WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Erick Fedde got a text message from his father in December. The message was brief: “Hey, I was reading an article online saying you have a fourth option.”
Fedde’s reply was direct and didn’t mince words: “Dad, don’t be dumb. Fourth options are not a thing.”
Everyone in baseball, certainly younger players who bounce up and down between the minor and major leagues, knows you only have three option years. In other words, you can only be demoted to the minors in three seasons (even though the number of times you can be demoted within a given season is unlimited). Once you’ve run out of options, a club can’t send you down without first exposing you to waivers, giving the 29 other clubs the opportunity to claim you.
Fedde knew he had used up his three option years. He was sent down three times in 2017. He was demoted twice in 2018 (and also made another minor league appearance while rehabbing from injury). And he was sent down four times in 2019 (thrice to Double-A Harrisburg, once to Triple-A Fresno).
For the first time in his career, the 26-year-old didn’t have to worry about these things anymore. But his dad’s text did make him worry. What if it was somehow true?
So Fedde called agent Scott Boras to inquire, and after some investigative work learned the answer: It was true.
Major League Baseball’s roster rules include all sorts of archaic provisions and exceptions, and one of them stipulates that players who have accrued fewer than five full professional seasons (majors or minors) are eligible for a fourth option if their original three options have been exhausted already.
Fedde was drafted in 2014 but didn’t start pitching in the minors until June 2015 because he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. That means he hasn’t yet been a professional ballplayer for five full seasons, but he has used up all three options. Hence, he qualifies for the dreaded fourth option.
“It’s one of those things that I take as maybe an unfortunate bounce,” the right-hander said. “But, if anything, it means I get to stay with the Nationals, right?”
It does. When he thought he was out of options - same as fellow pitchers Joe Ross and Austin Voth - Fedde feared one member of that trio would be out of luck at the end of spring training. Two could make the opening day roster (one as the No. 5 starter, another as a long reliever) but the other would have to be exposed to waivers, and there would be a good chance another team would claim him.
Now Fedde knows his spring can only end with one of two possible outcomes: He makes the team or gets optioned to Fresno or Harrisburg but gets to remain in the organization.
Obviously, Fedde would much prefer the former. And he intends to do whatever he can this spring to convince general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez that he deserves a spot on the 26-man roster. But if it doesn’t happen, he takes some solace knowing he wouldn’t have to leave the Nationals altogether.
“It stinks when it puts the coaching staff and upper management in the position of: ‘Do we take a chance of losing a guy or optioning me?’ That’s the only unfortunate thing,” Fedde said. “But if there’s anything I’ve learned, if you pitch well - especially on a team that wants to win - you’ll keep your spot.”
Fedde hasn’t been able to consistently pitch well enough to permanently stick in Washington yet. He’s showed glimpses of his potential at times over the last three seasons, but he’s never been able to sustain it over a prolonged stretch. In 35 big league outings (26 of those starts), he’s 6-7 with a 5.39 ERA and 1.559 WHIP. He’s completed six full innings only seven times, though five of those came during a two-month stretch last summer.
When he’s employed by a contending club that can’t afford to let a young starter take his lumps in the majors, the rope is short. Fedde knows the feeling of being demoted all too well.
“It’s one of those things where you’d be dumb to complain about it. But it’s not fun,” he said. “Lots of people have things they don’t want to do in life. If things went the way I wanted, I’d be up here every day. It’s one of those things where you just bite your tongue, you get on your plane or in your car and you deal with the situation. Yeah, it’s not ideal, but you’ve just got to deal with it.”
That’s easier said than done. As much as we’d like to think every demoted player reports to Triple-A or Double-A and immediately gets to work on improving his craft to earn another promotion, it often takes some time to get over the sting.
“The hardest part is mental,” Fedde said. “Your first thought sometimes might not be: ‘I need to pitch better to get back up there.’ It’s: ‘Man, why did this happen?’ I think that’s something I’m getting better at, going down there and realizing that the only way to get back up is to prove it on the field. It’s definitely mentally straining, but something you have to work with.”
If things proceed as he hopes, Fedde won’t have to deal with it again this year. He’ll pitch well this spring. He’ll earn a spot on the opening day roster. And he’ll never look back.
Reality, though, suggests the odds are stacked against him. Ross and Voth are out of options. Fedde thought he was, too. Then he found out he wasn’t.
And in baseball, the options almost always win.