Rules stipulate that once a player is added to the 40-man roster, he gets three options. Each season in which he is sent to the Minors costs that player one of those option years, regardless of how many times he is demoted/promoted during the year. The one exception is if a player spends less than 20 days in the Minors during a season. In that case, an option is not used.
Once a player is out of options, he cannot be sent to the Minors without first being placed on waivers. There is substantial risk in the waiver process, of course, because it allows another club to snatch that player away. That's why, when most everything else is equal, teams will often give a roster spot to an out-of-options player over one who can go to the Minor Leagues unimpeded.
Keep in mind, too, that all of this is irrelevant for players with at least five years of Major League service time. In those cases, a player, regardless of how many option years he has left, cannot be demoted to the Minors without his consent.
For the Cardinals, however, all this talk of options will be a non-issue in 2014. In fact, only three of the team's players have as few as one option year remaining. That short list includes Pete Kozma, Sam Freeman and Shane Robinson.
This is particularly significant for both Kozma and Freeman, both of whom will enter Spring Training with a tough task at cracking the Opening Day roster.
Though Kozma spent the entire 2013 season in the Majors, the additions of Mark Ellis and Jhonny Peralta, as well as the ascension of Kolten Wong, have created a crowded infield. With Ellis and Daniel Descalso projected to take spots on the bench, Kozma could be left out.
Freeman, too, could be squeezed because of surplus. The left-hander made it onto the Cardinals' roster late last season after a strong showing in Triple-A, though he had the numbers to warrant an earlier promotion. There simply wasn't room. The plethora of bullpen arms also pushed Freeman out of a spot on the Cards' postseason roster.
How the Cardinals construct their rotation will affect the makeup of the bullpen, and that trickledown effect could make it tough for Freeman to dent the Opening Day roster.
Even with Robinson, that option year could prove relevant this year. While he is on the short list of players competing for a bench spot (and a favorite to win one), Oscar Taveras' eventual arrival could take one outfield bench spot away.
For future reference, here is the full list of players (with less than five years service time) who have two option years remaining: Matt Adams, Peter Bourjos, Joey Butler, Keith Butler, Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, Tony Cruz, Eric Fornataro, Jon Jay, Tyler Lyons, Carlos Martinez, Rafael Ortega, Jorge Rondon, Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist and Michael Wacha.
Those with all three options left include: Angel Castro, Descalso, Greg Garcia, Randal Grichuk, Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn, Seth Maness, Shelby Miller, Mike O'Neill, Audry Perez, Taveras and Wong.