© 2011 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

03/30/11 11:00 AM ET

'Options' abound: Common term explained

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- With the days of Spring Training dwindling, final roster decisions are being made. With that, a baseball fan is likely to see the word "option" repeated over and over, with players either being optioned to the Minor Leagues or discussions about players being out of options taking place.

But just what is an option and how does what seems to be a very complicated and convoluted system work? Here is a primer, of sorts.

Let's start with the official rule, Major League Rule 11 (C):

LIMITATIONS ON OPTIONAL ASSIGNMENTS. An optional assignment of a player contract shall be permitted for not more than three seasons between Major League Clubs and Minor League Clubs; provided that if the player is optioned for less than a total of 20 days in one season, as determined by the date(s) of the optional assignment(s) and recall(s), respectively, the player shall not be charged with an optional transfer in connection with the foregoing limitation.

If that sounds confusing, you are not alone. So let's try to simplify.

A player does not get options until he is placed on his team's 40-man roster. That's why when a non-roster invitee to Spring Training gets sent to the Minor League side, he's "reassigned" and not optioned.

Once a player is put on the 40-man roster, the option countdown begins. A player is assigned three options as a rostered player. Each year, when a player who is on the roster gets sent to the Minor Leagues for a stint of more than 20 days, it counts as an option.

For instance, when the Nationals optioned No. 1 overall Draft pick Bryce Harper, who is on the 40-man roster because of the Major League contract he signed on the Draft signing deadline last August, that counted as his first option. More on Harper in a bit.

A player can go up and down several times in one season, but it would only count as one option for the year. In other words, a player can ride the proverbial shuttle up and down numerous times over the course of one season and it will still only count as one option.

If a player hits the magic number and the third option is up, that's when the term "out of options" comes up. Once the three options are used up, the Major League team cannot send the player down without trying to put him through waivers. That, in turn, exposes the player to the other 29 teams, who are all given an opportunity to claim him.

This will undoubtedly happen a few times this spring. The Pittsburgh Pirates claimed left-hander Garrett Olson from the Seattle Mariners, who had tried to send Olson through waivers.

"[Olson's] another guy we'll get an evaluation on in Spring Training," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "It's a player that we have liked for a couple of years. Actually, we tried to acquire him when he was with Baltimore. I've tried a couple of times with Seattle. He came available on waivers, and we claimed him."

While it now seems likely that Olson will make the team, if he doesn't, the Pirates would have to do the same thing the Mariners did: Put him through waivers before being able to send him down. In other words, a team does not get an extra option just by picking up a waived player.

Another possibility is a team trying to trade an out-of-options player to another team, who might have room for him. Case in point: The Cleveland Indians sent Jayson Nix to the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday in exchange for cash.

Just because a player is claimed off of waivers, however, doesn't mean he's out of options. Right-hander Pat Neshek, for instance, had an option left with the Twins, but Minnesota decided it needed the roster space, so Neshek was placed on waivers and claimed by the San Diego Padres. He still has one remaining option.

General managers may never make a 25-man roster decision solely based on a player's option situation, but there's no question that it will at least figure into the thought process. John Bowker has had a very good spring with the Pirates, hitting .308 with three homers. But while his place on the Opening Day roster may have been secured with the help of catcher Chris Snyder not being ready for action, there's no question that the fact the Pirates would have had to expose Bowker to waivers played a role.

Now, back to Harper, using the Nationals' top prospect as an example of a wrinkle in the option rule. There are some instances in which a player can qualify for a fourth option. If a player uses his third option before completing his fifth full professional season, he gets that bonus option. Harper is a player who received a Major League contract right out of the Draft, meaning he was immediately put on the 40-man roster.

There is always some risk involved with those big league deals, as it means a player does have to reach the Majors by a certain point. But the fact that Harper, and any other draftee who gets a similar deal for signing, could qualify for that fourth option, might make the risk seem a little more palatable.

"Oftentimes, those guys will end up with four options, but the clock's running, so you have to feel good about that guy's development," Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman said.

The Yankees know a little bit about options and how they work and don't work. They gave Andrew Brackman a Major League contract for signing as a first-round pick in 2007. His option clock, however, didn't truly start until 2009. That's because Brackman had Tommy John surgery soon after signing and missed all of the 2008 season, one more addendum to the rule: If a player spends the season on the disabled list, there isn't an option charged for that season. As a result, the Yankees used just his third option this spring and Brackman should qualify for a fourth.

Some option-related decisions don't work out. In 1999, the Yankees signed outfielder Wily Mo Pena after his contract with the Mets was voided, giving him a Major League deal. In March 2001, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. Eventually, he ran out of options and had to stay on the 25-man roster all year, something that may not have been the best for his career.

"In Wily's case, the option, the fact he was on a Major League contract, probably hurt his development," Newman said. "Because he had to stay in the big leagues, he lost Minor League at-bats."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMay oB3 on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.