2023-24 Player Option/Opt-Out Update: April Edition

MLB Trade Rumors

Not long ago, any given year in Major League Baseball might have seen a handful of players have player options to decide upon at the end of a season. Opt-out clauses have slowly worked their way into normalcy among contract negotiations, however, and what was once a perk typically reserved for star players has become more commonly used as a means of either sealing a deal with mid-range free agents or in many instances, gaming the luxury tax. Player options are considered guaranteed money, after all, so it’s become common for clubs on the precipice of luxury penalization to negotiate complex player options that tamp down a contract’s average annual value even though they’re unlikely to ever be exercised.

For the purposes of this look around the league, there’s little sense in separating opt-outs from player options. The two are effectively the same, though “opt-out” typically refers to an out clause where there are multiple years remaining on the contract and “player option” generally refers to an individual decision on the forthcoming season. Both are considered guaranteed money for luxury purposes, and both ultimately come down to the player’s preference, risk tolerance, etc.

At their core, opt-out provisions aren’t particularly different from the much longer-accepted club options that teams have negotiated for years. Teams guarantee a certain number of dollars over a certain number of years, and if the player continues performing at a high enough level, they’ll exercise a club option that’s typically locked in at a below-market price. If not, the player will be bought out and sent back to free agency. Player options and opt-outs are merely the inverse; the player/agent negotiate a certain length and annual value but reserve the right to opt back into the market if the player continues to perform at a high level. It’s two sides of the same coin.

There are more players with the opportunity to opt out of their contract this offseason, by way of a one-year player option or a multi-year opt-out, than ever before. As such, we’ll be keeping tabs on these situations throughout the season. Short of a major injury, performance this early in the season isn’t likely to have a major impact on a player’s likelihood of opting out or forgoing that right, but it’s worth listing out which players will have the opportunity, what their contracts look like, and at least taking an early glance at how they’re performing.

Note: All stats through play on Tuesday.

Position Players

  • Tucker Barnhart, C, Cubs ($3.25MM player option): Barnhart’s deal was announced as a two-year, $6.5MM contract, though he also obtained the right to opt out after 2023, effectively rendering 2024 a player option. He’s 5-for-16 with a walk and four strikeouts through just 17 plate appearances as the backup to Yan Gomes. Barnhart got this guarantee on the heels of a dismal .221/.287/.267 showing with the Tigers in 2022, so with even a decent season he’ll have reason to opt out and try his luck again amid a thin group of free-agent catchers.
  • Josh Bell, 1B/DH, Guardians ($16.5MM player option): Bell limped to the finish line with the Padres after being traded over from the Nationals alongside Juan Soto in last summer’s blockbuster, and he hasn’t yet found his footing in 76 plate appearances with the Guardians. It’s a small sample, but Bell’s .203/.316/.344 slash looks quite similar to the .192/.316/.271 he mustered with San Diego in 2022. Bell hit 37 homers in 2019 and 27 in 2021, but he hits the ball on the ground far too often for someone with his power and lack of speed. Only one qualified hitter in MLB (Masataka Yoshida) has a higher ground-ball rate than Bell’s staggering 66.7% mark.
  • Trey Mancini, 1B/OF, Cubs ($7MM player option, if he reaches 350 plate appearances): Like Bell, Mancini saw his offensive production crater following a deadline trade (to the Astros) last summer and has not yet recovered in a new setting. Through 60 plate appearances, he’s hitting just .196/.220/.250While his contract is a two-year, $14MM deal, Mancini can opt out if he reaches 350 plate appearances (i.e., the second year becomes a player option). He isn’t hitting yet, but Mancini is playing regularly and appears to be trending toward earning that right.
  • Javier Baez, SS, Tigers (can opt out of remaining four years, $98MM): After turning in a tepid .238/.278/.393 batting line in 590 plate appearances during his first season as a Tiger, Baez would need quite the season to walk away from this kind of cash. So far, he’s hitting .193/.254/.246 in 64 trips to the plate, however. When Baez gets hot, he can go on hot streaks for the ages, but he certainly doesn’t look like he’ll be opting out at season’s end.
  • Justin Turner, 3B/DH, Red Sox ($13.4MM player option): Turner hasn’t found his power yet in Boston, but he’s out to a .277/.385/.385 start with nearly as many walks as strikeouts. His $13.4MM player option comes with a hefty $6.7MM buyout. He’ll turn 39 in November, but as long as he hits reasonably well, he should have more earning power than that $6.7MM net decision.
  • Jorge Soler, OF/DH, Marlins ($9MM player option): Soler’s three-year, $36MM deal in Miami pays him $12MM in 2022, $15MM in 2023 and $9MM in 2024, but he had the right to opt out after each season of the deal. He hit just .207/.295/.400 with 13 homers in 306 plate appearances last year, so there was no way he was taking the first opt-out. He’s already clubbed five dingers in 62 plate appearances in 2023. His .263/.323/.649 slash translates to a 155 wRC+, and his exit velocity and hard-hit rate are through the roof, so his .256 average on balls in play should at least hold steady. Soler is an extremely streaky hitter, so time will tell how much of this early heater he can sustain, but there’s plenty to like about his start, including a reduced strikeout rate.
  • Michael Conforto, OF, Giants ($18MM player option, if he reaches 350 plate appearances): As with Mancini, Conforto is on a two-year deal but gains the right to opt out after one year if he reaches 350 plate appearances. You can call it an opt-out or a player option, but it’s the same mechanism; if Conforto is healthy, he’ll likely get the right to opt out. So far, he’s hitting .220/.373/.439 with a trio of homers in 51 trips to the plate. Conforto has walked nine times in those 51 plate appearances (17.6%), and his chase rate is actually down, so he still has good knowledge of the zone. However, a year-long layoff due to shoulder surgery is perhaps making itself known with a 74.5% contact rate on pitches in the strike zone, as that’s nearly 10 percentage points below his career mark of 84%. Unsurprisingly, Conforto’s 31.4% strikeout rate is a career worst. Some rust was inevitable, though, and the plate discipline and hard contact when he has made contact (94.4 mph exit velo, 52.5% hard-hit rate) are encouraging.
  • Matt Carpenter, 1B/DH, Padres ($5.5MM player option): Carpenter’s stunning return with the Yankees last year was one of the best stories of the summer, but he’s out to a sluggish .152/.317/.273 start with the Padres. He’s chasing off the plate at a 30.3% clip after doing so at a 20.7% rate last summer, and his contact rate on swings off the plate has plummeted from 62.5% to 36.4%. It’s a small sample and there’s time to turn things around, of course, but he’s had a tough start.

Pitchers

  • Andrew Heaney, LHP, Dodgers ($13MM player option): Heaney’s first Rangers start was one to forget (seven earned runs), but his second start was dominant, as he tied an AL record by fanning nine consecutive hitters. If Heaney tops 150 innings and doesn’t finish the year with an injury that’d likely keep him out for the first 60-plus innings of the 2024 season, the value of that player option jumps to $20MM. He hasn’t reached 150 innings since 2018.
  • Seth Lugo, RHP, Padres ($7.5MM player option): Lugo’s return to the rotation has been solid. He’s posted a 2.70 ERA through 16 2/3 frames with strikeout and walk ratios that look similar to his numbers out of the bullpen (24.3% strikeout rate, 7.1% walk rate). It’s anyone’s guess how many innings Lugo will tally after throwing just 228 innings combined from 2019-22, when he was primarily a reliever, but a solid run out of the rotation will position him to turn down that player option in search of a multi-year deal in free agency.
  • Sean Manaea, LHP, Giants ($12.5MM player option): The early ERA isn’t much to look at (4.76 in 11 1/3 innings), but the Giants have Manaea averaging 94.7 mph on his four-seamer. That’s a career-high by a wide margin, as he sat 91.7 mph on a now-scrapped sinker in 2021-22 and 91.1 mph on his four-seamer in 2017-20. Any major velocity gain of this nature is worth keeping an eye on.
  • Nick Martinez, RHP, Padres (team has two-year, $32MM club option; if declined, Martinez has two-year, $16MM player option): Martinez’s strikeout rate, walk rate, home-run rate and velocity have all gone the wrong direction through his first three starts. It’s just 17 2/3 innings, so it could be rendered a footnote if he rebounds and the Padres pick up their hefty option on the righty. Still, it’s not the start he or the Padres wanted.
  • Eduardo Rodriguez, LHP, Tigers (can opt out remaining three years, $49MM): E-Rod hasn’t missed bats anywhere near his Boston levels since signing with the Tigers. The lefty still showed good command both in 2022 and so far in 2023, but his 8.7% swinging-strike rate and 20.4% strikeout rate are well shy of the respective 11.6% and 26% marks he posted in his final four years with the Red Sox. Rodriguez’s velocity in 2023 is back up after a slight dip in 2022, but if he can’t get back to missing bats at his prior levels it’ll be an easy call for him to forego that opt-out provision.
  • Max Scherzer, RHP, Mets ($43.333MM player option): Scherzer hasn’t gotten out to his best start, but he posted a 2.29 ERA with gaudy strikeout and walk rates (30.6% and 4.2%) in 145 1/3 frames with the Mets in 2022. He was at the center of controversy after being ejected from today’s start after failing a foreign substance check, though that’s not likely to have any effect on his opt-out decision. Scherzer has already suggested that his opt-out was negotiated in part to ensure that he’d have an opportunity to look elsewhere if the Mets didn’t remain fully committed to winning. That hasn’t been the case under owner Steve Cohen, who’s currently financing the largest payroll and luxury-tax bill in MLB history.
  • Ross Stripling, RHP, Giants ($12.5MM player option): Stripling has been ambushed for 10 runs in his first 12 1/3 innings of work and had been set to operate primarily out of the bullpen before the injury to Alex Wood. It’s not a great start considering the weighty $25MM guarantee on his deal, but he has time to turn things around. A stunning six of the 13 fly-balls Stripling has yielded in 2023 have cleared the fence for a home run, and that rate will surely stabilize over a larger sample. Still, if he’s relegated to long-relief duty for too long, it’ll become difficult for him to even consider his opt-out.
  • Marcus Stroman, RHP, Cubs ($21MM player option): Stroman took a rather atypical contract structure for a 31-year-old free agent, inking a three-year guarantee at a premium annual value with an opt-out after year two. It’s more common to see pitchers that age push for the longest deal possible, but it might work out in Stroman’s favor. He’ll bank $50MM through the contract’s first two seasons, and after a nice 2022 season (3.50 ERA, 3.74 SIERA in 138 2/3 innings), he’s come roaring out of the gates with a 0.75 ERA and vastly improved 26.9% strikeout rate through his first 24 frames. Stroman’s walk rate is also up, and it’s all a small sample for now anyway, but it’s a promising start all the same. He’ll turn 33 in 2024, and if he continues anywhere near the pace he’s set since 2019 (3.15  ERA in 520 innings), he should have no problem topping that $21MM in free agency. He’ll also be ineligible for a qualifying offer, having already received one earlier in his career.
  • Michael Wacha, RHP, Padres (two-year, $32MM club option; if declined, Wacha has $6.5MM player option and $6MM player options in 2025-26): Wacha’s four-year, $26MM deal was effectively just the Padres manipulating the luxury tax by meeting Wacha’s price tag on a multi-year deal but spreading out the term to tamp down the AAV. Wacha’s total guarantee is the type of money one might’ve expected him to land over a two- or perhaps three-year term. By spreading it to four, the Padres could end up avoiding the third luxury-tax bracket. Wacha has a 6.06 ERA through three starts and posted an ERA of 4.76 or worse each season from 2019-21. If he can wind up replicating his strong 2022 results, the Padres might consider picking up their end of the option, but the likelier scenario is that they decline, leaving Wacha with a remaining three years and $19MM, but opt-outs after each season.
  • Chad Green, RHP, Blue Jays (three-year, $27MM club option; if declined, Green has $6.25MM player option; if both decline, team has two-year, $21MM option): Green may have the most convoluted contract of the entire free-agent class. That’s reflective both of his considerable talent and the broad range of outcomes as he works back from last May’s Tommy John surgery. We won’t know have an inkling of how this’ll play out until at least the summer, as Green needs to finish off his rehab. If he can return to peak form (1.83 ERA, 40.7% strikeout rate, 6.7% walk rate) for three or so months down the stretch, perhaps the Jays would actually consider the three-year, $27MM option. But that’s premium setup man money, and Green will be coming back from a year-long absence with a major surgery on his recent resume. He’ll have a $6.25MM player option if that three-year team option is declined, and that seems far more plausible. The two-year, $21MM option if both parties decline their first options feels only slightly more viable than the Jays’ original 3/27 decision.

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