It is a topic often discussed at length in Spring Training, when position battles are sometimes tipped in one direction because one player has an option remaining and the other does not. But the concern about options doesn't start in February. It is very much in play now.
A player receives three or four Minor League options (the number depends upon various conditions) as soon as he is placed on a team's 40-man roster. An option is used each season in which a player spends 20 or more days in the Minors.
Several players on the Pirates' current 40-man roster have already used up all their options. What is the significance of this? Any player out of options cannot be sent to the Minor Leagues without first being exposed on waivers. And putting a player on waivers leaves him susceptible to being claimed by any other club.
In certain instances, the fact that a player is out Minor League options is inconsequential. Such is the case with someone like Joel Hanrahan, who doesn't need any more options because the Pirates don't have plans to send him to the Minors.
Not everyone, though, has the benefit of being so established.
Outside of Hanrahan, four other relievers on the Pirates' roster will enter 2012 without a Minor League option remaining -- Jason Grilli, Chris Leroux, Chris Resop and Jose Veras. Of those four, all but Leroux is also eligible for arbitration this winter.
If the Pirates tender contracts to Grilli, Resop and/or Veras this winter, it will be with the intention that the pitcher will be a part of the team's bullpen next season. Thus, the lack of an option won't be an issue.
It could be with Leroux, however. Leroux, 27, has never made an Opening Day roster, and if he misses out on a spot again in 2012, he'd have to clear waivers before reporting to Triple-A. But the fact that he is out of options probably will work in his favor next spring.
The Pirates liked what they saw out of Leroux in his 23 appearances with the big league team in 2011, and have allowed him to start during his current stint in winter ball. It all sets Leroux up to be an intriguing option as a long reliever out of the bullpen.
On the position player end, Pittsburgh has four players who are out of options: Jason Jaramillo, Pedro Ciriaco, Xavier Paul and Garrett Jones. Both Paul and Jones are also arbitration eligible, so their standing on the team will be determined well before options come into play.
However, the Pirates will have decisions to make regarding Jaramillo and Ciriaco.
After announcing the signing of Rod Barajas on Thursday, general manager Neal Huntington noted that Jaramillo and Michael McKenry currently sit in position to compete for the job as the team's second catcher. If all else turns out to be equal during the Spring Training competition, Jaramillo is likely to benefit from being out of options.
Unlike Jaramillo, McKenry can be sent back to the Minors next year without any risk of him being taken by another team. And because the club needs catching depth, it very well might want to play it safe and keep Jaramillo in Pittsburgh.
Ciriaco, who served as a backup infielder several times in 2011, is currently a candidate to again fill a utility role in 2012. What won't be so easy, though, is shuttling Ciriaco back and forth between Pittsburgh and Triple-A, as the Pirates did a dozen times this season.
How Ciriaco fits into the club's 2012 plans should become clearer once the Pirates determine how they will fill their hole at short. If they address that shortstop need externally, the club will be in decent shape in terms of infield depth. That would also make Ciriaco more expendable, which would, in turn, lessen the effect of his option status.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.