Cardinal infielder Edmundo Sosa is just 23 years old and will not turn 24 until March 6th, 2020, when the Cardinals will be in the middle of spring training. When the Cardinals recalled him to the active roster on September 2nd of this year, I wrote a brief article for the site describing the move. In the piece, which you can find here, I noted that Sosa will be out of options after this season, and that the Cardinals might be forced to make a decision about him soon, with Yairo Munoz and Tommy Edman seeming to have passed him over for consideration for jobs in the Cardinal infield.
A few days after I wrote that article, I started to think about Sosa some more, and something did not seem right. I remembered that the Cardinal organization signed Sosa at a very young age, and that he had spent quite a bit of time playing in short-season leagues. After examining the rules and Sosa’s minor league career more closely, I am convinced that I was wrong in my earlier piece on Sosa, and that he will actually be eligible for a fourth minor league option for the 2020 season. Since no other outlet I am aware of has talked about this possibility yet, I wanted to deliver this news to you in an article that explains the rules.
In this article, I will outline the Major League Rules on optioning players to the minor leagues, with particular emphasis on the “fourth option rule.” I will then apply the rules to Sosa’s minor league record and make my case for his eligibility for a fourth minor league option.
Quick Option Basics
Let’s go over some quick basics for a refresher. The rules make it clear that most players have what are known in the trade as “3 option years,” or more simply, “3 options.” For a player to be optioned to the minor leagues, he must first be on the club’s 40-man roster. Once on the 40-man roster, the club usually has 3 separate seasons to option the player to the minors and recall him to the majors at its pleasure. The number “3” does not refer to the number of times the player is optioned in the aggregate. A club may option and recall a player 10 times or more in one season, and only 1 option will be used that season. On or before the day following the last day of the regular season, you will see on the transactions page of the clubs that they recall all of their optioned players one final time for that season. Although it doesn’t affect the roster size of any club, this paperwork transaction is required because the rules state that the club’s right of recall must be exercised by that date. This move is known as a “Recall Not to Report.” Players may not be optioned to the minor leagues once the optionee club’s season, including playoffs, is over. If a player had been optioned to the minor leagues at some point in a particular season, it is at this time that a player’s option year is considered to be burned.
There are a couple of other important basics to note. First, if a player is optioned during a season, but does not spend at least 20 total days on option during that season, an option is not used and the player gets major league service time credit for all the time spent in the minors. The best recent example of this rule applied to a Cardinal player is Kolten Wong. The Cards purchased Wong’s contract and added him to the 40-man roster on August 16, 2013. He stayed with the Cards the rest of the year and no option was used. The Cards optioned him to Memphis on April 28th, 2014, but recalled him on May 14th, with him only having spent 16 days on option. He was not optioned again that season, and thus no option was used. The Cards optioned Wong to Memphis again on June 6th, 2016, but recalled him on June 17th after he had only spent 11 days with Memphis. Again, no option was used.
If a club was really inclined to do so, it could option a player to the minor leagues for 19 days each season, year after year, with only one rule that could get in the way. Once a player has 5 full years of major league service time, then the player may not be sent to the minor leagues—whether by optional assignment, or outright assignment—without his consent. We saw this rule in operation with Greg Holland last year. Although Holland had more than 5 years of major league service, he had not exhausted his minor league options prior to his signing with the Cardinals. When the Cardinals needed him to get some work after signing him without his having had a spring training, he actually gave the Cardinals his consent to option him to Class A-Advanced Palm Beach for just one 10-day period at the very beginning of the 2018 season. After that 10 days was up, the Cardinals recalled him to the major leagues. If Holland had already exhausted his minor league options before then, that move would not have been possible.
Once a player has been optioned for at least 20 days in each of 3 separate seasons, then he is said to be “out of options,” and the only way for a major league club to send that player to the minors is to make an outright assignment, which takes the player off of the club’s 40-man roster. An outright assignment, however, first requires that the club place the player on outright assignment waivers, which are irrevocable and give other clubs a chance to claim the player’s contract for the $50,000 waiver price. I wrote a comprehensive article about waivers, together with a bullet point summary, here, if you are interested.
There is a little known rule, however, that allows a club a fourth season within which to option a narrow category of players.
The Fourth Option Rule
According to SABR researcher Cliff Blau, the fourth option rule has existed since 1965. The current version of the rule is set forth in full, as follows:
EXCEPTION: Contracts of Major League players who, prior to the commencement of the current season, have been credited with less than five seasons in the Major and Minor Leagues (excluding service on the Military, Disqualified, Restricted, Voluntary Retired and Ineligible Lists) shall be eligible for a fourth optional assignment during that season. For purposes of this Rule 11(c), 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 Injured List after the player has been credited with 30 or more days of service in any particular season, the Injured List time shall be counted to the player’s credit.
Now let’s apply the fourth option rule to Edmundo Sosa’s minor league record, year by year, and see how many “seasons of service” he will have accrued before 2020:
The Cardinals signed Sosa as an undrafted free-agent as a 16-year old out of Panama on July 2, 2012 for a $425,000 signing bonus. He was in the same international draft class as Alex Reyes and Magnueris Sierra. Although he was not eligible to play in 2012 because he would not turn 17 until after the 2012 minor league season was over, the international signing rules permitted the Cards to sign Sosa for future services, as long as they did so within a certain window at the beginning of the international signing period. Because he did not play in 2012, he was never on the Active List of any club that year, and was not credited with a “season of service.”
Sosa spent the whole 2013 season as a 17-year old with the DSL (Dominican Summer League) Cardinals. That club’s season ran from June 1st of that year through August 24th. Sosa was on the Active List the entire time, which constituted only 85 days, and thus he was not credited with a “season of service” under the fourth option rule.
The 2014 season for the DSL Cardinals started on May 31st, but Sosa did not join that club at that time, instead staying in Extended Spring Training until he was assigned to the GCL (Gulf Coast League) Cardinals on June 20th. Sosa stayed with the GCL Cardinals for that club’s entire season, which lasted from June 20th through August 28th. That period of time amounted to 70 days. The GCL Cardinals did play in the GCL semifinal game on August 29th, but only time on an Active List during the regular season counts. The fourth option rule refers specifically to 90 days spent on the Active List “during a championship season.” Major League Rule 60(p) defines “championship season” as “the full schedule of regular season games that has been approved for a Major or Minor League Club . . .”
After the GCL club lost the semifinal game, the organization sent Sosa to Short-Season A State College for the final three games of that club’s regular season, which ended on September 1st. State College ended up going to the postseason and actually won the New York-Penn League title that year, but again, time in the postseason does not count. Since Sosa spent only 73 days total on an Active List, he was not credited with a “season of service” for 2014.
Sosa joined the Johnson City Cardinals on June 23rd, spending the whole season with that Rookie classification club, whose season ended on September 1st, a period of time which consisted of only 71 days. Sosa has been in professional baseball for 3 seasons by now, but still has not been credited with a “season of service.” Have you noticed a trend? It is virtually impossible to get a “season of service” for purposes of the fourth option rule in a short-season league. Because the DSL season starts earlier than the other short-season leagues, and lasts a bit longer, it is possible for a player to reach 90 days of service if the player starts in the DSL and then is promoted to either the GCL Cardinals or Johnson City, whose seasons end a little later than the DSL season. But that did not happen with Sosa, and he only got close to 90 days the one season he played in the DSL.
Sosa was assigned to the Class A Peoria Chiefs for the 2016 season, which started on April 7th. He was on the active roster of the Peoria Chiefs from April 7th through July 21st, then was promoted to Class A-Advanced Palm Beach the next day. That’s more than 90 days on an Active List right there. It’s irrelevant for purposes of this discussion that his season was over after 9 games at Palm Beach due to a wrist injury. This was “season of service” #1.
Something else significant happened to Sosa this year. In November of 2016, the Cardinals purchased his contract and added him to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Sosa had only 4 years of professional experience, but the clock for Rule 5 draft eligibility runs from the date the player signed his first contract. Sosa signed his contract in July of 2012 and he was under 18-years old when he signed. For that reason, he was eligible to be drafted in the fifth Rule 5 draft following the date of his signing, which would have been in December of 2016. It did not make a difference that Sosa could not play in 2012.
Now on the Cards’ 40-man roster, Sosa went to major league spring training in 2017, but was one of the first group of players optioned out of camp. Although Sosa was technically optioned on March 13, 2017, the 20-day clock for counting option days does not begin to run until MLB Opening Day. MLB Opening Day 2017 was April 2nd. If Sosa had been recalled before Opening Day, none of the time prior to his recall would have counted toward the 20 days needed to burn an option year. As it turned out, Sosa was not recalled to the Cardinals in 2017, and thus option year #1 was burned.
Determining whether Sosa was credited with a “season of service” for purposes of the fourth option rule in 2017, however, is more complicated than in any other year of Sosa’s minor league record. Sosa was optioned to Palm Beach, whose 2017 regular season started on April 6th. He was on the Palm Beach Active List from April 6th through May 31st and was placed on the Palm Beach 7-day DL on June 1st. Sosa was activated from the DL on June 16th and sent to AA Springfield the same day. He played 1 game for Springfield, but he went on the Springfield 7-day DL again 2 days later. This time, doctors discovered a broken hamate bone in his left hand/wrist.
Sosa was out of action completely until he started a rehab assignment with the GCL Cardinals that lasted from August 15th through August 24th. The rehab assignment rule in the minor leagues allows a player on the injured list of a full-season club to play for a short-season club for a brief period (20 days for non-pitchers and 30-days for pitchers). There can only be a maximum of three such players on a rehab assignment with any short-season club at any particular time. During the period of the rehab assignment, the player does not count against the short-season club’s Active List, and he is still on the injured list. Sosa was activated from the Springfield DL on August 25th and sent back to Palm Beach, where he played through the conclusion of Palm Beach’s regular season on September 3rd. Sosa was also on the roster for the Florida State League semifinals, but postseason time does not count for the purpose of counting time on the Active List.
Sosa was only able to play in 52 total regular season games in 2017. But did he accrue a “season of service” for purposes of the fourth option rule? It turns out that he did. Refer back to the fourth option rule above on counting days on the injured list. All of the time on the injured list counts toward the 90 days if it came after the player spent at least 30 days on an Active List. Here is how Sosa’s 2017 season broke down:
- 56 days on Palm Beach Active List from 4/6 through 5/31
- 15 days on DL from 6/1 through 6/15
- 2 days on Springfield Active List from 6/16 through 6/17
- 68 days on DL from 6/18 through 8/24
- 10 days on Palm Beach Active List from 8/25 through 9/3
If you just counted the days that Sosa was on an Active List, it wouldn’t be enough, because he only had 68 days on such a list. But all of that DL time counted toward the 90 days necessary to accrue a “season of service” because it all came after Sosa had spent more than 30 days on an Active List—58 days to be exact. This was Sosa’s “season of service” #2. Interestingly, the rule on counting injured list time was changed beginning with the 2012 season. For prior seasons, the injured list time only counted toward the 90 days if it came after the player had spent at least 60 days on an Active List. Under the old rule, Sosa’s 2017 season would not have counted as a “season of service” for purposes of the fourth option rule. But because of the 2012 rule change, it does count.
The 2018 season easily qualified as “season of service” #3 for Sosa. He was optioned to the minors in spring training again and was recalled to the majors for the first time on September 23rd, spending well more than 20 days on option in between. Sosa also spent way more than 90 days on an Active List, with no time at all on an injured list. “Season of service” #3 was accrued and option year #2 was burned.
The same is true for this season. Sosa was optioned to the minors in spring training. The Cards didn’t recall him until July 16th, and optioned him back to AAA Memphis on July 20th. He was recalled on September 2nd, and will spend the rest of the year with the big club. He has already spent well over 90 days on an Active List and 20 days on option. For the second year in a row, he has been injury free. “Season of service” #4 has been accrued. Option #3 has also been burned.
Applying the fourth option rule to Sosa’s minor league record, he should qualify for a fourth minor league option for the 2020 season. Prior to the 2020 season, he will only have been credited with 4 “seasons of service” for purposes of the fourth option rule: 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. The 2012 season did not count, because he was signed for future services and did not play that year. And the 2013-2015 seasons did not count because he spent each season with short-season clubs with less than 90 days total on an Active List during each of those regular seasons. Finally, he will have already been optioned to the minor leagues for the requisite period of time in each of 3 prior seasons, making a fourth option possible—all three options have to be burned before a fourth may be used.
Assuming I am correct, this is good news for both Sosa and the Cardinals. After a strong 2015 season with Johnson City, Sosa lost significant time to injury the next two years. Still only 23 years old, he’s almost certainly the player you would want to play shortstop if Paul DeJong has to miss significant time next season. In addition, assuming the 26-man roster goes into effect next year, the Cardinals will have to have a minimum of five players on the major league bench. With his strong glove at short and experience at both third base and second base, Sosa could get a longer look for a bench job if the possibility of optioning him next season exists. If the Cards determine that they have no room for Sosa next season, it will be much easier to trade him to another club for value if he has an option left.
Sosa showed power in the minor leagues this season like he had never demonstrated before. It may be an aberration, and the AAA baseball may be totally responsible. But Sosa’s eligibility for a fourth minor league option for 2020 means that the Cards will not be forced to make a decision on him this off-season that they may live to regret.
Stay tuned for the next installment, where I will discuss the instances in Cardinal history when the club has actually exercised a fourth minor league option on a player.