With some players, option years just aren't important. Xander Bogaerts still has three of them left, having never been sent down to the minors after being added to the 40-man roster last year, but if he performs as well as we hope, then those three years will never come into play. Clay Buchholz has one, Junichi Tazawa as well, but those hardly seem likely to be relevant at all.
With others, however, options represent a time limit for the Red Sox. Each option giving a year's worth of time to find a place for that player on the 25-man roster, or risk losing them on waivers--a process very likely to snatch away any reasonable talents exposed to it. That time is almost up for two Red Sox: Drake Britton and Ryan Lavarnway, each down to their last option, and neither one likely to make the 25-man roster out of spring training.
For Ryan Lavarnway, the bat was supposed to be enough to avoid this situation. Thinking back to September 27, 2011, when the catcher blasted two loud homers to help postpone Boston's historic collapse for just one more night, it's almost hard to believe it's come to this point. But the critics who had cautioned that Lavarnway's offense was unlikely to translate fully to the majors could not have been more correct, and two full seasons later the only thing Lavarnway has managed to prove is that he can't catch a lick.
It's really been a complete train-wreck situation for Lavarnway, too. Last year he couldn't even produce in Pawtucket, hitting .250/.346/.350 in 214 plate appearances. His numbers were actually better in the majors, though he still didn't look terribly promising up there, either.
There's little hope for Lavarnway to make much of 2014, either. Even if there is a big bat somewhere in there, Lavarnway is now fourth in line at catcher behind A.J. Pierzynski, David Ross, and Christian Vazquez, leaving the Red Sox to try him at first base in spring. There, however, he's behind Mike Napoli, Mike Carp (should he make it onto the 25-man roster himself), and Daniel Nava (with one of the backup outfielders taking over in left). The Red Sox might even prefer putting Jonathan Herrera at third and shifting Will Middlebrooks across the diamond. There's just not many chances for Lavarnway to make his name even if he's capable of it.
Drake Britton's situation is different. He's not in this position because of poor performances, but because Tommy John surgery set his timetable way off. He struggled to get back in the swing of things, and in Salem looked basically done, but managed to find his way back to productivity after a promotion to Portland. This resurgence may have earned more attention from Red Sox fans were they not trying so hard to forget Britton after his DUI arrest during spring training.
Putting aside that unpleasantness, though, Britton did have a pretty good year in 2013, even making the jump to the majors and pitching 21 decent innings for Boston. It wasn't that long ago that Britton was one of our more exciting pitching prospects, either. While any dreams of Britton emerging as a strong starter seem dead and gone, there's very real potential as a left-handed reliever with plenty of heat.
Expendable Red Sox on the roster's fringe
The Red Sox have built up a tremendous amount of depth, and some of it could be moved to provide more help to the organization.
Given that, we might expect the Red Sox to actually elevate Britton quite high up the order when it comes to reserve pen arms. They recently brought in Rich Hill and Jose Mijares, and signed Tommy Layne to a minor league deal back in November. But none of those players have Britton's combination of youth and team control. The Red Sox won't sacrifice games in a playoff race to figure Britton out, but if he's been producing in Pawtucket, chances are he'll be one of the first men the Red Sox turn to when they need a reliever.
If that trial doesn't work out, though, it could well be his last one in Boston. There are plenty of teams out there with bad bullpens who could use a lefty with any level of promise. The same thing cannot necessarily be said, however, for Ryan Lavarnway, who remains little more than a glorified designated hitter. We have seen that the Red Sox view power as a significant commodity, but there was little demand for Mike Carp when he was available last offseason. Perhaps another strong season from Carp would be enough to push teams into valuing Lavarnway's potential for power at a roster spot. Perhaps not.
Either way, the dream is not likely to end for either Lavarnway or Britton in 2014. The game has seen its fair share of late bloomers, and opportunities almost always exist on one Triple-A team or another--Lars Anderson signed a minor league deal with the Cubs just last month, for instance. But the world of waivers and minor league free agency is not a pretty one, and few who make it to that point really amount to anything. For Britton and Lavarnway, this last chance to stick with Boston or build up trade value is not one to be missed.