The Mysterious Fourth Option is something that has come up in discussions a fair amount lately. Ricardo Rodriguez, Ryan Drese and Joaquin Benoit were able to be sent down due to a 4th option in recent years, but I had never seen it adequately described.
However, in last week's Ask BA, Jim Callis gives the best explanation of the rules and applicability of the fourth option I've seen yet. His explanation:
Every played added to a 40-man roster for the first time is granted three option years, allowing the team to assign that player to the minors that year without having to pass him through waivers. A player can move back and forth from the majors to the minors multiple times in a given year, and it still counts as the use of just one option. After a player's options are expended, he has to clear waivers before he can be assigned to the minors.
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. [Jeremy] 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.)
[Andrew] Brown signed in 1999 and the Dodgers placed him on their 40-man roster in 2002, meaning they and the Indians have used up his options to send him to the minors the last three years. But Brown will get a fourth option because this counts as only his third season of pro ball for option purposes. He spent 1999 in Rookie ball, missed all of 2000 with Tommy John surgery, spent 2001 in the short-season New York-Penn League and pitched in just one game in 2003 because he had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.
Once this goes into BA's archive, I'm going to add this link to the FAQs on the righthand side of the LSB page.
Great job by Callis of straightening this out...