Teams Declining Notable Player Options Are First Chapter in MLB Off-Season of Tight Payrolls

The new MLB off-season may be less than a week old, but the economic realities of the COVID era that we live in are already taking shape. We are obviously still incredibly early in the process. Front office members and manager’s seats are still being decided and one team has even changed hands at the ownership level. However, the most impactful way that this new reality has manifested itself so far is in the actions teams have taken in relation to picking up or declining contract options for their players.

Nearly every team has declined an option as we have exited the post-season, some more significant than others. It is clear that certain teams (like the Rangers, Cardinals, Reds, Diamondbacks, and even possibly Yankees) just do not have the stomach for taking risks financially right now, even with players that were formerly productive on their own rosters.

For instance, the man who would have pitched Game 7 of the World Series for the Tampa Bay Rays, Charlie Morton, finds himself currently unemployed after the Rays declined his $15 million club option just three days after their series-ending Game 6 loss. Morton had better cumulative Wins Above Replacement over the past three seasons than Red Sox ace Chris Sale, who will make double the amount that Morton would have made in 2021 if his option had been exercised. Morton’s downfall is that he is 37, and the Rays, with a payroll that was 28th in the league this past season cannot bank on continued value, even if Morton’s own peak as a ballplayer has come late in his career. Teammate Blake Snell is on a 5-year deal with an Average Annual Value of $10 million. The former Cy Young Award winner will only eclipse $15 million once in that deal, and it’s fair to say Morton won’t be touching that amount either. Both sides are interested in coming together again and I am not going to even attempt to consider what free agent contracts are going to look like this off-season, but the argument could be made that at least statistically Morton is the 2nd best free agent pitcher on the market. Only Trevor Bauer has better WAR over the past three seasons and no free agent pitcher has better Fielder Independent Pitching. The Rays are calculating that maybe his advanced age and other teams’ tight purse strings will throw other teams off his scent.

Meanwhile in Cleveland, the Indians saw themselves do away with multiple former All-Stars in first baseman Carlos Santana and closer Brad Hand. Santana is likely poised to be the best free agent first baseman on the market (in a year where admittedly there aren’t a ton of great options). His $17.5 million option was declined despite the fact that the additional year would cost less than what Matt Carpenter, Jose Abreu and Joey Votto will make in 2021. All three are of a comparable age to Santana while accumulating less WAR over the past three seasons as first basemen. Admittedly, Santana had a weak 60-game season (.199 batting average, 95 wRC+), but his longer track record should speak for itself. Additionally, Hand’s 1-year $10 million option is very comparable to the 1-year, $10 million deal that Blake Treinen received from the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. Both players are worth the same number of WAR over the last three years while Hand’s FIP is nearly half a run better. He has also saved 27 more games, including a perfect and league-leading 16 for 16 in 2020.

Lastly, it came as an absolute shock to many as the St. Louis Cardinals did not pick up the $12.5 million option on their slick-fielding second baseman Kolten Wong. Wong will now hit the open market as probably the 2nd best available second baseman behind batting title winner and legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate DJ LeMahieu. Wong accumulated a total of just 0.7 less WAR than Astros star Jose Altuve over the last three seasons total, but while $12.5 million was too rich for the Cardinals, the Astros have signed on to $29 million for Altuve for five straight seasons with four of those seasons yet to come. What’s worse is that the Cardinals are not mincing words about their current position. President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak has made it clear that the payroll for one of the must illustrious franchises in the history of baseball will decline for 2021, in relation with 2020’s lack of attendance.

This is the nature of the situation at hand. Above you have four legitimate examples where options were not picked up along with instances of comparable players getting similar payments in the past. On top of all of this, each example provided is one of a playoff team from the 2020 season. Even further, each of these teams could have made the playoffs in the regular format (possibly, the Cardinals would have had a wild 3-way tie for the last wildcard spot in the NL under the regular rules). To put it bluntly, these aren’t your tanking bottom-feeders of baseball. In particular, you can look at the Rays and see the best team in the American League, just two wins away from a World Series crown. In the Cardinals you see a team who hasn’t had a losing record since 2007. That’s more than a decade!

These are significant indications of what might be a very weak free agent market despite some very talented players being available. The question will become, are there enough owners, particularly in baseball’s biggest markets, that are willing to shoulder the burden of hefty contracts despite all the uncertainty that surrounds gate attendance? Certainly, some will, but will it be enough to drive up the price on someone like LeMahieu or Bauer? How will that set the market for someone like Wong or Morton that will come after them? With some many excess players being dumped into the market, will that continue to reduce wages even further for baseball’s middle class? Is this just more aggravation for the impending labor conflict to come after 2021?

The next indicator coming to light is how teams have doled out qualifying offers. In an example of one ownership group that will likely shrug off the uncertainty, the New York Mets and their own new leadership have already presented the 1 year, $18.9 million (bigger than ANY of the options we just talked about) offer to starting pitcher Marcus Stroman. At the same time, the Athletics have a pair of players that you could make an argument for getting the QO in shortstop Marcus Semien and Reliever of the Year Liam Hendriks. A team like Oakland would be especially conflicted in that they are already a historically cash-strapped team now trying to decide whether their former MVP candidate shortstop who had a bad 60-game season or a reliever, even one as dominant as Hendricks, are really worth top dollar in their market. Ultimately, they decided against either.

In the end, even with all of the drama and swirling uncertainty that we currently have, the moral of the story is really the same as always but only intensified. Teams with financial limitations are going to have to be as creative as possible to put a sustainable product on the field. Every team mentioned here (Rays, Indians, Cardinals & Athletics) is absolutely 100% capable of doing just that. We have seen them do it before. Undoubtedly, the 2021 season could pose their greatest challenge. We are going to find out exactly how clever they truly are.

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