Seattle rookie James Paxton, whom scouts are raving about, pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings Tuesday night to beat Texas and improve his record to 4-1 with a 1.83 ERA. The Mariners optioned him to Triple-A Tacoma the next day.
Why did they do this? Not because of his excellent performance but because the Mariners felt the starting rotation needed some rest, particularly after Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young all had perhaps their worst outings of the season over the weekend. By optioning Paxton and calling up Erasmo Ramirez to pitch Wednesday, they were able to give King Felix and the others not only one extra day of rest, but two, because Thursday was an off-day. It allowed each starter to pitch on six days' rest as the club heads into an unexpected but refreshingly welcome stretch drive.
Plus, the Mariners were able to do so without Paxton missing a single start. The Mariners will bring him back after Tacoma’s season ends Sunday and rosters expand, then slip him right back into the rotation.
The Mariners have been skillfully utilizing player options much of the season. They have been especially adept at optioning starting pitchers in and out to fill openings in the rotation and allow them to carry an eight-man bullpen that might be the game’s best. Other teams do this as well, but Seattle has an extra edge because their Triple-A affiliate is closer than any other club in baseball -- just 35 miles from stadium to stadium, so flights often aren’t an issue (though trust me, you don’t want to make the Seattle-Tacoma drive during rush hour).
“Instead of a 25-man roster, it’s like a 27- or 28-man roster," Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “It helps when you have guys who answer the bell."
That bell has rung often for Ramirez, who has shuttled between Seattle and Tacoma six times this season -- in April, May, June, July and twice in August. On three of those occasions, he was in Seattle just one day.
How are teams able to do this? Under the rules, players have three option years in which they can be optioned to the minors an unlimited number of times. As long as you are in an option year, the club can call you up and send you down as often as they like.
Normally, a player must stay 10 days in the minors after being optioned, but an exception can be made if his minor league team’s season ends before the 10 days are up. This is the case for Paxton. It also is the case for starter Kevin Gausman, whom the Orioles optioned to their Gulf Coast League team after his solid start Wednesday.
The players association generally doesn’t have any issue with options, but the union is mildly concerned with the Paxton case because it feels the team might have been manipulating the roster a bit. The option also will cut into Paxton’s earnings.
Depending on the contract, a player optioned to the minors can go from earning the pro-rated major league minimum -- roughly $2,700 a day -- to earning a minor league salary, which is considerably less, anywhere from $72 to perhaps $500 a day depending on the player and the minor league level.
In Paxton’s case, the option likely is costing him more than $2,000 a day. On the other hand, Ramirez got his salary bumped up. And Paxton probably won’t mind in the long run if the Mariners reach the playoffs and he reaps a postseason share.
Zduriencik also says there is no “manipulation," and the Mariners are simply following the rules in place. He says the key is communicating with the players.
Oh, by the way, the Mariners optioned Ramirez to Tacoma before their next game. Which was mostly because of his performance -- he gave up 10 runs in just three innings of a 12-4 loss to last place Texas. But as manager Lloyd McClendon stressed, the important thing is not how Ramirez pitched but how the extra rest helps Hernandez and the other pitchers this final month as Seattle battles for its first postseason appearance in 13 years.
"It’s all come together in a good way," Zduriencik said of the frequent options. “Some of it is health related, some of it is opportunity related, some of it is depth related. We have done a good job with the roster and a lot of the credit goes to Lloyd and his staff."