One executive jokes that teams are handing out opt-out clauses "like Skittles." Another says it’s almost as if teams are signing free agents hoping that they will opt out.
If so, those clubs are playing a dangerous game.
I understand why the Cubs awarded Jason Heyward two opt-outs — the outfielder had leverage at age 26, and wanted the chance to hit free agency again while still in his prime. I also understand why the Red Sox gave David Price an opt-out — such provisions are now standard in long-term deals for elite pitchers.
Johnny Cueto, too, qualifies by some measures as elite – his 2.71 ERA over the past five seasons is second only to Clayton Kershaw’s 2.11 (minimum 800 innings). But Cueto was coming off a rocky platform year and it’s unclear whether another team was willing to give him six years, $130 million.
Did the Giants really need to give him an opt-out?
Well, the Giants did not know which clubs, if any, they were competing against for Cueto — that’s the nature of free agency, as evidenced by the Diamondbacks’ last-minute entry into the Zack Greinke sweepstakes.
Some media reports, in fact, linked the rival Dodgers to Cueto, and that perhaps added to the Giants’ urgency. So, to help close the deal, Giants general manager Bobby Evans included an opt-out for Cueto after two years.
What we’re talking about, then, is a two-year, $46 million contract for Cueto with a four-year, $84 million player option. If Cueto pitches well, he surely will follow the same path that Greinke did at age 32 and take another bite at free agency. But if Cueto is ineffective or gets injured, the Giants will be stuck.
A team does not necessarily lose when a player opts out — the Dodgers, after all, got three of Greinke’s best years, and the Red Sox and Giants would be thrilled if Price and Cueto, respectively, provided comparable returns. The opt-out, to be sure, gives players incentive to maintain a high level of performance rather than get too comfortable on a long-term deal.
The downside, though, is what the Dodgers currently face with the loss of Greinke — the difficulty of replacing a premier talent.
The players experience no such risk; Cueto is guaranteed $130 million, Heyward $184 million, Price $217 million. Those numbers represent the floor for those players. And they’ve still got a chance to reach for the ceiling.
THE VALUE OF AN OPT-OUT
Greinke has better career numbers than James Shields and is a year younger. So how is it that, by their end of their respective contracts, Greinke will have earned approximately $323 million for his career and Shields about $117.5 million?
Two principal reasons:
● Shields signed a below-market, four-year, $11.25 million deal with three club options early in his career with the Rays, delaying his free agency until after his age-32 season.
● Greinke wielded his opt-out clause like a sword, piling his new $206.5 million free-agent contract onto the $76 million he earned in the first three years of his free-agent deal with the Dodgers.
This isn’t to criticize Shields, who still will retire a very rich man; I have a difficult time questioning players who sign below-market extensions without knowing their personal circumstances.
Still, the difference between the career earnings of Greinke and Shields illustrates why agents discourage such deals.
Shields’ first contract, including the options, covered two pre-arbitration years, all three arbitration years and his first two free-agent years.
Greinke, on the other hand, signed his first long-term deal — a four-year, $38 million contract with the Royals — before his second year of arbitration. The deal covered two arbitration years and two free-agent years.
For Greinke, it turned out to be only the beginning.
NATIONALS: LAYING IN WAIT?
The Nationals showed their hand by offering free-agent Heyward a $200 million contract of undetermined length. Perhaps Heyward was the only player the team would pay at that level, given his ability to play center field. Or maybe the Nats remain a threat to do something big.
Corner outfielders Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes are not natural fits, not with left fielder Jayson Werth owed $42 million over the next two seasons and Bryce Harper entrenched in right. Likewise, none of the remaining pitchers on the open market warrants a Heyward-like investment. Still, the Nats are deep enough in both cash and prospects to make almost any move they want.
They showed early interest in Rockies left fielder Carlos Gonzalez and recent interest in free-agent second baseman Kelly Johnson, according to major-league sources. But here’s a purely speculative thought — what about a trade of prospects for Reds third baseman Todd Frazier and closer Aroldis Chapman?
The Nats would play Anthony Rendon at second if they added Frazier, who is under club control for two more seasons. Chapman currently is under control for only one more season, and his alleged involvement in a domestic-violence case diminishes his value. The Reds, however, are still trying to trade him, and a lengthy suspension could delay Chapman’s free agency by one year.
The arrival of Chapman would create public-relations fallout for any team that acquired him, but the Nationals or another team could better absorb the consequences if they added Frazier in the same deal.
Also: The Nats’ new manager is Dusty Baker, who previously managed Chapman with the Reds and said recently that he "had nothing but love for the young man."
WHY WHITE SOX MIGHT BALK AT FRAZIER
Frazier certainly is a fit at third base and in the middle of the lineup for the White Sox; newly acquired Brett Lawrie could move to second, giving the Sox upgrades at two positions.
The problem is, the Reds want significant prospects for two years of Frazier, and the White Sox’s system remains relatively thin. Better the team should explore the open market — if it can find the right solution.
A free agent such as second baseman Howie Kendrick would cost the Sox a second-round draft pick; their first-round pick, No. 10 overall, is protected. But Kendrick also has turned down $15.8 million from the Dodgers, and at 32 soon could enter his decline phase.
Third baseman David Freese might make more sense — he probably would be more affordable than Kendrick and the Angels did not make him a qualifying offer, removing the additional cost of a pick.
AROUND THE HORN
*The Dodgers essentially can wait no longer to move outfielder Andre Ethier, who on May 2 will gain full no-trade protection as a player with 10 years of major-league service, five consecutive with the same club.
Ethier’s $17.5 million vesting option for 2018, though, could prove a complication – the Dodgers are willing to include a considerable portion of the $35.5 million that Ethier is owed the next two seasons, but the option year gives him the chance for additional income.
The option will vest if Ethier makes 550 plate appearances in 2017 or 1,100 combined in ’16-17. He likely would reach those thresholds if he played every day for his new team.
*The Cubs’ current focus is on trades for relievers, according to major-league sources — not high-end types such as the Yankees’ Andrew Miller, but middle-inning and setup options who would provide additional depth.
At least for the moment, the Cubs’ plan is to play Heyward in center and not acquire a center fielder who would enable him to remain in right. A trade for a starting pitcher also remains possible.
*Free-agent lefty Wei-Yin Chen, through his age-29 season, has thrown considerably fewer major-league innings than Andy Pettitte and Tom Glavine did at the same stages. But his ERA-plus is only slightly below where both of those pitchers were, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is even better.
Hardly anyone would suggest that Chen is the next Pettitte or Glavine, but it’s easy to understand why the pitcher’s agent, Scott Boras, almost certainly will pursue a $100 million contract.
Chen, while pitching for the Orioles, also had a 3.61 ERA in 29 starts against AL East opponents the past two seasons.
*The Angels are in a tricky spot. They could move Hector Santiago or possibly even C.J. Wilson to free up money and/or land an offensive piece, but dealing either would be a risk, considering the number of starting pitchers that teams need to get through a season.
Another problem for the Angels, if they choose to sign a free agent who received a qualifying offer (Daniel Murphy, Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, etc.), is that they are reluctant to lose the 18th overall pick in the draft.