The opt-out clause is now a permanent fixture in the large-contract toolkit. Not every deal has one, but they’re a common mechanism to allow players and teams to tweak otherwise rigid structures to find accord. Fortunately for hot stove watchers, opt-out clauses — really, glorified player options — create added layers of complexity and intrigue for significant players.
Let’s check in on the opt-out decisions forthcoming at the end of the 2019 season:
Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers: Three years, $43MM: Andrus is in an interesting spot as he nears his 31st birthday. He’s posting league-average numbers at the plate thus far in 2019 with a blend of a high batting average, scant walk rate, and decent power. Statcast indicates he has overperformed a bit, which was also the assessment based upon the batted-ball data in his successful 2016 and 2017 campaigns. (The opposite was true last year, a down season at the plate.) There’s a split on the defensive side between UZR (which grades Andrus as excellent) and DRS (the opposite); given his long history, it seems fair to say Andrus is still plenty capable of handling short. He’s ticking up on the basepaths, having already swiped 19 bags after taking just five last year. It’s still possible to imagine this situation going one way or the other, depending upon how Andrus finishes out the year and what his personal preferences are. On balance, it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll have much greater earning power than the existing contract — particularly since he’d assuredly be dragging draft compensation if he opts out (which would make it an easy choice for the Rangers to issue him a qualifying offer).
Jake Arrieta, RHP, Phillies: One year, $20MM (unless Phillies exercise two-year, $40MM option for 2021-22): Unless Arrieta completely flips the script hard down the stretch, there’s almost no way it’ll make sense on paper for him to opt out. His useful but uninspiring 2018 effort has given way to a messy 2019 campaign, with the problem areas of the past few seasons coming fully to roost. Arrieta is through 108 innings in 18 starts, so he remains a dependable rotation piece, but he’s coughing up 4.67 earned per nine with just 7.1 K/9 against 3.3 BB/9. While he is again drawing grounders on over half the balls put in play against him, he’s also allowing dingers on one in five flies. At 33 years of age, Arrieta seems to be on the career arc of James Shields moreso than that of Zack Greinke.
Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Yankees: Two years, $30MM: We initially missed this one when we rounded up the year’s opt-out opportunities. That stings doubly since Chapman arguably has the best case for bailing on the rest of his contract. 32 next February, the southpaw remains a force at the back of the Yanks’ bullpen. Through 34 2/3 innings this year, Chapman carries a 1.82 ERA with 13.0 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9. While many other pitchers are seeing their dinger rates rise, he has allowed only a single ball to leave the yard. His swinging-strike rate is down to a personal-low of 12.3%, and Chapman is averaging only 98.2 mph with his average four-seam fastball — though he’s still over 100 with a sinker that he has utilized more than ever. There’s some market competition from excellent lefty Will Smith, and Chapman can be issued a qualifying offer by the Yankees, but there’s plenty of reason to think Chapman would be hotly pursued in free agency.
Yu Darvish, RHP, Cubs: Four years, $81MM: Darvish is consistently making starts, which is more than could be said last year, but the Cubs’ Arrieta replacement has not been anywhere close to good enough to spurn those remaining earnings. As he closes in on his 33rd birthday, Darvish is giving up free passes (4.5 BB/9) and long flies (1.86 per nine, 25.3% HR/FB) by the bucketful. There are some positive signs that leave the door open for a turnaround — his 93.9 mph average fastball and 12.2% swinging-strike rate sit right at his career means — but they aren’t going to change the contractual outcome here.
Jason Heyward, OF, Cubs: Four years, $86MM (assuming he makes 550 PAs): Heyward still hasn’t reached his 30th birthday and is in the midst of a bit of a renaissance at the plate. After two brutal campaigns, he crawled back to league-average production in 2018. Now, he’s slashing .266/.355/.457 (110 wRC+) with 14 home runs and a career-high 12.0% walk rate through 332 plate appearances in 2019. We haven’t seen this kind of pop from Heyward since way back in 2013. There are some limits to the good vibes, however. Heyward continues to grade well defensively in right field, but metrics have panned his work in center. And he has been abysmal against left-handed pitching, cobbling together a .188/.246/.281 slash without the platoon advantage. That profile isn’t going to command a payday that comes close to what Heyward already has in hand.
Kenley Jansen, RHP, Dodgers: Two years, $38MM: Much like teammate Clayton Kershaw, Jansen is now merely excellent, rather than exceptional. The veteran closer looks much the same this year as he did last, with still sparkling K/BB numbers (11.8 K/9 vs. 1.7 BB/9) but a vulnerability to the long ball that did not exist at his peak. Over his past 108 1/3 innings, dating to the start of the ’18 campaign, Jansen has allowed more than 1.5 dingers per nine with a HR/FB rate of greater than 15 percent. Though his swinging-strike rate has trended back up this year (to 16.0%, just over his career average but below his ceiling), his average fastball velocity has continued its inevitable descent (now to 92.0 mph). Jansen will turn 32 at the very end of the season. There’s still a possibility that he could secure a slightly larger overall contract on the open market if he finishes strong, particularly since Jansen can’t be hung with a qualifying offer. Wade Davis got $52MM over three years at the same point on the age spectrum. But that possibility may not be worth the risk, particularly after Craig Kimbrel fell shy of expectations in free agency.
J.D. Martinez, DH/OF, Red Sox: Three years, $62.5MM: This one could be interesting, particularly given that several of the most productive potential free agents decided to avoid the market by inking extensions. Martinez is going to have a fairly limited potential pool of suitors, which will impact the decisionmaking. He’s also a candidate to receive a qualifying offer, which won’t help. It doesn’t sound as if he much of an idea yet whether he’ll trigger the opt out. The second-half performance will be key here. Martinez has now fallen off of the phenomenal levels of offensive production he carried in the prior two seasons. Through 357 plate appearances, he owns an impressive (but mortal) .304/.376/.541 batting line with 18 home runs. Statcast has some mixed news: Martinez is exhibiting clear declines in hard contact but still seems like a candidate for positive regression (.383 wOBA vs. .416 xwOBA). Edwin Encarnacion took down $20MM annually over a three-year term entering his age-34 season, so there’s a realistic possibility that Martinez (32 in August) could beat the earnings he already has secured.
Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals: Four years, $100MM: As he nears his 31st birthday, Strasburg continues to turn in excellent work on the mound. He has underperformed his peripherals again in 2019, but has been in good health (knock on wood) with 116 1/3 frames over 18 starts. Stras carries a 3.64 ERA with 10.7 K/9 against 2.2 BB/9 and a strong 52.4% groundball rate. He’s sporting career-best marks in swinging-strike rate (14.2%) and chase rate (38.6%) despite losing a tick on his average four-seamer, so the stuff is still plenty crisp. The opt-out chance — there’s another next winter as well — could well prove tantalizing so long as Strasburg keeps up his present pace and stays healthy down the stretch. It’s important to bear in mind that the contract’s deferrals reduce its present-day value. Still, it’s a big number to top in free agency. And while the upcoming class was severely weakened by pre-season extensions, it does feature some strong rotation competition — particularly the more youthful Gerrit Cole, but also including Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Rick Porcello, Kyle Gibson, and Cole Hamels.