Turning down guaranteed money

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, right? In baseball, not always.

You might have been surprised to read that lefty reliever Phil Coke signed a minor-league deal with the Chicago Cubs, leaving a major-league deal on the table with someone else. A major-league contract is guaranteed, a minor-league deal is not (outside of some buyout money, which is very likely with Coke, but not confirmed).

So why would Coke, a 32-year-old pitcher hoping for a rebound season, turn down the bird in the hand? Opportunity.

The Cubs have one projected lefty reliever in their bullpen: Felix Doubront. Doubront is younger at 27, but has been used mostly as a starter in his career. He also has career splits (.270 vs. LHH, .268 vs. RHH) that don’t scream left-handed specialist. The remaining roster and non-roster LHPs in camp don’t carry the cache that would scare Coke off.

We don’t know which team offered Coke the guaranteed deal, but we can guess with some certainty that he didn’t see the opportunity to put together the big year he needs. That could be based on the roster, the ballpark, comfort level or even the league.

What’s important to Phil Coke in 2015 is pitching in big situations and pitching well. If he’s a second or even a third lefty on the depth chart, those opportunities might not be there. If he has a great season, a two- or three-year deal could be waiting for him next winter. That’s the ulitmate goal.

I was faced with the same situation in off-season of 2001. I had a guaranteed major league deal with the Mets for just under $1 million, with incentives to make it around $1.4 million. The problem? It looked like I would be the third lefty, behind John Franco and Mark Guthrie. I needed a big 2002 to reëstablish myself. So instead I took a minor-league deal with the Astros, where I had a chance to be the first lefty, and was promised a spot on the Opening Day roster by then-GM Gerry Hunsicker. Promises mean nothing to a non-roster invitee, as I wrote about here. I had a bad spring, was released, and received a $115,000 buyout at the end of March.

Let’s hope Coke does better than me.