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Carson Fulmer and the fourth option

Sit back, relax, and strap it down. We’re going for a ride

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Houston Astros
Confabbing with Kevan Smith on options
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, the esoteric. We (read: me) have a long tradition at SSS of celebrating and embracing both the odd and the arcane. And the mysterious fourth option is a perfect example.

It’s a widely held belief that, after a player is added to the 40 man roster, a team has three years (which need not be consecutive) in which it can option a player to the minor leagues. But that’s not always true.

A select few players qualify for a fourth option year. And since you’re all real sharp readers, you’ve already deduced that Carson Fulmer could be one of those. While 2018 may be a “make or break” season for him, it won’t be because he will be out of options afterwards.

Let’s take a look at Fulmer’s professional career so far to help you all understand how this works.

Fulmer’s career

The White Sox drafted Fulmer No. 8 overall in the 2015 amateur draft. He signed shortly thereafter and was assigned on July 23 to the AZL White Sox. Ten days later, he was re-assigned to the Winston-Salem Dash, where he pitched in 8 games and finished the 2015 season.

In 2016, the White Sox assigned him to the Birmingham Barons out of spring training. As part of an attempt to help reverse the major league team’s death spiral out of contention, the White Sox selected Fulmer’s contract from Birmingham and brought him to the majors. Incidental to this, of course, is that he was added to the 40 man roster.

After the continuation of the death spiral, and Fulmer’s obvious inability to compete at the major league level, the White Sox optioned him to the Charlotte Knights. That was his first option year.

During 2017 spring training, the White Sox again optioned Fulmer to the Knights, thereby using his second option year. He was recalled on August 21 to (poorly) pitch the second game of a straight doubleheader. The next day, he was optioned back to Charlotte.

[I’ll pause here to observe that always there are some who are unclear about whether sending a player down 2 or more times in a season means more than one option is used. Only one is used. As the name “option year” suggests, a club can send a player back and forth from the minors to the majors (essentially) as many times as it wants during a given season and only one option year is used up.]

The White Sox brought him back from Charlotte during September call-ups and he remained with the team until the end of the season.

So the state of affairs going into the 2018 season is that the White Sox have used 2 option years on Fulmer and therefore, normally, would have only one option year remaining. But I’ve already told you that’s incorrect.

The fourth option year

Players who have fewer than 5 professional seasons and already have used up 3 option years qualify for a fourth option year. Fulmer (assuming an option year is used in 2018) would only have played professionally since 2015 so he would have fewer than 5 professional seasons. Thus, the White Sox would be able to option him to the minors for the fourth time in 2019.

And it gets even more complicated in Fulmer’s case because MLB defines a “professional season” as either (i) 90 or more days on the active roster of a minor and/or major league club or (ii) at least 30 days but fewer than 90 days on the active roster of a minor and/or major league club followed by being placed on the disabled list where the combined active and disabled time equals at least 90 days.

There’s a lot to unpack there so let’s take them one at a time starting with (i) as that’s the one that applies to Fulmer. He has played professionally in 2015, 2016, and 2017. But that doesn’t add up to 3 professional seasons because he did not spend 90 days on an active roster in his draft year of 2015. Indeed, it is almost impossible for a drafted player to accrue a professional season in the year he’s drafted. (Almost, because guys like Chris Sale and Brandon Finnegan have started their pro careers early enough in the year and then were brought up to the majors and therefore managed to get to 90 days in their draft year.)

Similarly, it’s almost impossible for a player who begins his season in a short season minor league to get to 90 days as their seasons are shorter than 90 days and every other league, except the majors, end their seasons in time to prevent it. For the White Sox, that means players assigned to the DSL White Sox, AZL White Sox or Great Falls Voyagers.

Those who are particularly close readers — and there surely are a few among those who have determined to read this far — may have deduced that, even if Fulmer doesn’t get optioned in 2018, he could still be optioned (for the third time) in 2019 because he would have fewer than five professional seasons and only used up two option years.

So even if 2018 is more break than make for Fulmer, he still can go back to the minors in 2019 to try to figure things out.

Now let’s briefly comment on injured players generally and tackle (ii) also. The second part ensures that players who essentially lose a development year by being injured for the vast majority of a season don’t cost their clubs (and to a lesser extent themselves) that year. The club essentially gets another year tacked on and the player may feel less pressure to produce prior to options being used up (of course, some players want options used up because it can free them of a club).

Further, players who simply do not play in a season due to injury don’t even have to fit into (ii) since they fit into (i). [There are, of course, reasons other than injury that would prevent a player from playing in a season or otherwise not reaching the minimum days but we’ve just crossed 1000 words so let’s not get that esoteric.]

Now that you’ve made it this far, I’m certain you’re asking, “larry, are there any other players who might qualify for a fourth option?” Why, yes, there is one who already is on track to potentially qualify.

Aaron Bummer: Drafted in 2014, he of course did not accrue a “professional season” that year. He did not play in 2015 due to injury. He didn’t make it back on an active roster until July 23 in 2016 and therefore didn’t accrue a professional season. This past season is in fact his only full professional season. The White Sox called him up on July 27 and he stayed for the rest of the season. Thus, he has a full complement of option years and, even if one is used in each of the next three seasons, he could still be optioned in 2021.

It’s technically still possible for a few players to be able to qualify, if in the future they don’t accrue enough professional seasons before their three option years are up but it’s pretty remote. The closest possible is Jace Fry, who has accrued 2 professional seasons. But he also hasn’t yet used any options up so he’d need to not attain a professional season while still using an option year. He’s a pitcher, of course, and particularly given his injury history it’s a possibility.