Regarding Bryce Harper and Options

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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18 Responses to “Regarding Bryce Harper and Options”

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  1. GZ says:

    Probably should point out only a few 2010 draftees signed major league contracts. The rest aren’t on a 40-man roster and so are not in the minors on optional assignment.

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  2. Craig says:

    RJ, I remember with Ackley last year that the Mariners decided to keep him in extended spring training instead of burning one of his option years, and so he debuted in professional ball only in 2010. Were conditions similar for him, and, if so, why did he not also play A-ball in 2009?

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  3. Scott says:

    So you’re saying that his option years would likely be 2011-2014, and that 2015 would be the first year under his major league contract where he had to be added to the 25-man roster?

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  4. Lucas says:

    Isn’t this sort of the Delmon Young career path? Delmon looks at this point like a very promising young MLBer (still only 24 and producing nicely this year), but the Rays were forced to play him in the majors at age 21 and he ended up hurting the Rays and Twins for three years because he really wasn’t MLB ready yet. Beware, Nationals fans, even the best prospects often aren’t ready at age 21.

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  5. Scott says:

    Well, to be fair Bryce Harper is projected to produce quite a bit more than Young’s .200 or so ISO, which is similar to what he produced in the minors and is above-average but not mind-blowing. At age 20 Young was putting up about a 4% walk rate with just a .160 ISO at AAA, so only the rosiest projections wouldn’t show him struggling in the majors.

    It seems like a better comp for Harper is Mike Stanton, who put up .250 to .300 ISOs in the minors with decent-but-not-great plate discipline and some inability to make contact. Jay Bruce also springs to mind.

    Those players were more than capable of producing at a young age in the majors because they had a little more patience and a lot more power than Delmon Young.

    Is it the best idea to put up Harper at age 22 to possibly go .230/.310/.460? Probably not, but it’s not the worst outcome in the history of the world.

    But there’s no way that Harper is going to come up and put up the 4% walk rates and sup-.150 ISOs that Young through up for several seasons.

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    • Lucas says:

      Delmon was a #1-3 Baseball America prospect every year he was in the minors. Harper will do well to have a comparable pedigree by the time he’s 21. Some players do perform very well in the majors at that age, but they tend to be the true legends of the game, which needless to say, is not something even every #1 prospect becomes.

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      • Scott says:

        Why are you defending Delmon Young’s pedigree? I didn’t say Delmon Young wasn’t a highly touted player – I said that young players with Delmon Young’s skill set don’t usually do particularly well as young players in the majors league. I also said that Bryce Harper is not expected to have Delmon Young’s skill set.

        He doesn’t have Delmon Young’s speed and might not have the same kind of ability to make contact, and Delmon Young doesn’t have his power or plate discipline.

        They’re just not good comps, which is why I threw out Mike Stanton, who’s a much better comp and is succeeding just fine as a young player in the majors.

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  6. PhD Brian says:

    so the Nats don’t get much for their money until 2015?

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    • Jake R says:

      Yes. Because Harper has options left before then, the Nats aren’t allowed to play him in the majors even if they feel he is ready.

      A reasonable expectation for a player with Harpers talent is that he will arrive in the majors somewhere between age 19 and age 21. This is not a reasonable expectation for even most great prospects, but Harper’s talent is special and is more accurately compared to players like Griffey and ARod than to those like Delmon Young. Obviously, it is premature to expect Harper to be as good an MLB player as those two, but my point is that his talent level relative to his age is more similar to where those two were than where ordinary great prospects are.

      All the scouts could be wrong about Harper, but if they are even close to right, his options should not develop into a serious concern unless he loses significant time to injuries.

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  7. Hat McCullough says:

    So if the Nats decided to send Harper to short-season ball in 2011 and 2012, they could then option him in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, meaning he wouldn’t be out of options until 2017?

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    • Ben says:

      If Bryce Harper is in shortseason ball in 2012, then the Nats will have much bigger issues to figure out than what his options are. Having Harper repeat shortseason would be criminal mismanagement of player development. He may even go straight to low-A next year.

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  8. Paul Thomas says:

    Nowhere have I EVER read that a player must spend 90 days in baseball to use an option year in a particular season. No such rule is listed in the array of rules in Cot’s’ Transactions Glossary.

    The 90-day rule is used as part of determining that a player is eligible for a fourth option year. But Harper is automatically eligible for four option years anyway, because he couldn’t possibly amass five seasons’ worth of minor league time in two and a half seasons!

    His option years will be 2010 through 2013 (unless he spends the whole of one of those years on the big-league roster). No later than 2014, the Nationals will be compelled to place him on their major league team for a full season.

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    • theperfectgame says:

      Yup. Far as I’m aware, the 90-day rule relates to whether a year counts as a year of professional service, and is essentially only useful in determining whether a player is eligible for a fourth option year. The only time an option year actually gets erased is when a player spends fewer than 20 total days on optional assignment in a given season.

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  9. lex logan says:

    To add Grandal to the 40 man roster, the Reds had to drop Micah Owings. Micah’s pitching has been a disappointment, but in a September pennant race Dusty might like that thundering bat off the bench. I hope MLB negotiates a ban of this 40-man-roster-contract nonsense, or teams simply refuse to accept such a demand.

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    • Alireza says:

      Why? These are relatively rare, reserved for the best players and made to force teams into actually bringing their young talent to the majors, instead of playing games with service time clocks.

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