The Philadelphia Phillies have been quiet this off-season as far as the pursuit of big name, long term, big money free agents.
But also in this 2015-16 MLB ‘Hot Stove’ season, a phrase has become important that could potentially change the Phils’ direction in regard to those big name players: Opt-out Clause.
Big name free agents who have already signed have received this new found option of freedom, more than in any other off-season in years past. Merits of such clauses have been debated in print already, and probably won’t stop as we move further along in history.
Are they good for baseball? Corinne Landrey with ‘Crashburn Alley’ is among those who feel that eventually these opt-outs could be good for the big market teams, if and when those clauses are exercised. For now, there is no real definitive answer.
What is obvious is that teams are more often using opt-out clauses to their advantage when trying to get a player to put roots down with their organization.
According to Dave Cameron at FanGraphs, free agent outfielder Jason Heyward reportedly turned down more money from two other teams in signing with the Chicago Cubs. He did this because he believed that the Cubs had a great chance at winning a World Series.
But Heyward also went with Chicago they offered him an opt-out: he can make nearly $70 million over the first three years, and then still have the chance to secure even greater riches by exercising his opt-out clause at just age 29. It’s a win-win situation for many of the players that have received these clauses.
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Many of the top free agent hitters still left on the market have seen very little movement from teams trying to secure their services for 2016 and beyond. Acquiring pitching has been at the top of the majority of teams’ to-do lists. With those goals being met, many budgets no longer have room to fit players like Alex Gordon, Chris Davis, or Yoenis Cespedes.
Teams could fear the MLB luxury tax, or there may simply be an unwillingness by ownership to add significant dollars to the payrol. There is no doubt that many teams have decided to sit on the sidelines where the hitting market is concerned, at least to this point.
This leads to a very interesting situation where the Phillies are concerned, one that could provide them with the opportunity to add an experienced impact bat.
Scanning the pages of MLB Trade Rumors, there has been very little mention of Justin Upton of late. Teams are reported to “have interest” in the slugging corner outfielder. But other than that, there has been scant mention of his possibly finding a new employer.
There may be teams lurking in the weeds, waiting for the market on hitters in general and Upton in particular to depress before offering a contract. Such teams have yet to reveal themselves, let alone to make their move. Does it make sense for the Phillies to enter the discussion, especially if they were to wield the power of the opt-out clause?
There are two sides to look at on this issue. Let’s start by looking at what the addition of Upton would do without an opt-out clause. On one hand, adding a player of his caliber would be adding potentially four to five wins to the ledger right now. That is what he has been worth the past few seasons.
I argued in a previous piece here at TBOH that if the team were to spend lavishly on a free agent, Upton would be one of the options that would make the most sense due to his relative youth, upside potential, and current talent level.
This move would also certainly put to rest many of the calls of “tanking” that have taken place this winter, including here at TBOH, as such a move would demonstrate a willingness of ownership to put a better product on the field, both this year and in the future.
Upton’s youth would also not hinder the team when it is ready to compete annually down the road, since he would still, at least theoretically, be in his prime performance years.
He also plays a position in the field at which the team doesn’t have a permanent option currently, nor does it have one coming up that would be a better option.
Here at TBOH, our Matt Veasey looked at the current projected 2016 Opening Day lineup, and there isn’t much to scare opposing teams. Put Upton in the middle, however, and suddenly there is a top four that could do some damage.
On the flip side, one could argue that signing Upton right now just doesn’t make sense, either baseball-wise or financially. If 2015 was the low point in the Phillies rebuild, where they got rid of everything that wasn’t nailed down, then 2016 is about beginning a rebranding of the franchise. That begins with playing the kids.
Signing any player that could conceivably block any of their prospects from receiving playing time in the big leagues at any point in the season is not a wise decision. There has been repeated talk that the Phillies now need to make sure that they are ready to give playing time to any prospect that deserves it.
That time has arrived, and as John Stolnis put it in a recent podcast for ‘The Good Phight’, many fans would rather see the young players develop, knowing, or at least hoping, that those kids are going to be better in the Majors as they receive more at-bats.
Also, remember those four to five wins you’d be adding by signing Upton? That’s four to five wins away from getting a potentially better draft choice. While I don’t believe that the team is “tanking” right now per se, I do think it’s important to get the best draft pick possible, whenever it is possible, and with the Phillies rebuild that means after this coming 2016 plays out.
While the Phillies have the financial war chest to pull off the massive expenditure that it would take to get Upton, why commit yourself to a long term contract now? The Phillies have absolutely no guaranteed money committed to any player after the 2018 season, at a time when the greatest free agent class in history is scheduled to come available in free agency.
That prospective free agent class is still three seasons off, but that is the best timeline to use if you are trying to predict when the Phillies should realistically be ready to seriously compete. Does it make sense to have a financial anchor of an Upton or similar contract on the books, especially if the player isn’t performing?
But let’s put that opt-out clause back on the table. It would make sense to offer a contract to Upton that has big money up front, with an opt-out that enables him to go back in the free market in a few years. There he might be able to secure another huge final contract while still capable of producing at a level that deserves such a deal.
Let’s say the team were to offer a seven year contract for about $190 million. That is a ton of money and commitment. But let’s also so that the deal included an opt-out after year three, where Upton would join that potentially historic free agent class.
Would that entice him to play in Philadelphia? It’s probably still not good enough, so the team would likely have to offer a higher annual average value (AAV) than that received by Heyward over the first three years of his deal.
This would be so that Upton can say he beat Heyward in the money column, but also because it would take such a staggering amount of money to get a talent like his to play for a team projected to lose near 90 games. Could Upton really turn that size offer down?
While all this sounds good in theory, remember the potential downfall. What if he doesn’t trigger the clause? What if he suffers a serious injury, and/or his performance suffers a serious drop. Hello, Ryan Howard. I think all Phillies fans have seen how the Howard contract has hampered the club.
I’m not arguing for, or against, offering this type of contract to Upton. Obviously, the team would be better with him in the short term, and he’s still young enough that he might even be worth it over the longer term of such a contract.
My theory simply presents an interesting proposition for the Phillies, since they are one of the few teams remaining with the money, playing time, and need for Upton’s talents.
If the team were to add him, they would undoubtedly be better. If not, they simply remain on the course they have currently set for their planned return to glory. Is that the definition of win-win? I don’t know, but I’m sure most fans would be happy either way.