On Player Opt-Outs – Marlins Edition

Jun 13, 2015; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton (right) celebrates with teammates after defeating the Colorado Rockies 4-1 at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 13, 2015; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton (right) celebrates with teammates after defeating the Colorado Rockies 4-1 at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

Opt-outs are all the rage, the contract clause du jour, the no trade clause for the new millennium, universally deemed by both old school types (trying to be nice) and stat-friendly intelligentsia as completely player-friendly. And frankly, this baffles me and Rob Manfred (for different reasons.. probably).

In January, Wei-Yin Chen received a 5-year $80m contract from the Marlins (despite my agua fiesta assessment… weird, I know).  The deal includes an opt-out after the second year, his age 31 season – giving him the chance at one last crack at a free agent pay day. Predating the trend a bit, Sir Giancarlo Stanton’s record 13-year $325m contract contains an opt-out after 2020, his age 30 season. The baseball universe is correct, these clauses are always in the player’s interest, and if I was their agent I’d insist on this clause in every deal.

But the baseball universe is wrong.

While the opt-out is indeed player friendly – it is also extremely – extremely – team friendly. How or why opt-out mania has been framed almost entirely as player benefit / team detriment is beyond me. In free agent deals you are generally paying for past performance – given that it usually comes after six years of major league service time; as a result, the team is buying late-peak and often post-peak performance. No modern GM (Ruben Amaro notwithstanding) believes the player will be worth their salary passed year 3 or 4 in the vast majority of free agent deals, the team and player are fading the cost as a player reaches the end of their career arc, hoping the player’s front half production makes up for their back half decline. NB: Not at all begrudging players here, the current system is blatantly anti-player and is acceptable only in the context of what came before, the reserve-clause era, and not anything approaching fairness, let alone the free-market principles undergirding most other employee-employer relationships in 2016 (with apologies to “student-athletes”).

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Chen’s contract breaks down as follows: $8.6m 2016, $11.6m 2017, opt out, $12.6m 2018, $22.6m 2019, and $24.6m (!!) in 2020. Would you gamble on Wei-Yin Chen’s career FIP of 4.14 in his age 32 thru 35 seasons? After throwing an additional 380+ IP and roughly 7,600+ pitches? If after two good years, Chen surmises that he can convince a team to pay for his (again, well-earned) semi-retirement by giving him a contract larger than the 3 years and $60m remaining on his Marlins deal, then by all means bon chance and thanks for the memories. If, on the other hand, Chen were to have mediocre or below average seasons and chooses not to exercise the opt-out, then you would have been paying for that anyway without the opt-out.

The only downside for the team is the extremely unlikely scenario where the player continues to provide elite performance for what would have been the remaining years of the deal, and – knowing what we know of large free agent contracts – how common is that? Answer: not very. The first Alex Rodriguez deal with the Mariners/Yankees that he opted-out of in 2007 (15 bWAR in what would have been the last three years of that deal), is the exception that proves the rule – and look how the Yankees fared by buying the post opt-out free agent contract. The Dodgers might have looked to this precedent in not outbidding the Diamondbacks for Zack Grienke’s services.

PSA: The Angels have seven more years of Albert Pujols (34), the Tigers four more years of Justin Verlander (32) and eight more of Miguel Cabrera (33), the Twins three more of Joe Mauer (33), the Brewers five more of Ryan Braun (32).

Running at it from another angle, would Chen have taken a 2-year $20.2m deal from the Marlins a month ago? If he had, wouldn’t we have called the deal extremely team friendly? Chen (and Boras) do not take that deal, so why would there be so much durm and strang over the player effectively opting-in to that otherwise extremely team friendly deal by exercising the opt-out? #TeamOptOut

If anything, the Marlins were unwise to backload the contract the way they did, as this reduces the chances Chen opts out. I just can’t see Chen performing well enough to opt-out and do better than the remaining portion of his contract – 3 years and $60m.

Same goes for Sir Stanton, and let me just say I adore that man. But paying him $218m over 7 years through his age 37 season (the post opt-out portion of the contract) is… out of character… for a spending averse Marlins franchise and potentially crippling. Which is not at all to say that he and his hyper-elite ilk – Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw – don’t deserve every single penny. And frankly, I’d be happy as a clam watching a Marlins club consisting of St. Jose Fernandez, Sir Stanton, and 23 quad-A players winning 70 games a year. That’s almost best case scenario if he opts-in, what happens if he blows out his knee? There are precedents, imagine 10 years, 7 years of which are spent on the DL.

Yes, opt-outs are player friendly, thank you media. But even more yes, opt-outs are totally team friendly. This is not a zero-sum game, and there is no reason both parties should not insist on the inclusion of an opt-out in every free agent deal going forward. But the way the opt-out narrative has been framed makes its inclusion seemingly a bargained-for benefit to the player, which is incorrect. In other words, I hope that on February 8, 2018 I will be thanking a 32-year-old Wei-Yin Chen for two excellent years of service and wishing him the best of luck in his future endeavors with his next ball club.

(Note: I would exclude from this analysis the purely team friendly deals buying out pre-arbitration, arbitration, and early free agent years that teams are often able to leverage over young players seeking a safety net – e.g. Anthony Rizzo, Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Jon Singleton).