When MLBTR’s Steve Adams recently laid out the opt-out decisions that will await several players at the end of the season, he was only willing to go so far as to give Elvis Andrus “an actual chance” at holding enough value to punt the three years (2020-22) and $43MM left on his deal with the Rangers. Now, with a month of the season in the books, Andrus has out-WARred all but five other position players leaguewide. Is it time we upgrade the likelihood that he opts out?
When the Rangers inked the contract at the outset of the 2013 season, it was done in no small part on the club’s faith in Andrus’s ability to continue growing at the plate after two near-average offensive season. That did not come to pass. Instead, he limped to a cumulative .264/.317/.340 slash over three rough campaigns.
At that point, after the ’15 season, the Andrus contract looked to be well under water. But things have ticked up since. As Steve noted in the above-linked post, Andrus went on a healthy .301/.352/.459 run from the start of the 2016 campaign through the point last April when he suffered a fractured elbow. The 2016-17 seasons were by far his most productive offensively.
Unfortunately, Andrus struggled upon his return to action in 2019, finishing the year with a .256/.308/.367 batting line that looks more like his forgettable 2013-15 effort than his intervening turnaround. With the way things shook out, he unsurprisingly elected not to take the first of his two consecutive opt-out opportunities last falls.
Moving back to the present, we’re looking at the best version of Andrus that we’ve yet seen. He’s on pace to top his twenty-homer outburst from ’17 (his only double-digit-dinger campaign to date) and carrying a hefty .231 isolated power mark. Andrus has also swiped six bags to go with his five long balls, further boosting his contribution to what has been one of the game’s most prolific offenses in the early going.
Add it all up, and Andrus owns an eye-popping .361/.425/.583 batting line (164 wRC+) through his first 120 plate appearances. Sure, it’s based in no small part on a .425 batting average on balls in play, but that’s also a reflection of the fact that he’s stinging the ball.
Statcast unsurprisingly anticipates some regression down from Andrus’s stunning .436 wOBA, but still credits him with a sturdy .385 xwOBA for his work thus far. Though he’s swinging and missing more than ever before, with more strikeouts also resulting, the tradeoff has been well worth it. Driven by a more aggressive approach, Andrus is working at heretofore unseen levels in terms of exit velocity (90.3 mph) and hard-hit rate (39.8%).
So, we’ve got some evidence of an underlying change that is helping to spur the improvements. And we already know Andrus has a surprising power reservoir. He isn’t the first contact-oriented hitter to figure out a way to tweak his output. In this case, it’ll be interesting to see how the numbers begin to settle out over a lengthier sample. Andrus is putting one of every four long balls out of the yard, which won’t continue. But perhaps he can maintain an higher-than-expected homer-per-flyball ratio if he keeps punishing line drives. He’s sitting at a career-best 31.3% rate and has yet to produce an infield fly. Andrus’s average launch angle is actually down quite a bit from recent seasons (to just 6.1 degrees), but when he has put a bit of loft on the ball it has tended to travel far. That approach likely won’t lead to a huge number of home runs, but might enable Andrus to carry good power (with a healthy number of doubles and triples) while also maintaining quite a high batting average and solid OBP.
The offensive arrow is generally pointed upward, if perhaps not at quite as steep a grade as his actual output would suggest. Andrus only carries average foot speed, but he’s still a clear plus on the basepaths with a strong history of adding value there. Of course, future expectations (with the bat and on foot) are also tempered by the inevitable march of time. There are also legitimate questions about where Andrus’s glovework stands and where it’s headed. He has held a rather steady profile in recent years, floating in range of average by measure of both UZR and DRS. The latter sees a drop-off thus far (-3 runs), though it’s too early to weigh that much at all.
Market context is always a critical factor as well. With multiple prominent players signing extensions, the top of the 2019-20 market already looks quite a bit weaker than anticipated — and that’s before potential injuries and/or performance issues. It’s not a bad time for a middle infielder to reach the open market, particularly now that Xander Bogaerts has elected to remain in Boston. MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes ranks Didi Gregorius among the top ten potential earners at present, so there’s some possible competition, but the rest of the shortstop market fails to inspire and there are few certainties among second base candidates.
While there are some very good reasons to believe that Andrus could end up wanting to opt out, I still think it’s rather unlikely. While the Rangers haven’t secured all the value they hoped for in their deal with Andrus, they’ve done well enough. That’s due largely to the fact that he was so young when it was signed. And that attribute no longer holds. Andrus turns 31 in August of this year, meaning that he’d be shopping his age-32+ campaigns to prospective suitors.
The age element is of critical importance in a market setting in which teams are increasingly drawing back the length of the contracts they are willing to offer. It wasn’t long ago that a 34-year-old utilityman Ben Zobrist got a four-year commitment, but there’s good reason to think now that teams will be looking to cap off a deal at three or perhaps four seasons with a player such as Andrus. Plus, he’s not likely to command a super-premium salary. Despite heavy pursuit from multiple teams, Zobrist went for $14MM annually — just what Andrus is earning at present. Third baseman Justin Turner got a bit more ($16MM a year for four seasons) but was on a whole different level with the bat. Xander Bogaerts just took down $20MM AAV in an extension scenario on the heels of a monster 2018 season, but it would be surprising for the older and less offensively accomplished Andrus to reach that figure. Notably, that deal also only runs through his age-32 season.
If there’s a single, defining market data point for Andrus’s outlook, though, it’s the deal Zack Cozart signed with the Angels in advance of the 2018 season. The two players share quite a few characteristics. Cozart hit the market in advance of his age-32 season after posting an offensive outbreak. His showing was buttressed by some recent, quality offensive seasons but he had struggled at the plate previously in his career and had never previously approached his platform-season levels. Cozart had a significant advantage over Andrus in glovework, but was a bit older and had a more worrying health track record. He settled for a three-year, $38MM deal and had to move off of the shortstop position despite carrying some of the game’s very best leather.
Ultimately, even if Andrus sustains a compelling breakout all season long, it’s a bit difficult to see him commanding a deal that handily tops the three years and $43MM he already has in hand. Teams may be comforted by the fact that Andrus is a surehanded defender who could slide to second or third base at some point, but that sort of consideration won’t drive his market any more than it did Cozart’s. At most, opting out might mean chasing another year at a similar salary. That may not warrant the risk of entering free agency with qualifying offer-related draft compensation hanging over his head. Andrus could approach the Rangers in hopes of negotiating a new deal, dangling the threat of the opt-out, but the team doesn’t seem likely to bid against itself. If there’s an opening for Andrus to opt out, even after this phenomenal start, it’s a rather narrow one.