When the Royals get back to the business of assembling an Opening Day roster, they’ll have to factor in who has options and who does not. But what are options, how do they work, and who still has them?
When a player is said to have “options” remaining, that means they have at least one more season in which they can go on “optional assignment”, meaning they can be sent to the minors without having to pass through waivers. Players generally have three option years, although there are sometimes exceptions made for a fourth option year. The first option year begins once a player is added to the 40-man roster, and is subsequently sent to the minor leagues. A player can be sent to the minor leagues as many times as the team wants in one season, and it still counts as one option year.
Once a player has used up all three option years, the team will have to expose him to waivers to send him to the minor leagues, giving each team a chance to claim him and place him on their 40-man roster. The new team will also need to have the player pass through waivers to send him to the minors, which sometimes causes waiver wars in which a player will shuttle back and forth between two clubs each trying to claim him and send him to the minors.
A player has to be sent to the minors for 20 days for it to count as an option year. A player with at least three years of service time has the option to refuse their optional assignment, even if they still have option years remaining. If they do so, they can either become a free agent immediately or at the end of the season. Veterans with five or more years of service time cannot be optioned anymore, they will always need to pass through waivers and accept assignment to the minors. A player with five years of service time who refuses assignment is still entitled to his full salary, while anyone with less than five years who refuses assignment would forfeit his salary when becoming a free agent.
We know Dayton Moore has, at times, been very sensitive to keeping “inventory”, that is, not risking losing a player unnecessarily. So he is not likely to risk putting a players on waivers unless the team has really moved on. With that in mind, here are some of the players out of options, and those with options remaining.
Players out of options
Hahn has barely pitched the last two years due to injury, so the Royals may want to send him to Omaha to build his workload back up. However he is out of options and would have to pass through waivers. Considering he has a MLB contract that will pay him $900,000 and a track record of being injured, he doesn’t seem likely to be claimed at this point.
The Royals could begin by putting him on the Injured List and send him to the minors on a rehab assignment, but he would be limited to a 30-day rehab before he would be required to be activated. At that point, the Royals could determine whether or not it is worth it to try to slip him through waivers, or give him a look at the big league level. But it may be easier just to slip him through waivers now while other teams are uncertain about his health and effectiveness.
López hasn’t been good, with a 5.89 ERA in 189 1⁄3 Major League innings in his career, but the Royals still seem likely to keep him on the Opening Day roster. He shows enough flashes of brilliance and the Royals don’t exactly have a loaded pitching staff, so they can afford to carry him to see if his results will ever match his stuff. López seemed to be demoted to the bullpen for good last May, but a couple decent starts last September put him back in the conversation for the rotation. Manager Mike Matheny had been stretching him out in anticipation of starting, possibly as a fallback for the fifth starting spot should they feel Brady Singer is not ready, or even to replace Jakob Junis if his back issues continue to be a problem. Whether as a starter or long reliever, he seems to be a lock to make the roster due to his lack of options.
Phillips projects to be possibly the best defender on the team, but his hitting is still a big question mark. The 25-year old has hit just .203/.280/.339 with a 36 percent strikeout rate in 118 big league games, but he has never gotten an extended look to see what he can do. It may be hard for him to get a lot of playing time with the Royals, with Alex Gordon, Whit Merrifield, and Hunter Dozier slated to get most of the at-bats in the outfield. Gordo may be a possibility to have a reduced role at his age, but he says he has not been approached about sitting more often. Phillips may have to settle for a reserve role, but he still seems likely to make this roster.
Starling is talked about as a virtual lock on the roster due to being out of options, but that may be due more to a lack of other viable options than an endorsement of his track record. The former first-round pick hit just .215/.255/.317 in 56 games last year, and while he plays great defense, he’ll need to provide a bit more offense to stick in the big leagues. Starling will be 28 in August, so if his bat doesn’t come around, it seems unlikely another team would put in a claim for him anyway.
Raise your hand if you’re a Royals fan who has never heard of Randy Rosario. The Royals claimed the left-handed relief specialist off waivers from the Cubs last September, and he pitched in just six games for them. Rosario was effective against lefties in 2018 for the Cubs and put up a solid ERA, although with some ugly peripherals. But the Royals are pretty deep in lefty relievers now with Tim Hill, Gabe Speier, Richard Lovelady, Eric Skoglund, and Daniel Tillo as potential options. The new three-hitter-minimum rule also makes lefty specialists less valuable, so Rosario may be exposed to waivers.
Others: Mike Montgomery seems like a lock for the rotation, and even if he falters, he is likely going to the bullpen. Veteran middle infielder Matt Reynolds is not currently on the 40-man roster, but if the Royals added him, they would have to expose him to waivers to send him back to the minors.
Players who still have options
Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom
O’Hearn seems likely to be starting first baseman, but after a disastrous 2019 season, the leash could be short. The Royals brought in McBroom late in the year, and he looked impressive in a short stint after coming over from the Yankees organization. Mike Matheny has talked about doing a “soft platoon” at first, with the right-handed hitting McBroom hitting against tough lefties that the left-handed hitting O’Hearn struggles with. Either player could be sent to Triple-A to get his head on straight or work out some mechanics.
The 28-year old right-hander seems to be constantly shuttling back and forth between Triple-A and the big leagues, but he still has one more option year to use this season. The groundball artist has posted a decent 3.78 ERA in 185 2⁄3 innings despite a low strikeout rate, so he could get some significant time out of the bullpen in Kansas City, but don’t be surprised if he gets familiar with I-29 between Omaha and Kansas City again this year.
Last year was a lost year for the lanky left-hander after an 80-game suspension for a banned substance. This is a pivotal year for the 27-year old, but he seems unlikely to make the club initially, particularly after he missed much of spring training with arm tenderness. The Royals will likely option him to Omaha to see if he can get his career back on track, and he could be an option for the rotation later this year.
Zimmer used his three option years, but he was one of those rare cases where he gets a fourth option year. MLB awarded him the fourth option year because of all the injuries he suffered early in his career. That option will probably keep Zimmer from making the Opening Day club, but it could help him long-term as he still needs to work on his command after a shaky performance in limited action last year.
Others: Jakob Junis seems like a lock for the rotation, but if he does falter, he could be sent down for some work. Nicky Lopez will likely start at second, but he could be sent to Omaha to work on his offense. Maikel Franco is a veteran, but was optioned last year, and could be optioned again this year, although he can refuse assignment. Cam Gallagher will be the backup catcher, but if the Royals wanted to bring Meibrys Viloria up instead, Gallagher could be sent to Omaha.