The question whether Justin Williams and other 40-man roster players from other clubs would be eligible for a fourth minor league option has been swirling since the 2020 season ended. I’ve written extensively about the fourth minor league option rule, most recently in this piece, where I explained why Williams could be eligible.
At first I didn’t understand the mechanics of how this issue would ultimately be decided. The Commissioner’s Office decided that the 2020 season did count as a qualified minor league season for purposes of Rule 55 minor league free agency. Thus, although there was no minor league season in 2020, if that season was the 7th season a player spent on a minor league deal, he was declared a free agent if he wasn’t added to a 40-man roster or wasn’t re-signed to another minor league deal. I wrongly assumed at the outset that the fourth option question would be decided in a similar global manner by the Commissioner’s Office.
Despite my efforts to understand the fourth option problem, I still hadn’t thought it all the way through. First, I didn’t pay attention to the fact that although the major league season was shorter than 90 days, players were credited with prorated major league service time, and that would count as time spent on an “active list” for purposes of the fourth option rule. Second, I failed to appreciate that players that have minor league options are obviously on a 40-man roster, which implicates the union, the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the right to file a grievance.
It turns out that the grievance procedure was how this was ultimately decided. I’m not sure if this was a general grievance filed by the MLBPA or whether each individual player that could have been affected filed his own grievance. I’m fairly certain that the issue was decided by one arbitrator, but I’m not 100% sure of that either. What I can report is that each potentially affected player’s factual circumstances were applied to a general set of principles that the arbitrator laid down. Thus, the 2020 season was a qualified season for purposes of the fourth option rule for some players, but not others. And because of that, some players will qualify for a fourth option in 2021, while others will not.
These general principles were not officially reported, but rulings on individual cases trickled out quickly. Based on the parameters of a series of cases, I can take you on a journey to glean the principles the arbitrator applied. We’ll then apply the principles quickly to the Justin Williams case, and then I’ll outline how other Cardinal 40-man roster players will be affected down the line.
THE ERICK FEDDE CASE: DAYS ON THE MAJOR LEAGUE ROSTER WERE PRORATED JUST LIKE FOR SERVICE TIME
Erick Fedde, a pitcher for the Washington Nationals, was ruled not to have a fourth option. He actually had a fourth minor league option available for the 2020 season, but the Nationals did not exercise it. The club optioned him just before the transaction freeze last March, but decided to recall him on opening day, and he stayed on the major league roster all year. The eligibility for a fourth option doesn’t last forever. A player is only eligible if all three minor league options have been exhausted before a player has five qualified professional seasons. Once a player has five qualified seasons, the eligibility for a fourth option expires. If 2020 counted as a qualified season for Fedde, he would not be eligible for a fourth option, but he would be eligible if it didn’t count.
Remember that a qualified season requires 90 days on an “Active List,” and that time on an injured list can count in certain circumstances. Fedde spent all 67 possible days of the 2020 regular season on the active list of the major league club. That’s obviously less than the 90 days under the rule, but if the decision were going to be made on that basis, the 2020 season wouldn’t count as a qualified season for any player in the game, and there would have been no reason for the arbitrator to take this long to rule. Instead, the arbitrator recognized that for purposes of MLB service time, players were awarded credit based on a prorated formula. They weren’t prohibited from earning 172 days or a year of major league service, just because the season didn’t last that long. They weren’t unfairly penalized by being capped at earning 67 days of service on the grounds that the season only lasted 67 days. Perhaps for that reason, the arbitrator figured that the fourth option rule should be treated in a like manner.
If the arbitrator wasn’t going to flatly declare that no player had a qualified season in 2020, Fedde’s case was easy. He was never optioned, he got a full year of MLB service time, so he should be treated as spending more than 90 days on the MLB active list. The next question would be how cases on the margins would be handled. What about players that spent time in both the majors and the various Alternate Training sites on option?
THE ADBERT ALZOLAY CASE: PRINCIPLES UNCLEAR
Adbert Alzolay, pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, was ruled to have a fourth minor league option. He spent time in the majors and on option to the ATS. How did the arbitrator handle that?
Before the decision came down, Arizona Phil, the transaction guru that follows the Chicago Cubs, suggested in his discussions with his readers about how he thought the arbitrator should rule. Phil thought the fair way to handle it would be to count the actual days the player spent on option to the ATS as a day on an active list, then add that to the number of prorated days the player spent on the major league roster.
Alzolay spent 11 days on the MLB active roster in 2020. Using the MLB service time conversion formula (11/67) * 186, and rounding to the nearest integer, yielded 31 prorated days on the major league roster. Taking 67 days of the regular season and subtracting the 11 actual days on the roster, would mean that Alzolay was on option for 56 days (67-11). Counting each of the 56 days as one day on an active list and adding to that the 31 prorated days on the major league roster equaled 87 days, which would mean Alzolay would just barely qualify for a fourth option.
But in ruling that Alzolay was eligible for a fourth minor league option, did the arbitrator actually handle calculation in the manner that Arizona Phil suggested? I couldn’t figure out the answer to that question until I came across our final case.
THE LEWIS THORPE CASE: DAYS SPENT AT THE ATS DIDN’T COUNT AS DAYS ON AN ACTIVE LIST
Lewis Thorpe, pitcher for the Twins, was ruled to have a fourth option for 2021. Let’s apply his situation using the Arizona Phil proposal. Lewis spent 30 actual days on the Twins’ active roster. Using our conversion formula, (30/67) * 186, yielded 83 prorated days on the major league roster. Now here’s the important part. Thorpe was on option to the ATS for 37 actual days (67 days of the season - 30 actual days on the active roster). If the arbitrator had added those 37 days to Thorpe’s 83 prorated days, that would have yielded a total of 120 days, which exceeds 90, and thus he would have ruled that Thorpe was not entitled to a fourth option.
Yet, the arbitrator ruled that Thorpe is eligible for a fourth option. That means that the arbitrator did not follow Arizona Phil’s suggestion, and must not have counted any of the days that Thorpe spent on option to the ATS in 2020 as days that counted towards the 90-day threshold.
THE RULES BEHIND THE RULINGS
*Actual days on the active list were prorated using the MLB 2020 service time formula (X/67) * 186. If that formula, rounded to the nearest integer, yielded a number equal to or greater than 90, the 2020 season qualified as a season for that player for purposes of the fourth minor league option rule. Using 32 as X in the formula yields 89, and using 33 yields 92. Ultimately this means that the 2020 season was a qualified season for a player if that player spent 33 or more actual days on the active roster last year.
*Days spent at the Alternate Training Site don’t count towards the 90 days, whether spent on option or not. As far as I know the arbitrator’s reasoning was not explained, but it’s understandable from a textual standpoint. The rule speaks of time spent on an “active list,” which implies a team that is playing a season of games, and an Alternate Training Site squad was basically an amalgamated extended spring training without the games.
*The one caveat to my first bullet point are the injured lists. The arbitrator still had to follow the part of the fourth option rule that injured list time does not count towards the 90 days unless it is followed by 30 days of service on the active list. Thus Cionel Perez of the Reds, who spent the first 28 days of the 2020 season on the COVID-19 Related IL, followed by 26 days on the active roster, was ruled to be eligible for a fourth option. If that prior IL time had been counted, he would not have been ruled eligible. Ultimately this means that using our formula above, a player could still reach 90 days of active list time by spending only 11 actual days on the active roster, as long as that was followed by at least 22 days of time spent on an injured list: (11/67) * 186 = 31 prorated active list days; (22/67) * 186 = 61. Adding those two figures yields 92, and smaller figures in the numerator for either equation would not be enough. We will see how this affected the Cardinals in a bit.
JUSTIN WILLIAMS’S CASE
Applying our principles to Justin Williams’s situation makes it an easy case. Although Williams entered professional baseball in 2013, his first two seasons didn’t count because he played on short-season clubs, whose seasons started too late to give him the required 90 days. His next four seasons counted, but his 2019 didn’t because he was hurt too much. That meant that Williams only had four qualified minor league seasons going into 2020. The Cards burned Williams’ third option that season, which would mean that he would be eligible for a fourth option in 2021 if 2020 did not qualify as a fifth season. As it turned out, Williams only spent 5 days on the active roster last year, not nearly enough prorated days for the season to count under the arbitrator’s ruling.
THE CARDINALS BEYOND AND OTHER INTERESTING QUIRKS
The 2020 season qualified as a season for the purposes of the fourth option rule for some players, but not others. Justin Williams is the only Cardinal 40-man roster player eligible for a fourth minor league option this year. But how will the arbitrator’s ruling potentially affect the eligibility of other Cardinal players for a fourth minor league option in future years, given that 2020 may not have counted for those players?
I examined the status of every Cardinal on the 40-man roster, and it turns out that the only players that are directly affected by the arbitrator’s ruling are C Ivan Herrera, RHP Johan Quezada and RHP Angel Rondon. Each of those players has all three minor league options remaining. They will all be eligible for fourth minor league options for the 2024 season, provided that the Cardinals exercise the options on the players in 2021, 2022, and 2023. The reason is that the 2020 season did not count as a qualified season for any of the three players—Rondon and Herrera because they spent the whole season at the ATS, and Quezada because he only spent 7 actual days on the active roster of the Miami Marlins. The only prior season that qualified as a minor league season for these players for the purpose of the fourth option rule was 2019. Suppose 2021, 2022 and 2023 counts for each player, and options are burned for each player in each year. That would mean that each player would go into 2024 having used all three options, but only having played four qualified seasons under the rule. That would make each eligible for a fourth option in 2024.
It turns out that the 2020 season did not count for John Nogowski and Ali Sanchez, but it won’t turn out to matter unless they have serious injuries in their future. Ali Sanchez, who has two options left, had qualified seasons in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Even if the rest of his options are burned in 2021 and 2022, he will have five qualified seasons by then. Nogowski already has four prior qualified seasons and has two options left. For him to get a fourth option in 2023, he would need to have both of his options for 2021 and 2022 burned, but also not spend at least 90 days on any active roster in either season.
Remember above, when I discussed the quirks of the rule relating to injured lists? Because of the COVID outbreaks in the Cardinal clubhouse last season, the club didn’t play any games between July 30th and August 15th. Junior Fernandez and Kodi Whitley were put on the COVID-19 Related IL on August 4th, but that was after they had spent 12 days on the active list from July 23rd through August 3rd. Those 12 actual days were prorated to 33 days, which meant all the time they spent on the IL after that time counted towards the 90 days. The same is true for Austin Dean, Ryan Helsley and Lane Thomas, who weren’t placed on the COVID-19 Related IL until August 15th.
For fun, let’s look at two more quirks that I found. Johan Oviedo’s season barely counted because his time on the COVID-19 Related IL counted, and he hit the 33 prorated days on the mark. Dylan Carlson’s season counted because he spent 34 actual days on the active roster. It probably wouldn’t have ultimately mattered for either player. Oviedo had prior qualified seasons in 2018 and 2019, and even if all three of his options are burned each of the next three years, he will still be at five qualified seasons. No one expects all three of Carlson’s options to be burned, and he already had three prior qualified seasons. Andrew Knizner only played in 8 games all year, but his 2020 season still qualified because he spent 43 days on the active roster languishing on the bench. Knizner had prior qualified seasons in 2017, 2018 and 2019. If last season had not counted, then Knizner would have been eligible for a fourth minor league option in 2022 if his option for 2021 was burned.
Now that it has been announced that Harrison Bader will open the season on the injured list, it looks like Williams will make the opening day roster without regard to his eligibility for a fourth option. The possibility still gives the Cards some flexibility after Bader comes back and the season unfolds if Williams struggles. Keep in mind that Williams’ fourth option doesn’t last forever. If he spends at least 90 days on an active roster this season, the 2021 season will be his fifth qualified season. If that happens and the Cards don’t burn the fourth option for Williams this season, it will be gone for good.