Recently, I took a quick look at all of the players with vesting options for the 2018 season, noting that many of the outcomes within will have significant ramifications for both the upcoming free-agent market and the future of those players’ respective teams. The implications are even greater for the eight players that have opt-out provisions of some type at the end of the current season. In some cases, the opt-out in question could either liberate that player’s team from more than $80MM in future commitments or saddle them with that same burdensome amount. (And, in most cases, if the player isn’t opting out, the remaining salary is indeed a burden, as the player either performed too poorly to opt out and/or got hurt.)
Here’s a look at the opt-out decisions that are looming at season’s end…
- Justin Upton, Tigers: The disastrous start to Upton’s six-year, $132.5MM contract now looks like a distant memory. After struggling to a .228/.286/.369 batting line through his first three months in the Motor City, Upton has surged with a .255/.342/.535 slash and 31 home runs over his past 471 big league plate appearances. Strikeouts are still an issue for Upton, but he’s also walking more than ever (15 percent in 2017). He’s on pace to finish the season right around the 30-homer mark, and if he can do so with an OBP in the mid-.300s and respectable marks in left field — he’s currently at +4 DRS and +3.4 UZR — then the remaining four years and $88.5MM on his contract will pose an interesting decision for Upton, who is currently playing out his age-29 season.
- Johnny Cueto, Giants: Cueto looked like an ace in his first year with San Francisco but has stumbled to a 4.50 ERA through his first 58 innings with the Giants in 2017. He’s still averaging better than eight punchouts per nine innings to go along with solid (but diminished) control. However, he’s seen his ground-ball rate plummet from 50 percent to 39 percent, and paired with the increase in walk rate (1.8 BB/9 to 2.5 BB/9), that has led to some issues. There’s still plenty of time for Cueto to get back on track, but the remaining four years and $84MM on his contract doesn’t look quite as easy to walk away from as it did just seven weeks ago. He’ll be 32 next season.
- Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees: Cueto’s slow start looks Cy Young-worthy when juxtaposed with Tanaka, who has logged a ghastly 6.56 ERA through 48 innings in 2017. Like Cueto, Tanaka has seen his control take a step back, though his strikeout and ground-ball rates are consistent, and his velocity is fine. Tanaka’s average on balls in play is up, however, and his homer-to-flyball rate has skyrocketed from 12 percent to 24.5 percent. Given his age (29 in November), Tanaka would be a virtual lock to opt out of the remaining three years and $67MM on his contract with a good season. If he can’t overcome his home-run woes, however, he may instead opt for the substantial amount of guaranteed cash remaining on his deal.
- Wei-Yin Chen, Marlins: Chen’s opt-out is perhaps the easiest to determine of any player on this list. Unfortunately for the Marlins, that’s due to the fact that he’s currently sidelined indefinitely due to arm troubles. Chen is on the disabled list with arm fatigue, though it’s been reported previously that he’d been pitching through a slight tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, which was sustained in 2016. Chen hasn’t pitched well as a Marlin even when healthy, and at this point it would take a quick recovery and a dominant finish for him to even consider opting out of the remaining three years and $52MM on his contract.
- Ian Kennedy, Royals: Kennedy has logged a solid 3.74 ERA in 233 1/3 innings since signing a five-year deal with Kansas City, but he’s already in his age-32 season. His strikeout rate and control have taken a step back in 2017 as well, and he’s remained homer-prone despite pitching half his games at the spacious Kauffman Stadium. Kennedy turned in a very strong final four months in his last contract season — which helped him land this surprising contract in the first place — but it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll opt out of the remaining three years and $49MM on his current contract.
- Greg Holland, Rockies: To be clear, Holland cannot technically opt out of his contract just yet. The one-year, $7MM contract that he signed with the Rox contained a $10MM mutual option that can vest as a $15MM player option if Holland finishes 30 games. At this juncture, though, it seems as if an injury is all that can stop Holland’s player option from vesting. He’s already finished 20 of the 30 games he needs, and he’s currently boasting a preposterous 0.96 ERA with a 26-to-6 K/BB ratio through 18 2/3 innings. Apparently, pitching at Coors Field suits Holland just fine, though if he keeps this up, it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll turn down the one year and $15MM he’d receive for a second season at Coors and hit the market in search of a lucrative three- or four-year contract.
- Matt Wieters, Nationals: The stagnant offseason market for Wieters’ services culminated in a two-year, $21MM contract with the Nats that offers Wieters the opportunity to test free agency once again next winter, if he wishes. To this point, it’s looking likely that Wieters will pass on that player option. His walks, hard-hit rate and BABIP are up, none of which has come at the expense of his strikeout rate. Wieters is hitting a solid .283/.358/.442 with four homers on the year. His caught-stealing rate is down (23 percent), and his framing remains questionable, but the improved offense makes it seem likely that, even if Wieters again struggles to find the strong multi-year deal he craves, a contract comparable to the one year and $10.5MM he can opt out of will once again be available on the open market.
- Welington Castillo, Orioles: Castillo’s two-year, $13MM contract with the Orioles was a pleasant surprise for a player who had previously been locked into arbitration in Arizona before surprisingly being non-tendered. He’s off to a torrid .348/.375/.543 start to the season with four homers and six doubles through 96 plate appearances. There’s a fair bit of luck involved in that production, as evidenced by the 30-year-old’s .418 BABIP. But his strikeouts are down this season, and he’s thrown out a career-best 41 percent of attempted base thieves. His framing marks, while still below average, have improved on a per-pitch basis as well. His glove may prevent him from fully cashing in, but Castillo’s bat could make the remaining one year and $7MM on his contract easy enough to walk away from, assuming he’s healthy.