The Giants met with Jon Lester on Monday, and if they don't get him, they're expected to go after every other big name on the market this offseason. Max Scherzer? Sounds great. James Shields? Sure, why not? Mike Schmidt? Pretty sure he retired decades ago, but hey, throw him a few million just in case.
And one of the things that you'll see powerful agents representing big stars do - most often when that agent is Scott Boras - is insert opt-out clauses into their contracts. A-Rod is the most famous example of course, though there have been a few others like CC Sabathia, JD Drew, and AJ Burnett. Of the guys who have an opt-out they can exercise in the future, Zack Greinke could walk after this year, Elvis Andrus and Clayton Kershaw after 2018, and Giancarlo Stanton when Loria starts having to actually write the big checks, which is an amazing coincidence. I'm sure Jeffy will be devastated to not pay him in gold dump trucks filled with thousand dollar bills.
There are a lot of fans who have an instinctively negative reaction to players opting out, seeing them as greedy or disloyal, or torpedoing the plans of the team they'd committed to for several more years. But:
1. Players don't play baseball for very long, and they have every right to make as much money as possible while they can, and good for them if they can get a bigger contract.
2. It's not actually bad for the team.
Offhand, point 2 would seem to be ludicrously wrong. After all, the thinking goes, if they're playing well, they leave. If they're playing badly, they stay. It's a lose-lose.
But let's consider it a little bit more. Assume that a player (we'll call him "Max S") signs a contract for many years and the GDP of Palau. Adding an opt-out after year 4 isn't going to make the contract more expensive, because it's a player-friendly clause, and the logic of "That thing you want that I don't want seems fair, but only if I can pay you more to take it" is ludicrous and no GM would say it. Well, maybe Amaro.
Let's say Max wants to come to San Francisco. The contract he rejected from the Tigers before the season was for 6 years and $144 million, so he's going to want more than that. But you know what would just be awesome for the Giants? If there was a way to pay him at the market rate for four years, through his age-34 season, before letting him go somewhere else. And that's where the opt-out comes in. The Giants, in this scenario, have already taken the risk that Max will be good for several years just by signing him. If he opts out, that makes is a great contract, because he was always worth it.
How does this play out in the future? I made a table.
|Max pitches well||Max Pitches Badly|
|Opt-out||Leaves before he's bad and is always worth the money||Not worth the money|
|No opt-out||Could become bad and expensive at the end of the contract||Not worth the money|
The only thing you're losing out on is the chance to pay a mid-30s pitcher the expensive part of a backloaded contract.
So why do opt-outs have such a bad reputation? Some of it has to do with the sense that the player isn't living up to his end of the deal, or that the only thing that's important to him is money, or that he started looking for a way out before he even signed the contract. You know, typical resentment of high player salaries. But there's also the fact that the first guys who opted out were A-Rod and JD Drew, and they're total turds. Don't underestimate the power of finding a reason to hate somebody, then later having to justify that hatred by applying it consistently to others.
But here's the most important part of giving a player an opt-out clause: Do not re-sign him. Let him go. The original A-Rod contract worked perfectly, and then the Yankees re-signed him. He had a great year, and a few good ones, and he's got a bunch of time left at a lot of money. After AJ Burnett left Toronto, where he'd had three good years, he wasn't nearly as effective over the course of his next contract with New York. If the Yankees had just let Sabathia leave when he opted out, they'd have lost one good year and two terrible ones, and been able to apply that savings to make their rotation better.
I guess the real lesson here is "lol yankees." That's always a fun lesson.
Now, the downside of opting out would be JD Drew, who had a couple strong years with the Dodgers, and then left with three years left on his contract. But even then, it's not like he hurt the team. He gave them two productive years at fair prices, and then went away. It's not like he stole the plans to the Death Star on his way out, mostly because those were the McCourt years and they figured they could save money by destroying planets with really big science fair volcanoes. Drew just happened to give the Dodgers less time than they expected, which was really their fault for expecting him to just accept something not in his best interests because they wanted him to. Stupid Dodgers. Stupid, stupid Dodgers. And smelly, too.
So if Max Scherzer or Jon Lester comes with an opt-out, the Giants shouldn't let that deter them. If the money's too much, or the scouts don't like him, that should totally deter them. I'm 100% on board with that. But if one of them signs with the Giants and then opts out after 2018, it could well be a win-win.
Not for the Yankees though, because they're the ones who'd end up signing him.