Next year’s free-agent class is a legitimately star-studded group even when focusing only on true free agents who’ll hit the market due to service time or an expiring contract. But the class has the potential to become even stronger depending on the play of this year’s collection of veterans who have opt-out clauses and player options in their contracts. Their performance over the next five months will determine whether they opt for another trip to the free-agent market or simply stick with the remaining salary guaranteed to them on their existing deals.
We’re about a sixth of the way through the season, so it’s worth taking an early look at how this group is faring…
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Cardinals (can opt out of remaining six years, $179MM): Arenado, who was always a better hitter at Coors Field, is yet another example of the manner in which home/road splits are overstated with regard to Rockies players. The 30-year-old is now playing his home games at Busch Stadium and still raking at a .279/.336/.507 clip with top-notch defense at the hot corner. Arenado has stated that he plans “to be a Cardinal the rest of the way” and said there is a “very, very high” chance that will forgo the opt-out clause in his contract. After the Cardinals tacked a year and $15MM onto the original five years and $164MM he had remaining on the deal, there’s less incentive for him to test the market.
Trevor Bauer, RHP, Dodgers (can opt out of remaining two years, $62MM): While some might balk at the notion of Bauer opting out when he’s guaranteed a whopping $45MM next year on this front-loaded contract, the opt-out wouldn’t really be about 2022 — it’d be about improving upon the total guarantee. Right now, if Bauer were to suffer an injury in 2022, he’d have a $17MM player option for the 2023 season. If he opts out this winter, however, he could aim to negotiate something similar to or greater than his original three-year, $102MM guarantee with the Dodgers. Bauer could still secure a huge salary in year one of a new contract but give himself a greater safety net against injury or decline. He also won’t have a qualifying offer to deal with this time and would be entering what most expect to be a market with more teams willing to spend. With a 2.50 ERA, 34.7 percent strikeout rate and 7.3 percent walk rate, the current NL strikeout leader is enjoying the kind of start that will make him think about it.
Nick Castellanos, OF, Reds (can opt out of remaining two years, $34MM): If Castellanos keeps hitting anywhere near this pace, that opt-out clause will assuredly be exercised. His age-29 season has kicked off with an outstanding .303/.346/.607 slash, and he already has 18 extra-base hits (nine homers, eight doubles, one triple) in just 126 plate appearances. Castellanos fizzled after a similarly electric start in 2020, so we’ll have to see if he maintains — but he’s one of the best hitters on the planet right now.
Charlie Blackmon, OF, Rockies ($21MM player option for 2022; $10MM player option for 2023): The Colorado fan favorite has come to life after a woeful start to the 2020 season. Over his past 13 games, Blackmon is hitting .319/.396/.447 with more walks than strikeouts. That surge still only has his season line up to .222/.328/.343 in 125 plate appearances, though, so Blackmon has plenty of work to do before he’d even consider opting out of a $21MM payday in what will be his age-35 season.
J.D. Martinez, OF/DH, Red Sox ($19.375MM player option for 2022): An ugly 2020 season had many wondering whether Martinez was beginning to decline. It seems safe to stop wondering. The first few weeks of the 2021 season have been some of the finest of JDM’s career; offense around the league is down, but he apparently didn’t get the memo, as he’s destroyed opposing pitchers at a .331/.416/.632 clip. His 10 dingers give him a share of the MLB lead. While there were some conflicting reports on the number of opt-outs in his contract at the time of the deal, MLBTR confirmed this week that Martinez has a $19.375MM player option for the 2022 season on his deal, so he’s controlling his own fate, so to speak. If he keeps hitting like this, why wouldn’t he test the market again (or at least parlay his performance into an extension in Boston)?
Jackie Bradley Jr., OF, Brewers ($11MM player option for 2022): The Bradley signing hasn’t panned out for the Brewers just yet. No one should be surprised to hear that Bradley has excellent defensive ratings through his first 260 innings in center field, but he’s hitting a mere .175/.242/.316 in 124 plate appearances. Bradley didn’t sign until a few weeks into Spring Training, and we’ve seen plenty of late signees start slowly in the past, but so far things aren’t going great.
Jurickson Profar, INF/OF, Padres ($6.5MM player option for 2022; $7.5MM player option for 2023): Profar hasn’t been anywhere near the hitter he was in 2020, slashing just .234/.333/.308 through 128 trips to the plate. The investment in Profar was always a risk. He was one of the least-productive hitters in the National League for the first month of the 2020 season and only salvaged his year with a blistering .375/.398/.534 showing in his final 93 plate appearances. That well-timed hot streak rather stunningly earned him a three-year guarantee and multiple opt-out opportunities, and he’ll need some more of that magic if he’s going to consider walking away from the $14MM he’s still owed beyond 2021. Profar is currently on the Covid-related IL for contact-tracing purposes.
Kevin Pillar, OF, Mets ($2.9MM player option for 2022): Pillar entered the season with a sub-.300 OBP for his career, and he’s not doing that mark any favors in 2021. We’re only looking at 66 plate appearances, but his .254/.288/.381 output looks more like his below-average career line than last year’s stronger showing. Pillar found a pretty frosty market for his services even on the heels of last summer’s .288/.336/.462 performance, so if he doesn’t turn things around at the plate, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him pick up the option.
Justin Wilson, LHP, Yankees ($2.3MM player option for 2022; Yankees hold $7.15MM club option/$1.15MM buyout if Wilson declines): Wilson has served up a pair of homers, walked five batters, hit a batter, and yielded a total of six runs in 8 2/3 innings. He also opened the year on the IL due to shoulder soreness, and his average fastball velocity is down at 93.7 mph after sitting at 95.1 mph in each of the past two seasons. A reliever with Wilson’s track record can turn things around in a hurry, but it hasn’t been the start he or the team envisioned. If Wilson exercises his player option, it triggers a 2023 club option valued at $500K over the league minimum, meaning he’d only do so with a particularly poor year on the mound.
Brett Gardner, OF, Yankees ($2.3MM player option for 2022; Yankees hold $7.15M club option/$1.15MM buyout if Gardner declines): The Yankees lifer hasn’t shown much life at the plate in 2021, hitting .190/.284/.238 in 75 turns at the dish. He has just one multi-hit game to his credit so far in 2021 and is being used in his most limited role ever.
Darren O’Day, Yankees, RHP ($1.4MM player option for 2022): The 38-year-old O’Day has been great for the Yankees through nine innings, but he’s currently on the injured list due to a strained rotator cuff in his shoulder. As long as he comes back and demonstrates his health, he should be expected to decline his option in favor of a $700K buyout. He’s only securing himself an additional $700K if he picks the option up — barely more than the current league minimum (which could very well rise in the offseason CBA talks).
Dellin Betances, RHP, Mets ($1-3MM player option depending on number of games pitched): Betances needs to reach 60 games pitched in 2021 for his player option to be valued at $2MM and 70 games for it to check in at $3MM. So far, he’s pitched one. It’s all but certain to be a $1MM player option on the righty, who may still take the deal given how catastrophic the last few years have been. Betances is on the 60-day IL with a shoulder impingement at the moment, and since Opening Day 2019, he’s totaled just 13 2/3 innings due to injuries.
Beyond this group, there’s also a conditional player option in the Mariners’ deal with left-hander Yusei Kikuchi. Seattle has until three days after the World Series wraps up to decide whether it wants to exercise a quartet of one-year, $16.5MM options on Kikuchi — a total of four years and $66MM. All four must be exercised together. If they do not make that sizable investment, Kikuchi then has a one-year, $13MM player option for the 2022 season on which he must decide.
At least based on Kikuchi’s career numbers in MLB, it seems unlikely that the Mariners would pick up their end of the deal. He’s compiled a 5.22 ERA through his first 246 1/3 big league innings. That said, Kikuchi saw a major velocity spike in 2020 that he’s actually improved upon again in 2021. Fielding-independent metrics were much more bullish on him than ERA in 2020 (3.30 FIP, 3.37 xERA, 3.78 xFIP, 4.34 SIERA), and this year’s current 4.30 ERA is respectable. He’s also sporting career-bests in swinging-strike rate, opponents’ chase rate, walk rate and ground-ball rate.
It’s still a long shot that the Mariners will pick up all four years on Kikuchi, who’ll turn 30 in June. However, that may simply set him up for a return to the market. It’s certainly plausible that he pitches well enough to command more than the $13MM salary on his player option but less than the four years and $66MM on the Mariners’ end of the arrangement.