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Transaction Special: Justin Williams Might Be Eligible for a Fourth Option in 2021

Houston Astros v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

As Spring Training approaches, we’re having our seemingly annual conversation about the composition of the Cardinal outfield. The trade of Dexter Fowler has made matters much easier, but the Cardinals are still billing the outfield spots—other than perhaps center field— as a competition, and there is still the consideration of which and how many outfielders will be part of the opening day bench. I will have the Cardinals Spring Training review up (along with reviews of the other NL Central clubs) in short order, but information I learned from other writers has prompted me to write this spur-of-the-moment piece about Justin Williams.

Williams is one of the candidates to make the Cards’ 2021 opening day roster. Obtained as part of the Tommy Pham trade with the Rays at the trade deadline in 2018, he’s been described as a player with promise. The issue, however, is that we haven’t gotten to see him play much since we acquired him. There was only about a month left in the 2018 minor league season when we made the trade. Williams then punched a television that December which delayed his 2019 start for almost 2 months. He then had other injuries that limited him to roughly 60 days worth of playing time. Finally, as we all know, the 2020 minor league season was canceled. While Williams was made a participant in the Cards’ Alternate Training Site last season, production in that venue is basically known only to the Cardinals’ staff, and Williams was on the Cards’ active roster for only 5 days.

Often a consideration on the final composition of an opening day roster is whether a player has minor league options left. If a spot is contested and the question is close, a player who is out of options will often get the job. The reason is that if the club tries to send such a player to the minor leagues, it can only be by an attempted outright assignment, which requires placing the player on irrevocable waivers, which itself could lead to the loss of the player to another organization. Of our outfielders, all of them have at least one minor league option remaining, except for Williams. Or so we thought.

Most of you know the traditional rule for minor league options. Once a player is added to a club’s 40-man roster, he then has what are known as three “option years.” If a player spends at least 20 days on option in any given season, that season’s option is said to be burned. There is no restriction on how many times in any given season a player may be optioned and recalled. After a player has spent at least 20 days on option in 3 different seasons, he is said to be out of options, and the only way the club can send that player to the minors after his is out of options, is, as I said above, by an attempted outright assignment.

As I have described in past articles, however, some players are available for a fourth option. I first mentioned it in this piece in September 2019, when I determined that Edmundo Sosa should have been eligible for a fourth minor league option in 2020. That assertion proved to be correct. I talked about it again in a subsequent article, where I discussed the history of Cardinal players that have had four options (although I missed at least Ed Kurpiel and I think Chad Hutchinson in that article).


The fourth option rule is listed in the Major League Rules as an exception to Rule 11(c), which lists the typical rule providing for three options. Here is the exception in full:

EXCEPTION: Contracts of Major League players who, prior to 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.


Before I explain how this rule might apply to Williams, I must give credit to two writers who turned me on to this issue, and without whom this article would not have been possible. The first is a gentleman who goes by the moniker “Arizona Phil,” and runs a Chicago Cubs blog known as The Cub Reporter. I’ve never met or talked to the man, but he is a serious transaction guru with some type of inside connection to the Cubs organization. I don’t know what his entire baseball background is, but as best I can tell, he has at least been a regular attendee at the Cubs’ Spring Training in Arizona for years. He has an entire transaction compendium on that blog, and regularly writes comprehensive articles and responds to user comments with a sophisticated transaction analysis. Arizona Phil is a major inspiration for my interest in this work. If you have any interest at all in the Cubs or their farm system, his blog is well worth a regular check.

As the 2020 season drew to a close, Arizona Phil commented one day that pitcher Adbert Alzolay might be available for a 4th minor league option in 2021, but only if 2020 was not considered a qualified “season of service,” within the meaning of the 4th option rule. His point was that there was no minor league season in 2020—it was canceled before it started. Players not on the MLB active roster were not really on the Active List of any club at all, even if they were part of a designated 60-man Club Player Pool and assigned to an Alternate Training Site. Phil noted that MLB was still considering, therefore, whether a player like Alzolay, who was optioned to the Alternate Training Site between major league stints, would be credited with a season of service for purposes of the fourth option rule.

I had made a mental note of Arizona Phil’s concerns, but didn’t really think it had any application to the Cardinals until I read the chat that Cardinal beat writer Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch conducted today with subscribers. Someone asked him about whether there was room for both Edmundo Sosa and Justin Williams on the Cards’ opening day 2021 bench, given that both were out of options. Goold’s response was “Sosa is [out of options]. At last check, the Cardinals are seeking clarity on whether Williams is. That’s something to double-check going into spring training, and look for an explanation here in the near future.” When I saw that response, my radar went off. I wondered what there would be to seek clarity on. Williams was out of options, and that was it. But not figuring Goold to say that without either a proper source and knowledge, or for a good reason, something in my mind connected his statement the issue that Arizona Phil had mentioned months ago. So credit goes to Arizona Phil and Derrick Goold for illuminating this issue and for me bringing this to you tonight,


Why is all of this this relevant for Williams? The Diamondbacks drafted Williams in the 2nd round of the 2013 draft before his 18th birthday. Williams started the 2013 season with the Rookie level Arizona League Diamondbacks club, a stateside complex league, was promoted to Rookie level Missoula in the Pioneer League in mid-August, then closed out the season for 3 days in late August with Class A South Bend. He started 2014 with Missoula again, then in early August was promoted to Class A South Bend for about a month. Because Williams started both the 2013 and 2014 seasons with short-season Rookie level clubs, he wasn’t on the active list of any club until mid-June. And because his seasons ended in either late August or very early September, he was not on the active list of a minor league club for 90 total days in either season. Thus, neither 2013 nor 2014 were “seasons of service” for purposes of the fourth option rule.

Every season from 2015 through 2018 counted for Williams. The Diamondbacks traded him to the Rays in November of 2014. He split 2015 between Class A Bowling Green and High-A Charlotte, both full-season clubs. Although he missed about a month on the disabled list in 2017, he still had more than 90 days of active service in a season split between High-A Charlotte and AA Montgomery. He missed 3 weeks on the injured list in 2017, but spent that whole season with AA Montgomery, and had more than 90 days of service. After the Rays added Williams to the 40-man roster in November of 2017, he was optioned to AAA to start 2018. He was recalled to the majors for one day on July 21st, 2018, then optioned back the next day. The Rays traded him to the Cards on July 31st, and his option was converted to AAA Memphis, where he remained for the rest of the season. That was the 4th “season of service,” with one option burned.

The 2019 season, however, did not count as a qualified season for Williams. After the 2018 season, he screwed up his hand when he punched a television set. Because he had that one day of MLB service in 2018, the Cards were forced to place him on the major league disabled list to start the 2019 season. On May 5th, the Cards activated him from the IL and optioned him to AA Springfield. He got 18 days of time between May 5th and May 22nd, and then put on the Springfield 7-day IL for an unknown injury. Unlike Major League clubs, Minor League clubs are not required to disclose the nature of injuries and are not required to file a standard form of diagnosis signed by a physician. You can’t just find out by looking at a transaction page. Williams wasn’t activated until June 27th, was promoted to AAA Memphis on June 30th, and got another 8 days on the active list between June 27th and July 4th, before being placed on the Memphis IL on July 5th. This IL stint lasted through July 29th. Williams was activated on July 30th, and spent the rest of the season, which concluded on September 2nd, on the active list.

That last stretch from July 30th through September 2nd, 2019 gave him 35 days of active list time. Adding that to the earlier stretches of 18 days and 8 days, respectively, yields a total of 61 days of active time in 2019, which is short of the 90 days required to constitute a qualified season for purposes of the fourth option rule. None of his injured list time counted because he never had 30 days of active list time before landing on the IL.

The seasons of 2013, 2014 and 2019 did not count for Williams. Each season from 2015 through 2018 did count. Meanwhile, Williams burned minor league options in each of 2019 and 2020. That means that everything depends on whether 2020 will be counted as a qualified season. Williams has exhausted all three minor league options. If 2020 counts as a season of service for the purpose of the fourth option rule, he won’t have less than five qualified seasons (he will have exactly five), and will not be eligible for a fourth minor league option. If it is determined, however, that 2020 does not count, he will have only four qualified minor league seasons, and having used all three minor league options before having five qualified seasons, he will be eligible for a fourth option in 2021.


Sosa is definitely out of options. He was eligible for a fourth minor league option last season, and even that was burned. This issue should not affect any other Cardinal players, at least for this season. The only other players that are out of options, that could be optioned without their consent if they were eligible for a fourth option—John Gant, Miles Mikolas, Daniel Ponce de Leon and Tyler Webb—aren’t eligible for fourth options because they have 5 or more seasons of qualified service. It may affect other players down the line, and I’ll get to an analysis of that at a later date.

As far as how this issue turns out, there is no precedent for this. MLB did determine that 2020 was a qualified season for the purposes of Rule 55 minor league free agency. Under that rule, a minor league player’s contract may only be renewed six times, and if a player is not on a 40-man roster after a season and has spent all or parts of 7 seasons on a minor league roster, then he’s declared an automatic free agent. MLB decided that although there was no minor league season in 2020, 2020 still counted as time spent on a minor league roster. When we’re talking about optioned players and fourth options, those players are on the 40-man roster, and one would think the union would have something to say about it. I can understand arguments on both sides of the issue. I imagine the union will be against it on player mobility and financial grounds, and would advocate for the clubs’ hands to be forced.

With Spring Training right around the corner, one would expect a ruling on this soon. This is a big deal for Williams and the Cards. Although the ATS was not nothing, the Cards couldn’t see him in a real minor league game in 2020. Because of his injuries, the Cards have only seen him get 256 minor league plate appearances in the Cardinal organization across 2018 and 2019, to go along with 6 trips to the plate in the majors in 2020. If Williams is ruled not to be eligible for a fourth option, he will have to make the opening day roster or be placed on waivers, traded or released. If he is eligible, it could prevent the Cards from making a hasty decision the club would rather not make. At all events, this ruling could have a large impact on who makes the Cardinal club on opening day.