The 4th Option Year & Kelvin De La Cruz
There are a few exceptions on when an option is not used, but the focus here is the infrequent times an exception is given to allow a player a fourth option year. A brief explanation on the fourth option rule was offered up by Baseball America a few years ago:
In some circumstances, baseball rules allow for a fourth option. A player receives a fourth option if he has less than five seasons of pro experience. Draftees who immediately sign a major league contract will qualify unless they reach the majors quickly and stick there. Otherwise, they'll have their three options exhausted after their first three years in pro ball. Guthrie falls into this category.
A season is defined as any year in which the player spends 90 days on the active list. Short-season and Rookie leagues don't last 90 calendar days, so a player assigned to those leagues for an entire year won't accrue a season of pro experience. Also if a player has a long-term injury, he usually won't be credited for a season that year. (The exception is if he goes on the disabled list after spending 60 days on an active list, in which case the DL time counts as service time.)
Indians fans saw firsthand the fourth option year rule in play last year when former first baseman Michael Aubrey was given a fourth option year in 2009. Aubrey was drafted and signed in 2003, and he was active for less than 90 days in 2003 so it did not count as a season. 2004 was a season played, but he was injured most of 2005 and 2006 and those seasons did not count because he did not meet the active days requirement. 2007 and 2008 were counted as seasons players, so with three seasons (2004, 2007, 2008) that is why he got that fourth option year in 2009.
The same thing will happen to left-hander Tony Sipp in 2011, assuming he is optioned out at some point in 2010 and uses his last option year. He was drafted and signed in 2004, but that season does not count as a season played because he was in short-season ball which is less than 90-days long. 2005 and 2006 count as seasons played, but he missed all of 2007 with Tommy John surgery and missed most of 2008 with the injury and was on a rehab assignment the rest of the year so it does not count as a season. 2009 counts as a full season. 2008 and 2009 were his first two option years, so assuming he uses his last remaining option in 2010 and is healthy, that would only be four seasons played (2005, 2006, 2009, 2010) so he would get the fourth year option if needed.
So where does left-hander Kelvin De La Cruz factor into all of this? He was just rostered by the Indians last week, and while he is surely a talented pitcher there were a lot of people surprised with the Indians decision to put him on the roster considering he was still so far away from the big leagues. But, thanks to Jay over at Lets Go Tribe, his research unearthed that De La Cruz will be eligible to receive a fourth option year. Knowing this, the decision to roster De La Cruz is no longer an issue and makes a ton more sense.
De La Cruz was signed in December of 2004 and spent his first year pitching for the Dominican Summer League team in 2005, which as a short season does not count as a season played. In 2006 and 2007 he was in the Gulf Coast League, a short-season rookie league so again the seasons don't count. In 2008 he spent the year splitting time in Low-A Lake County and High-A Kinston, and this was his first season that counts. This past year he was on the shelf with an injury almost all year and did not accrue the necessary number of days to have it count as a season. As a result, De La Cruz only has one season to date in the books, and assuming he blows through his three options years in 2010, 2011, and 2012 and remains healthy, he would only have four seasons under his belt and as a result would get a fourth option year in 2013 if needed.