Let’s talk about how the new draftees with major league deals in hand and options work — starting first and foremost with 17-year-old Bryce Harper. The precocious talent very well could reach the Nationals before being legal drinking age. Such is a rarity and even more so when a player who will not turn 20 for another two seasons is given a major league deal.
None of these players, Harper included, will use options because the signing deadline does not occur until the middle of August. One of the provisions in using an option is that a player must accumulate at least 90 days of service time within that season for it to qualify. In 90 days, the baseball season will be over, meaning nobody who signed last night is going to come close to qualifying. This is true for any player placed only in short season ball during a given season.
How about a hypothetical. Say that Harper could reach those 90 days, what does it mean for the Nationals? They could circumvent the option usage by making sure his minor league stint lasted for fewer than 20 days before recalling him to the majors, thus ensuring no optional assignment burned. The only catch there is that his minor league time would be applied to his major league service time. Instead, teams are given an extra year of padding based on a rule which allows for four option seasons if the player has fewer than five professional seasons. That comes into play with the aforementioned 90-days rule.
Pretend that Harper impresses the Nationals so much in spring training next year that they option him to a full-season league at the end of spring. After a brilliant month in A-ball, he tears his ACL while running the bases and misses the remainder of the season. The Collective Bargaining Agreement protects the Nationals here, too, as a player must have 60 days on an active list before disabled list time counts towards service time. If Harper played until, say, August and then tore his ACL, he would be credited with a professional season and hence have an option used.
An important distinction to note is that pro service time and major league service time are not the same. The latter – which is undoubtedly more popular and well-known – is the clock that determines arbitration and free agent eligibility. While there are some rules about options that revolve around the major league service time none of those come into play with these signees for the time being.
In summary, here are the key points:
– Players who signed major league deals last night will not use an option because they will spend fewer than 90 days in the minors.
– Players will likely begin burning options next season, assuming they play above short-season ball and stay relatively healthy
– In some cases, these players will have four option years, not the standard three, if those options fall within their first five professional seasons – dictated not by draft date, but by the above 90-day rule.
All of this adds up to mean that Harper does not have to be a fulltime major leaguer before he hits age 21. Assuming the Nationals push his development at an advanced pace, they will have at least four seasons beginning next year for him to prove ready.
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