Nuts and bolts: KC Royals minor league player options

(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /
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KC Royals
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

Baseball rules can be mysterious. Rule 11(c) regulates minor league options and can be both complicated and confusing, but it’s a critical rule for the KC Royals.

Rule 11(c) is like the other rules found in the “Major League Rules,” the compendium that regulates how the business of baseball is conducted. Like the rules of play, these rules can be complicated, confusing and difficult to understand. Rule 11(c) can, however, be distilled to this: Generally speaking, a player has three options; once exhausted, the player can’t be sent to the minor leagues without first clearing waivers.

Satisfying? Perhaps, but only to the extent that it might be enough to know each player gets three options, but not if one doesn’t know what an option is, how it’s used, and what exceptions might exist. It may be sufficient for some to know a player has, or doesn’t have, options; for others, knowing and understanding what lies underneath the word “option” is better.

What is an “option?”  A “minor league option” isn’t to be confused with a baseball contract option. They are two different things with two different purposes. The latter refers to a contract provision–if a player’s contract includes an “option” the player, or the club, can extend the contract beyond its base term by exercising, “or picking up,” the option. Options sometimes require the assent of both player and club, hence their identification as “mutual.”

A minor league option has nothing to do with a player’s contract, but everything to do with a club’s ability to send him to the minor leagues against his will. Kyle Zimmer can’t be demoted unless he has at least one option; if he does, the KC Royals can send him down and there’s nothing he can do about it. (In some cases, a player can consent to a minor league assignment, but players are usually reluctant to do so).

An option must be brought into being; professional ballplayers reporting to duty for the first time won’t find them in their lockers or among their equipment issues. Being placed on a club’s 40-man roster is what gives life to options–at that moment, the player is assigned his three options. It is perhaps more accurate to say the club has the options, because it’s the club that decides when and how to use them, not the player.

Don’t be misled. The term “option” can be confusing in and of itself: it isn’t plural on its face,  suggesting that it’s of singular, one-time utility. In a technical sense, it is, but the exercise of a single option involves more than using something once and losing it as a consequence. A minor league option is, instead, the ability to do something more than once in a specific time period–it permits the KC Royals to send Zimmer to the bush leagues as many times as it can within a single season.

How does it work?  When Kansas City first put Zimmer on its 40-man, he was assigned the three options Rule 11(c) allows. During that season, the club could have demoted him (assuming he was first promoted to the big club) as many times as it wanted. Although he could have been demoted several times, those demotions collectively would have counted as only one option, leaving Zimmer with two.

So why was Zimmer, who made his major league debut in 2019, out of options when 2020 spring training began–how could he have been if he had never been demoted to the minors before last season, his first in the majors?

Here’s why. Under the option rules, a player on the 40-man who isn’t also on the active, 26-man major league roster when the regular season begins must be optioned to the minors. So, when Zimmer occupied a 40-man spot but didn’t make the team out of spring training, he and the Royals used up an option. Zimmer broke camp with the KC Royals last season with just one option left–the club used it the first time it sent him to Omaha, leaving him with no options when he reported to spring training with the rest of the pitchers this February 12.

But a few days later baseball, via its myriad of rules exceptions and discretionary moves, gave Zimmer back his last option, justifying the restoration on the complex injury history that deprived him of so much critical minor league development time. Now, the Royals can keep him in KC, solve a roster crunch by demoting him to make room for another player, or demote him to get him more work than he might get with the major league team.

What happens when a player runs out of options?  A player without options is at risk. Had baseball not awarded Zimmer a fourth option, the Royals couldn’t demote him unless he first cleared waivers, a sometimes complicated process that requires a club to place a player on waivers, thus exposing him to another club’s waiver claim and potential loss to that claiming team.

Are their exceptions or other relief from Rule 11(c)?  Yes. Players who have less than five years of professional service, determined by combining minor league seasons with any major league seasons, get a fourth option. (A “year of service” is determined by several variables, discussion of which isn’t necessary here to gain a basic working knowledge of options). An option isn’t used if a player spends less than 20 days in the minors during a season, or is injured for an entire season. And, like Zimmer, a player can get an extra option if circumstances warrant.

Finally, injury rehabilitation assignments don’t count as options, and Rule 9(d) prohibits demoting players with at least five years of major league service without their consent.

With all that in mind, what is the option status of notable KC Royals? Let’s find out using FanGraphs’ comprehensive roster tracking data.