(Idea via ReasonableDoubt)
Warning, technical jargon ahead.
Minor league options are one of the more tedious aspects of baseball vernacular. Essentially, teams have a limit on the amount of times a player can be sent to the minors without his permission. For the average player, this is three options - not years, but options. Some players, like Scott Kazmir, agree to contract extensions that essentially wipe away any remaining options; this leaves Kazmir in control of his own destiny with his agreement the only thing allowing the Rays to demote him.
Most people assume players can only be sent to the minors and recalled three times total, that's not true. If the Rays were to purchase Tim Beckham's contract in September, and keep him up through the end of the season, they would only use an option when they optioned him to the minors next spring. If they recalled him after two weeks had passed and Beckham remains in the majors for the rest of the season - therefore finishing with less than 20 days in the minors - this too would not count as an option used.
The Rays could demote Beckham in 2010, skip 2011, and send him down in 2012 for some more seasoning and Beckham would still have to frown and head to bus town. If he had five years of major league service time, Beckham could refuse the optional assignment and become a free agent instead. Also worth noting: Beckham would be eligible for a fourth option if he were optioned in each of those seasons but had less than five years of experience in non-short season leagues. By my count, he would qualify.
Okay, now, let's get to the point. Every season a few fringe players have renewed chances of making the roster because they are "out of options". That means, simply, they can no longer be optioned to the minors without being designated for assignment (giving the team 10 days to trade, release, or place the player on waivers). The last step in that process involves irrevocable waivers, meaning any player with value is going to be claimed; barring a messy contract or crime scene. For those who aren't claimed, they can be assigned to the minors without choice the first time they've been "outrighted", but have the choice to become a free agent either at that date or after the season if they aren't placed back on the 40-man roster.
So, which players are the Rays going to have to maneuver for next spring? Well, first, let's put the obvious ones to rest. Pat Burrell is not going to the minors, neither is B.J. Upton, or Carl Crawford, or whomever else. We're talking about fringe roster types or highly touted prospects that have run into a few hurdles. This year, the big one was Jeff Niemann, last year it was Edwin Jackson, and so on.
By fringe, I simply mean guys who don't seem to have a defined role on next year's team. This doesn't mean they suck nor have no future, it just means there may not be a bench spot or place in the bullpen for them.
Fringe players with zero options remaining entering next season:
P Joe Nelson (some would argue he's a non-tender candidate, I'd agree)
UT Joe Dillon
Fringe players with one option remaining entering next season.
SS Reid Brignac
P Jonathan Meloan
(I know some will attempt and argue with who I label as fringe, please don't.)
Mitch Talbot is the big name on that list. Pitchers with 380 Triple-A innings and 3.5 FIP don't pass through waivers. He's unlikely to make the Rays rotation, so the Rays are going to have to decide whether he's bullpen fodder or his best value is derived from trading him for whatever. Assuming he's still with the org through the spring, he's Jeff Niemann 2010 and could be the first real causality to the Rays rotation depth.