 74 appearances. That and the fact he's out of options all but guarantees Gobble will make the team, even though he's had 15 baserunners and has allowed six runs in 3 2/3 innings in the Cactus League.
Other out-of-options Royals include first baseman Justin Huber (batting .429 through March 14), left-hander Jorge De La Rosa (a rotation candidate), outfielder Joey Gathright and infielder Esteban German.
Garrett Jones, Twins: Jones has impressed scouts, and his long home run off Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees added to his resume. Lately, however, Jones has struggled and is hitting just .217, which could jeopardize his chances of claiming a roster spot.
Jeff Keppinger, Reds: Keppinger has hit .309 in 127 career Major League games, including .332 last year in 67 games with Cincinnati. The 27-year-old is a handy guy to have around, as he can play multiple positions. Keppinger is also having a solid spring (.309), which means he would likely be claimed in the unlikely event the Reds tried to slip him through waivers.
Dan Johnson, A's: Rookie Daric Barton is projected as the starter at first base, leaving the out-of-options Johnson to battle for a roster spot.
Others who could be "on the bubble" because of their out-of-options status are Arizona pitchers Brandon Medders and Dustin Nippert; San Francisco's Fred Lewis, Rajai Davis and Dan Ortmeier; Colorado's Clint Barmes; Nick Masset of the Chicago White Sox, and Jason Botts and Nelson Cruz of Texas.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.