Previewing 2019-20’s Opt-Out Clause Decisions

Some few contracts include provisions giving the player control over one or more seasons by affording the chance to opt out of the remainder of the deal. Take the bird in hand or see how many you can net from the free-agent bush? Market changes have impacted the math for some players, but the open market still has riches to offer. We don’t know how things will look for any given player at season’s end, but here’s how it’s shaping up at the outset of the 2019 campaign:

Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers: Three years, $43MM: The 2016-17 version of Andrus — and the one we saw through the season’s first two weeks in 2018 — looked every bit like a player who would exercise the first of two opt-out clauses in his contract (which came at the end of the 2018 season). From Opening Day 2016 through April 11 last year, Andrus posted a terrific .301/.352/.459 batting line with 30 homers, 78 doubles, 11 triples and 49 steals through 1318 plate appearances. Paired with his glovework at shortstop, he looked very capable of topping the remaining four years and $58MM on his contract. Unfortunately, he suffered an elbow fracture, missed two months, and returned to hit only .245/.289/.347 in his final 367 plate appearances. An offseason of rest looks to have done him some good, as he’s hitting .380/.392/.500 through 51 PAs. Unlike several players on this list, there’s an actual chance that Andrus could test the open market, though free agency hasn’t been kind to players on the wrong side of 30 in recent years.

Jake Arrieta, RHP, Phillies: One year, $20MM (unless Phillies exercise two-year, $40MM option for 2021-22): Arrieta’s first season with the Phils was solid, if unremarkable. He tallied 172 2/3 innings and gave the team a 3.96 ERA with fielding-independent metrics that didn’t stray too far from that ERA (4.26 FIP, 4.08 xFIP, 4.29 SIERA). The former Cy Young winner’s velocity is down a couple miles per hour from its peak levels, and while Arrieta showed good control and ground-ball tendencies in 2018, he no longer appears to be a strikeout pitcher. Given that he’ll pitch next season at age 34, it doesn’t seem all that likely that the Phillies will sign up to tack on another pair of $20MM seasons. With a strong 2019 effort, it’s possible that Arrieta positions himself to land a two-year deal with a larger guarantee but lower annual rate (e.g. two years, $30MM), so it’s not out of the question that he’d opt out at season’s end, even if seems unlikely at present.

Yu Darvish, RHP, Cubs: Four years, $81MM: Darvish’s first season in Chicago was an unmitigated disaster, as a series of arm injuries limited him to just 40 innings of work. His velocity isn’t where it was in previous seasons, and in this season’s small sample of three starts, he’s walked more batters than he’s punched out. It’s hard to envision any scenario in which Darvish opts out of his contract; even if he stormed back to ace status and won an NL Cy Young Award, I’m not sure he’d top $81MM as a 33-year-old free agent with a qualifying offer hanging over his head. The Cubs appear stuck with the contract and will need to simply hope for a rebound.

Jason Heyward, OF, Cubs: Four years, $86MM (assuming he makes 550 PAs): Heyward has had a scalding hot start to the season, mashing at a .351/.444/.676 pace. Through 45 plate appearances, he’s already halfway to his home run total from a 2018 season in which he came to he plate 489 times. Even if Heyward’s bat proves to be rejuvenated to its 2015 levels, however, it’s virtually unfathomable that he’d walk away from the remaining $86MM on this contract. His poor results in his first three seasons with the Cubs still loom large enough that a monster year at the dish would be met with a heavy dose of skepticism, and he’ll turn 30 in August.

Kenley Jansen, RHP, Dodgers: Two years, $38MM: After seven seasons as a near-unstoppable force in the Dodgers’ bullpen, Jansen looked mortal in 2018 when he logged a 3.01 ERA (his first time ever topping 3.00) and 10.3 K/9 (his first time south of 13.0). A strong enough rebound campaign could embolden Jansen to seek out a three-year deal at a lower annual salary than the $19MM remaining on his contract; the Rockies gave Wade Davis a total of $52MM for the same three-year age span that Jansen will be entering (32-34). He’s already rejected one qualifying offer in his career, so he wouldn’t be eligible to receive a second one (even though he landed with the same team that winter).

J.D. Martinez, DH/OF, Red Sox: Three years, $62.5MM: The general expectation in the 2017-18 offseason was that Martinez’s 2017 season (.303/.376/.690, 45 home runs) would be a peak year. Instead, he turned in an arguably even more productive 2018 season with the Red Sox, hitting a ridiculous .330/.402/.629 with 43 home runs in 649 PAs — the second-highest total of his career. Martinez is off to another strong start in 2019, and despite a frosty climate for free agents, one can only wonder if he’d be tempted to once again test free agency if he can post a third consecutive season of 40-plus homers with an OPS north of 1.000. One wrinkle to consider is that barring an unexpected midseason trade, Martinez would have a qualifying offer attached to him this time around; that wasn’t true of his last trip through free agency, as he’d been traded from Detroit to Arizona midseason.

Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals: Four years, $100MM: Strasburg is still a strikeout machine who posts big totals in swinging-strike and opponents’ chase rates, but his 93.1 mph average fastball in 2019 is well south of last year’s 94.5 mph (to say nothing of his career 95.3). The former No. 1 pick was a big part of the Nats’ rotation in 2018 and should be again this year, but he was more good than great last year (130 innings, 3.74 ERA, 10.8 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 43.6 GB%). Moreover, Darvish and a much younger Patrick Corbin are the only two pitchers who have topped $100MM in guarantees over the past two offseasons. Strasburg would be hit with a qualifying offer if he opted out, and he’d be betting against recent trends as a 31-year-old pitcher looking to cash in on a nine-figure contract. He can ask Dallas Keuchel how well that strategy works.

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