Every spring, MLBTR publishes a league-wide list of players who are out of minor league options. Those players, who by rule cannot be sent to the minors without first clearing outright waivers, are always worth watching with a close eye as Spring Training draws to a close, given the likelihood that a notable percentage of the list will either be traded or run through waivers prior to Opening Day. This year, 27 of those players have either changed organizations or been removed from the 40-man roster (in some cases, both) since the list’s publication — 17 in Spring Training and another 10 during the regular season. But even for those who dodge that DFA hammer, there’s little in the way of guarantees moving forward.
That’s all the more true for players on teams playing to win in 2019. A rebuilding club can afford to be more lenient with an out-of-options player in hopes that he eventually finds a rhythm and proves capable of helping down the line. The Royals surely aren’t thrilled that Jorge Lopez has an ERA north of 6.00 dating back to his acquisition last summer, but they need all the pitching they can get and Lopez was one of the pieces they received in the Mike Moustakas swap. For now, Kansas City will quite likely continue to give him chances, taking a bigger-picture approach as the club sits 12 games under .500.
A team like the Mets, however, is in a different situation. New York is in its first season under a new general manager and in year two of Mickey Callaway’s tenure as manager. Ownership opted to go way outside the box in hiring former agent Brodie Van Wagenen as the GM, and he responded with a series of headline-grabbing moves aimed at getting the Mets back to contention. One of his smaller moves was to pick up out-of-options outfielder Keon Broxton from the Brewers in a trade that sent three players to Milwaukee. Now, with Broxton hitting .152/.220/.174 through 50 plate appearances in a backup outfield role, they’re faced with a tough decision. As Newsday’s Tim Healey points out, with Jed Lowrie’s return imminent, Broxton could be in jeopardy of losing his place on the roster.
The Astros don’t have such immediate pressure to make a roster move due a to player’s impending return, but they’re nevertheless eventually going to be forced to make a decision on a few out-of-options role players. None of Tony Kemp, Tyler White or Max Stassi is hitting much at the moment, and none of the bunch can be sent down to the minors.
As a backup catcher with a strong defensive reputation, Stassi could avoid any sort of roster crunch, and White is at least getting on base even if his power has curiously evaporated (.259/.362/.328 in 69 PAs). Kemp, though, is hitting just .188/.259/.313 in 55 plate appearances. Houston is winning plenty of games as it is, but they also have one of the game’s best offensive prospects, Yordan Alvarez, raking at a ridiculous .391/.481/.873 clip in Triple-A. Alvarez, a first baseman/outfielder, has 14 homers through his first 129 PAs this season. At some point, something will probably have to give. There’s an argument that Alvarez should already be in line for the lion’s share of at-bats at DH, with White sliding to the bench and Kemp perhaps being squeezed out.
Over in Minnesota, the Twins have stormed out to Major League Baseball’s best record — just as we all predicted, right? — while receiving a lowly .128/.222/.191 batting line from light-hitting utilityman Ehire Adrianza through 55 plate appearances. Miguel Sano has been out all season but is currently out on a minor league rehab assignment, and Minnesota’s offseason addition of Marwin Gonzalez made Adrianza somewhat redundant. While Gonzalez himself got out to a slow start, he’s showing signs of life after missing a chunk of Spring Training (.289/.386/.395 over his past 11 games). Minnesota may have delayed another such decision by putting struggling left-hander Adalberto Mejia (11 runs, 11 hits, nine walks, 11 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings) on the 10-day injured list, but the Twins already cut ties with one out-of-options player by flipping Tyler Austin to the Giants. When Mejia returns, he’ll need to show some quick improvement.
The Athletics are facing one of the most difficult situations at present, having traded two players, international bonus money and a Competitive Balance draft pick to acquire Jurickson Profar this offseason. Oakland had hoped to land a potential infield multi-year infield option at a below-market salary but instead has seen Profar flounder both offensively and defensively; he’s hitting just .192/.250/.336 with eight errors (seven of the throwing variety) plus some additional questionable throws to first base. Franklin Barreto isn’t doing anything in Triple-A to force the issue, hitting just .216/.350/.363 in the Las Vegas/Pacific Coast League launching pad, but 23-year-old Jorge Mateo has hit .340/.378/.578 so far in Vegas. Given what the A’s surrendered to acquire Profar, he’s probably not in jeopardy of losing his roster spot. But if he doesn’t turn things around, the team will eventually reduce his role.
Elsewhere on the Oakland roster, right-hander Aaron Brooks opened the year as the fifth starter, but he’s been tattooed for a 5.74 ERA and eight home runs in just 31 1/3 innings of work. The Athletics’ rotation is dealing with plenty of injuries, most dating back to 2018, but the nearer those arms come to activation, the more his role comes into question. The A’s already have several healthy alternatives in Triple-A who are already on the 40-man roster, plus another who is not, in the form of Edwin Jackson. Eventually, the returns of Jharel Cotton, A.J. Puk and perhaps even Sean Manaea will impact the rotation, but there’s no guarantee Brooks will be a part of it by then.
The Diamondbacks entered the season looking like a team in transition but now find themselves in second place as others in the NL West (namely the Rockies) have struggled to unexpected levels. Arizona is five games over .500 and has already begun to act on its out-of-options players, designating Matt Koch for assignment and yanking Zack Godley from the rotation in favor of a bullpen role to get him sorted out. The D-backs love John Ryan Murphy’s glove and seem committed to carrying him even if it means rostering three catchers (although Alex Avila is injured at the moment), but Murphy will need to give them more than the .167/.245/.375 output and 41.5 percent strikeout rate he’s produced so far.
The Indians may have a similar view of Kevin Plawecki and his .167/.302/.333 line, particularly because their other catcher, Roberto Perez, is unlikely to ever provide much offense. Cleveland is struggling immensely at the moment, due largely to one of the game’s most feeble lineups. Eric Haase has nine homers in 100 PAs in Triple-A, but he’s also struck out 32 times and has an overall inferior Triple-A track record to that of Plawecki himself. Still, if the two continue at their current paces, it’ll be difficult not to contemplate a switch.
Looking around the league at the game’s most volatile assets, there’s a strangely large number of relievers on hopeful contenders who have averaged nearly a walk per inning pitched. Jesse Biddle (Braves), Chaz Roe (Rays) and Luis Garcia (Angels) all have ERAs of 3.38 or better, but each has also notched at least a 7.1 BB/9 mark on the young season. Seattle’s Zac Rosscup is in the same boat, though perhaps even more than the D-backs, it’s debatable whether the Mariners are a win-now club — particularly in light of a recent slump that has relegated them to just one game over .500.
Other win-now clubs have had their own share of poor bullpen performances from players who can’t be optioned, with the Nationals (Matt Grace), Indians (Neil Ramirez, Tyler Olson) and Phillies (Jose Alvarez) all experiencing relief issues. The Phils and Rays have moved on from one out-of-options player apiece recently in the form of Aaron Altherr’s DFA and Wilmer Font’s trade, and as leaders in tight divisional races, they have less cause to be patient than other clubs. For that matter, Font’s place on the Mets is hardly etched in stone, though injuries elsewhere on the staff (Jason Vargas, Jeurys Familia) may create a chance for him to prove himself.
A team’s level of patience is key in any evaluation of an out-of-options player, of course, and that tolerance will always be somewhat context-dependent. The Astros are the runaway favorites in the AL West, so they can afford to exercise more patience with minimal fear of missing the playoffs or even of finding themselves in a one-game Wild Card showdown. The track record of the player in question also comes into play; the Brewers were expecting more from Jesus Aguilar than he’s shown so far, but he’s a 2018 All-Star who mashed 35 home runs a year ago and has maintained an excellent batted-ball profile while actually improving upon his K/BB numbers. A rebound seems likely, and last year’s excellence gives him more of leash than others in his situation would have.
There’s still plenty of season left, but clubs are approaching the 25 percent mark of the 2019 campaign, and mid-May to early June is frequently a time when we begin to see teams make notable changes to initial roster constructions that haven’t paid dividends. Within the next few weeks, several of these scenarios will likely lead to some degree of roster turnover.
Those changes can have far-reaching effects beyond the team making the actual change, as well. Players like Brad Hand, Kirby Yates and the aforementioned Aguilar were all out-of-options castoffs before rising to prominence in new environs. That’s a rare, best-case outcome scenario but one that underscores the ripple effect that even minor transactions can have on a team’s long-term outlook.