Opt-out clauses are the new black, but are they good for baseball?
Opt-out clauses for big-time free agents are the new black.
At least if you can afford them.
If you can’t? Well, it sure seems like Commissioner Rob’s on your side. From an interview with our Ken Rosenthal last week, here’s Manfred:
The logic of opt-out clauses for the club escapes me. You make an eight-year agreement with a player. He plays well, and he opts out after three. You either pay the player again or you lose him. Conversely, if the player performs poorly, he doesn’t opt out and gets the benefit of the eight-year agreement. That doesn’t strike me as a very good deal. Personally, I don’t see the logic of it. But clubs do what they do.
It’s difficult to imagine (as Craig Calcaterra points out) that Rob Manfred actually doesn’t understand the appeal of opt-out clauses. Since, you know, he’s a pretty smart guy.
So why would Manfred say something like this? Craig thinks it’s a message from the less-wealthy owners to the more-wealthy owners: Guys, cut it out.
But why would the guys cut it out? Within broad parameters, the more-wealthy owners can do whatever they like, and there’s not a bloody thing the commissioner or the less-wealthy owners can do about it. Are the Dodgers or the Red Sox going to change what they’re doing because Manfred says something strange to Ken?
I kinda doubt it.
On the other hand, Craig also suggests that perhaps Manfred is "trying to prep people that opt-outs could be an agenda item when the CBA negotiations begin." Which makes a little more sense, at least to me. With those negotiations set to begin fairly soon, and with Manfred having cut his baseball teeth in that part of the operation, we might reasonably assume that most of Manfred’s public pronouncements over the next few months are somehow related to those negotiations. And while Ken’s probably right — eliminating opt-outs might well be a non-starter — sometimes a labor negotiation will include non-starters as … well, as starters. You throw it out there anyway, maybe trade it for something you don’t want. And you first discuss it publicly to send the message to the other side that gosh, you really do care about this.
There is something about these opt-outs that I don’t think has been mentioned often enough. Yes, they’re obviously a tremendous financial benefit for the player. But they’re also pretty, pretty, pretty good for the wealthy teams. If you’re the Cubs or the Red Sox, you’re absolutely thrilled if Jason Heyward and David Price play terrifically in their first three seasons, because that means you’re getting your money’s worth and you’re probably winning baseball games.
But everybody knows the risky thing about these contracts is the so-called out years. So would smart organizations like the Cubs and Red Sox be terribly disappointed if Heyward and Price let someone else pay the freight down the road? Leaving the clubs with a sudden windfall of sorts, and the attendant flexibility?
I think not.
Of course, if those guys don’t play well enough to think opting out makes sense, their clubs are stuck with them. Which might wind up being a good thing for the clubs, but probably won’t. If you’re the Cubs or the Red Sox, that outcome won’t be financially crippling. If you’re a less-wealthy club, it might be.
Which gets us back to Manfred. One of his jobs is to ensure that 10 franchises don’t dominate the other 20. Financially speaking, anyway (since the ability of a few clubs to dominate on the field has been greatly exaggerated). To that end, Major League Baseball has come up with all sorts of ways to level the playing field. But those wealthy clubs will always find a way to flex their financial muscles. Last year it was signing bonuses for Cuban players, this year it’s opt-out clauses for top free agents, and next year it will be something else. Manfred and those other 20 franchises are like a bunch of little Dutch boys, running around and sticking their fingers in the dike.
Funny thing is, for a while now the dike’s been holding up pretty well.