Major league contracts cannot be made conditional on player performance metrics, but it is permissible for clubs and teams to agree to options dependent upon playing time. Things such as innings pitched, plate appearances or (less frequently) games started or finished are all possible goals that could allow a player to trigger either additional guarantees or the right to opt out of an otherwise guaranteed contract. It’s also permissible to tie vesting provisions to a player’s finish in award voting, as we’ll see with the final player on this list.
This year, there are seven players whose 2023 contract status is tied directly to their playing time and/or awards finishes on the season. With a couple months left in the schedule, it’s worth checking in to see how they’re progressing towards those thresholds.
Carlos Rodón, SP, Giants
Rodón already reached the 110-inning threshold necessary to trigger his vesting provision last month. That affords him the right to opt out of the final year and $22.5MM remaining on his deal with San Francisco, and the Boras Corporation client is sure to do just that. Rodón has backed up his 2021 breakout with another elite season. He carries a 2.95 ERA across 128 1/3 innings, striking out an elite 31.2% of batters faced while sitting in the 95-96 MPH range with his fastball. The 29-year-old should receive the long-term deal that eluded him last winter, as he’s now pushing 50 starts of ace-level performance over the past two seasons and has put last summer’s shoulder soreness further in the rearview mirror.
Justin Verlander, SP, Astros
As with Rodón, Verlander has already hit his vesting threshold. The future Hall of Famer needed to hit 130 innings on the season to kick in a $25MM player option for next year, a milestone he reached last week. Barring injury, he’s going to pass up on that sum and test the open market. Despite being in his age-39 season, the nine-time All-Star has returned to the top of the Houston rotation after losing virtually all of 2020-21 to Tommy John surgery recovery. He owns an MLB-best 1.73 ERA across 130 frames, positioning himself as a strong contender for a third career Cy Young award. Verlander’s swing-and-miss rates aren’t quite at his pre-surgery peak, but that shouldn’t be much of a concern given his track record and continued dominance without an elite strikeout rate. The ISE Baseball client could look to top former teammate Max Scherzer’s $43.333MM average annual salary and shoot for an all-time record — particularly if he’s willing to accept two guaranteed years instead of holding out for a three-year deal that takes him through his age-42 season.
Should Be Imminently Reached
Chris Flexen, SP, Mariners
Flexen signed a two-year, $4.75MM guarantee upon coming over from the Korea Baseball Organization during the 2020-21 offseason. The deal contained a $4MM club option for the 2023 campaign but afforded Flexen the opportunity to override that with an $8MM salary based on his number of innings pitched. (MLBTR recently confirmed that Flexen’s vesting provision would guarantee his 2023 salary but does not afford him an opt-out clause after this season). The righty could reach that marker by tallying either 150 innings in 2022 or 300 combined frames from 2021-22.
As MLBTR’s Darragh McDonald noted yesterday, Flexen is soon to reach the latter threshold. He worked 179 2/3 frames last season, leaving him with 120 1/3 innings to tally this year. Through 21 starts, the 28-year-old has worked 117 frames. He needs just 3 1/3 more innings and should officially hit the threshold during his next start (or within two starts at the latest) barring an immediate season-ending injury. The Mariners, for their part, should be perfectly content to keep Flexen around for a reasonable $8MM. He’s been a durable source of roughly league average innings, posting an ERA of 3.73 since landing in the Pacific Northwest. Flexen doesn’t miss many bats, but he’s avoided the injured list and thrown plenty of strikes. He’s a perfectly fine back-of-the-rotation arm for a team with a spacious home ballpark and a strong defense behind him, and Seattle’s 2023 payroll slate is plenty reasonable.
Martín Maldonado, C, Astros
Last April, the Astros preemptively kept Maldonado from getting to the open market after the 2021 season. They signed him to a $5MM pact for 2022, and the deal contained a matching vesting provision for the following year. Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle was among those to report that Maldonado would lock in the $5MM salary for 2023 if he appeared in 90 games during the ’22 campaign.
Heading into play Tuesday, Maldonado has gotten into 82 contests. The 35-year-old (36 next week) has continued to pick up the bulk of the playing time even after Houston acquired Christian Vázquez from the Red Sox just before the trade deadline. Maldonado has been behind the dish for four of Houston’s six games since August 2, with Vázquez picking up the other two starts. Maldonado should get to the 90-game threshold with ease (again, barring imminent injury), likely within about two weeks.
Vázquez is ticketed for free agency after the season, so Maldonado should hold onto his primary catching job next year. It’s possible the Astros bring in a 1B complement, particularly with prospect Korey Lee struggling at Triple-A, but it seems they’ll be content to turn things over to Maldonado for a fourth straight season. The veteran has always been one of the game’s worst hitters, and that’s continued this season. He owns a .183/.244/.357 line across 278 plate appearances. He’s hitting for a bit more power than usual but posting one of his worst years from an on-base perspective. He’s also rated as a below-average defender this year in the estimation of public metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Statcast’s pitch framing.
The Astros have maintained that Maldonado’s game-calling acumen and ability to handle a pitching staff is elite, however. That’s not going to show up on his statistical ledger, but the organization has backed up those assertions by continuing to pencil Maldonado into the lineup on most days. They’ve got no shortage of offensive firepower elsewhere around the diamond. Maldonado’s poor numbers haven’t stopped the team from racing to 30 games above .500, and they’ve had arguably baseball’s top pitching staff. One can debate how much credit Maldonado deserves for that, but he’s probably bringing some amount of on-field value that’s not quantifiable.
Attainable But Borderline
Carlos Carrasco, SP, Mets
Carrasco has a $14MM club option for next season on a contract extension he initially signed with Cleveland over the 2018-19 offseason. That option becomes guaranteed if he throws 170 innings in 2022 and is expected to be healthy for the following season, according to an Associated Press report. Carrasco can’t officially lock in the latter designation until the end of the year, as he’ll presumably need to pass a physical at the start of the offseason.
He can work towards the first goal, however. Carrasco enters play Tuesday with 117 2/3 innings across 21 starts. That leaves him 52 1/3 frames short with a little less than two months to go. The 35-year-old has averaged around 5.6 innings per start to this point in the season. At that rate, he’ll need to make between nine and ten more outings, which he’s right on track to hit by the end of the year. New York has 52 games left in the regular season, putting them on pace to go through a five-man rotation about ten more times. Even a brief injured list stint would probably prevent Carrasco from getting to 170 frames, but he’s on pace thus far.
Of course, it’s not a guarantee he’d hit free agency at the end of the year if he doesn’t trigger the vesting threshold. The Mets would still retain his services via club option, and it’s possible they’d exercise it anyhow. They’re over $280MM in 2022 payroll, so a $14MM salary isn’t all that burdensome. After an injury-plagued first season in Queens, the well-respected Carrasco has bounced back with a nice year. He owns a 3.82 ERA with slightly better than average strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates. If he finishes the year healthy and remains generally productive, the Mets probably keep him around regardless.
Elvis Andrus, SS, Athletics
The A’s, on the other hand, aren’t likely to want anything to do with Andrus’ option. The veteran shortstop’s extension with the Rangers contained a $15MM club option for 2023. That’d become a player option if Andrus were both traded (as he was, from Texas to Oakland) and tallies 550 plate appearances in 2022.
Andrus has hit 366 times thus far, leaving him 184 plate appearances shy of the marker. The A’s have 52 games remaining, so Andrus needs to tally around 3.54 plate appearances per game from here on out. He’s averaged 3.66 PA’s per game through the season’s first few months, so he’s on pace to reach the mark. If Andrus continued at his current pace, he’d reach approximately 556 plate appearances at year’s end. If the A’s are intent on avoiding that situation, they could mix in a couple more off days over the next two months to prevent him from getting there.
Deliberately curbing playing time to prevent a player from reaching a vesting threshold would be grounds for a grievance filing against the team. The rebuilding A’s could point to a desire to get 23-year-old Nick Allen more regular run at shortstop as an on-field justification, even as Allen has struggled mightily through his early stint in the major leagues. If Andrus misses the vesting threshold by just a handful of plate appearances, it’s certain to raise some eyebrows around the league and in the offices of the MLBPA. There’s little question Andrus — owner of a serviceable .241/.303/.372 line on the season — is one of the nine best position players on the last-place club. Yet he wouldn’t receive $15MM on the open market and would definitely trigger the option if it vests, likely counting for more than a quarter of the A’s bottom-of-the-barrel player payroll next season if that occurs.
Justin Turner, 3B/DH, Dodgers
The Dodgers re-signed the ever-productive Turner to a two-year, $34MM guarantee during the 2020-21 offseason. The deal contains a $16MM club option for 2023 that would vest at $20MM if Turner finishes in the top ten in MVP balloting this season. It’d vest at $17.5MM if he finishes between 11th and 15th in MVP balloting (report via Bob Nightengale of USA Today).
Turner overcame a very slow start with an excellent month of July that pushed his season line up to .257/.332/.405 through 355 plate appearances. He’s having a solid year, but it’s his worst season since he landed in Southern California back in 2014. Turner certainly isn’t going to get legitimate MVP support. Would the Dodgers exercise the option regardless as he heads into his age-38 season? That feels unlikely, but perhaps Turner could play his way into it with a strong stretch run and postseason after returning from an abdominal strain that currently has him on the injured list.