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Toolshed: Prospects out of options this spring

Phils' Alfaro among those facing waivers if not added to MLB roster
Jorge Alfaro hit .318 with five homers in 29 Major League games following an Aug. 4 promotion last season. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
March 2, 2018

Out of options -- it's a scary-sounding phrase, in baseball and elsewhere, as if there are no alternatives and nowhere else to turn. For players, it's something they'd prefer not to hear, but it can also represent an opportunity.First, let's establish what options are in baseball terms. Players on a

Out of options -- it's a scary-sounding phrase, in baseball and elsewhere, as if there are no alternatives and nowhere else to turn. For players, it's something they'd prefer not to hear, but it can also represent an opportunity.
First, let's establish what options are in baseball terms. Players on a 40-man roster technically are "optioned" went sent back to the Minors, unless it's a rehab assignment. They have three option years after being added to a 40-man, so "he has two options remaining" means he has two years left in which he can be optioned, not that he can only be sent down two more times. Once those three option years are over, a player is deemed "out of options." To send the player back to the Minors, a club must first place him on waivers, opening him up to all 29 other organizations.

The system represents an opportunity for players because, instead of constantly yo-yoing between the Majors and Minors, this allows them to be opened up to clubs that could find him a Major League spot. As a result, Major League teams tend to give out-of-options players more rope to prove themselves at the game's highest level.
Below are several notable prospects who entered Spring Training out of options and are using Grapefruit and Cactus League play to prove they should be kept by their organization and not be placed on waivers:
Jorge Alfaro, C, Phillies: Prospect fatigue seems to apply to the 24-year-old backstop, who was first added to a 40-man roster in November 2014. But with 123 at-bats in the Majors, Alfaro is still seven short of losing prospect status. Those seven at-bats shouldn't take long to accrue, however. The Phillies' No. 7 prospect impressed with a .318/.360/.514 line and five homers in 29 games with the Phils last season following an Aug. 4 promotion, and he certainly needed that after hitting .241/.291/.358 in 84 games at Triple-A Lehigh Valley before that. There are still questions about his bat-to-ball skills as Alfaro struck out in 31.5 percent of all his plate appearances in 2017, and he's got some defensive issues when it comes to framing. But Alfaro's power potential and lightning arm should be enough to ensure he'll be on Philadelphia's Major League roster come Opening Day, and his performance at the end of last summer likely pushes him into the starting role at least to begin 2018.

Renato Núñez, 3B/OF, A's: Stop us if you've heard this before. A corner infielder with outfield experience has shown impressive pop in the Minors and should be ready for a look in the Majors. Nunez, the No. 20 A's prospect, is trying to follow in the footsteps of Matt Olson and Matt Chapman to make an impact in Oakland. Unfortunately for him, those two are already on the roster, and along with left fielder Matt Joyce and designated hitter Khris Davis, they block a clear path for Nunez. The best chance here is a spot on the bench, where he can be the right-handed power foil to Brandon Moss and the backup at third to Chapman. The A's definitely like Nunez's power potential after he finished second in the Pacific Coast League with 32 homers last season for Nashville. But with a high strikeout rate (26.5 percent), below-average hit tool and little defensive value beyond his versatility, the 23-year-old slugger doesn't make it easy on Oakland.
Wilmer Font, RHP, Dodgers: The 27-year-old isn't a ranked prospect, mostly because of his age and the fact that the Dodgers system is fairly loaded, but he's certainly an intriguing hurler. Font was the 2017 PCL Pitcher of the Year after leading all of Triple-A with 178 strikeouts in 134 1/3 innings. Los Angeles liked enough of what it saw to purchase his contract in time for September roster expansion, thus giving Font his first taste of the Majors since 2013. It was a rough return, however, with the right-hander giving up seven earned runs in 3 2/3 innings over three relief appearances. It's highly unlikely he'll force his way into the Dodgers rotation, barring injuries, and the club's Major League signing of Tom Koehler this offseason would seem to lock up the swing role. Los Angeles does seem willing to give Font a long look, however. He started the club's Cactus League opener and has struck out six over four innings in his first two appearances.

Ryan Merritt, LHP, Indians: The Indians' No. 22 prospect is still remembered best for his spot start in Game 5 of the 2016 ALCS, when he tossed 4 1/3 scoreless innings in a win over the Blue Jays after making only four regular-season appearances with the big club earlier in the year. He bumped that number up to five in 2017 and posted a shiny 1.74 ERA in 20 2/3 innings, but his peripherals (1.45 WHIP, 3.06 FIP, .310 average-against) weren't nearly as rosy. The 26-year-old southpaw has spent his seven seasons in the Indians system as a contact-reliant starter -- he struck out 85 in 116 innings for Triple-A Columbus in 2017 -- but would likely have to move into a long relief role in order to break camp in the Majors because of the strength in the Cleveland rotation. The good news is that the Indians bullpen should be righty-heavy with Andrew Miller and Tyler Olson the other expected left-handed options. Merritt doesn't have the dominant stuff to stand out in shorter outings, but he does throw strikes with a four-pitch mix. That would be valuable as an innings-eater, even for a contending club that can't afford to waste roster spots.
Brian Johnson, LHP, Red Sox: Johnson was a first-round pick back in 2012 and made his Major League debut in 2015. Three years later, he still has rookie status and has fallen out of Boston's top-30 prospect list because of age (27) and injury concerns (the latest being left shoulder inflammation last July). Like the other three teams directly above, the Red Sox are trying to contend and can't afford to keep a spot open just to keep Johnson around, though the southpaw has expressed an interest in pitching either in the rotation or relief. The good news is Boston has an opening for the fifth spot in its rotation with Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright both expected to miss Opening Day following separate knee surgeries. After posting a 4.33 ERA over 27 innings with the big club last year, Johnson would be serviceable in that role at least to begin 2018. But he still needs to seize the job with a solid spring. Even if that happens, he'll have to take the next step of proving he shouldn't be dismissed to the bullpen or to another club once Rodriguez and Wright regain their health.
Correction: A previous version of this story included Nationals catcher Pedro Severino and D-backs outfielder Socrates Brito..

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.