Declined Options Reflect Chilly Market and Short Season Struggles

Between the end of the World Series on October 27 and the arrival of the Qualifying Offer deadline on November 1, players and teams finalized a whole bunch of decisions on whose options to pick up and whose to decline. As we’ve noted in a few places throughout this site — Craig Edwards’ FanGraphs Audio discussion with Meg Rowley about Kolten Wong, Ben Clemens’ piece on Charlie Morton, and my own roundup of the Qualifying Offers — the set of decisions points to a bleak winter for players, as the loss of revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic is causing cutbacks in payroll and other areas. That said, a whole bunch of players lost their jobs because they underperformed drastically in a short season ahead of an unforgiving market.

Via the data provided by Jason Martinez, who runs our RosterResource section, 34 out of the 40 players with at least six years of service time and either a club option or a mutual option had those options declined by their respective teams this past week. That count excludes both players who were released in-season and thus had their options automatically declined (such as Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw), as well as players who still have arbitration eligibility remaining (such as Domingo Santana). Of the six players whose options were picked up, only three were for salaries of more than $5.5 million, namely the Marlins’ Starling Marte ($12.5 million), the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo ($14.5 million), and the Yankees’ Zack Britton ($14 million, but for 2022 in a mechanism that effectively turned his ’21 salary of $13 million into a mutual option as well). Eighteen of the declined options were for 2021 salaries of $10 million or more, and another seven were for at least $5 million. In other words, this subset of players with club or mutual options of $5 million or greater went 4-for-28 in having those options picked up, if we’re counting Britton.

By comparison, using the same parameters, 33 out of 43 club or mutual options were declined by teams last year, a count that doesn’t include the two mutual options declined by players who went on to sign four-year deals elsewhere (Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas). Of the 10 club options picked up, seven of them were by players with salaries of at least $9 million: Rizzo ($14.5 million), Marte ($11.5 million, picked up when he was still a Pirate), the Indians’ Corey Kluber ($17.5 million), the Twins’ Nelson Cruz ($12 million), the Cubs’ Jose Quintana ($10.5 million), the Nationals’ Adam Eaton ($9.5 million), and the Pirates’ Chris Archer ($9 million); three other players with salaries in the $5.5-9 million range had their options picked up as well. Such was the structure of these contracts that all of those players except Cruz and Quintana had club options after both the 2019 and ’20 seasons, with Marte and Rizzo the only two who had both picked up; Quintana had a similar structure following the 2018 and ’19 seasons.

To summarize:

Option Comparison, 2019 vs. 2020
Year Options >$10M Exercised Options $5M-$9.9M Exercised Options <$5M Exercised Avg Exc
2019 18 5 20 5 8 0 $10.2M
2020 21 3 7 1 12 2 $8.9M
Includes club options (exercised and declined) and mutual options (exercised or declined by clubs) applied to players with at least 6.000 years of service time.

For these players, the average salary of the options exercised dropped 12.6% relative to last year. The average salary of the options declined rose from $9.28 million to $9.57 million, an increase of 3.2%. All told, it’s clear that despite the options being lower in average value, they were exercised at a lower frequency this year, with options of $5 million or more exercised at about half of last year’s rate (14.3% vs. 26.3%).

So yes, in the aggregate, it’s more evidence of a rough winter ahead for players, many of whom are in for significant pay cuts — not that some aren’t merited based upon performance. Here’s a quick rundown of the pitchers cut loose by these decisions:

Pitchers Whose 2021 Options Were Declined
Pitcher Pos Throw 2020 Tm Age 2020 WAR 2021 Proj Option Med Yrs Med Total
Charlie Morton SP R Rays 37 0.9 2.7 $15.0M
Corey Kluber SP R Rangers 35 0.0 2.7 $18.0M 1 $12.0M
Chris Archer SP R Pirates 32 1.9 $11.0M 1 $8.0M
J.A. Happ SP L Yankees 38 0.6 1.4 $17.0M 2 $26.0M
Mike Leake SP R D’backs 33 1.1 $18.0M
Martín Pérez SP L Red Sox 30 0.4 1.0 $6.25M
Jon Lester SP L Cubs 37 0.3 0.7 $25.00 1 $8.0M
Chase Anderson SP R Blue Jays 33 -0.1 0.4 $9.5M
Aníbal Sánchez SP R Nationals 37 0.2 0.3 $12.0M 1 $7.0M
Gio González SP L White Sox 35 -0.1 0.0 $7.0M
Jimmy Nelson RP R Dodgers 32 0.4 $2.0M
Brad Hand RP L Indians 31 1.1 0.4 $10.0M 3 $27.9M
David Robertson RP R Phillies 36 0.4 $12.0M
David Phelps RP R Phillies 34 -0.1 0.2 $4.5M
Hector Rondón RP R D’backs 33 -0.4 0.1 $4.0M
Darren O’Day RP R Braves 38 0.3 0.0 $3.5M 1 $2.8M
Steve Cishek RP R White Sox 35 -0.2 0.0 $6.75M
Sergio Romo RP R Twins 38 0.2 -0.1 $5.0M
Brandon Kintzler RP R Marlins 36 -0.2 -0.2 $4.0M
2021 projections via Steamer. Median years/total contract via FanGraphs crowdsource.

Several things stand out in looking at this. First off, these guys are old, with an average age close to 35 years, and thus at an elevated risk in terms of injuries, not to mention spotty histories in that department. Kluber, for example, lasted just one inning before suffering a Grade 2 tear of his teres major, that after a fractured arm and an oblique strain limited him to 35.2 innings in 2019. Robertson underwent Tommy John surgery in August 2019 and suffered a setback while rehabbing in August of this year, preventing him from returning. Even when it comes to the younger pitchers on the list above, two of the four under 33 are deep in the weeds injury-wise, namely Nelson, who has thrown just 22 major league innings over the past three seasons due to shoulder and back surgeries, and Archer, who underwent surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome in June; based on the rather grim history of such recipients, you can take that projection with more than a grain of salt, though his pre-surgical velocity may give him more leeway than his predecessors.

Morton, who was limited to nine starts and 38 innings during the regular season by a bout of shoulder inflammation, still looked very good in October while making four starts totaling 20 innings. He’s the cream of the crop as far as the players whose options were declined, and is probably the only legitimate two-win pitcher here once you consider the aforementioned injury risks. His inclusion in this group is less a comment on his 2020 work (4.03 ERA, 3.15 FIP and 25.3% strikeout rate in 58 innings, including the postseason) than it was the fact that, well, it’s the Rays, and that Morton himself said that he would consider retiring if they didn’t pick up his option.

I asked Edwards where Morton would have ranked among the Top 50 Free Agents, and he said 12th, one spot behind Marcus Stroman, who did not pitch in 2020 due to a calf strain and his eventual decision to opt out. I’d put Morton ahead of Stroman based upon their recent workloads and performances; Morton made at least 30 starts in both 2018 and ’19, and totaled 13.0 WAR with a 3.27 ERA and 3.25 FIP in 546.1 innings since the start of 2017, while Stroman produced just 8.7 WAR with a 3.65 ERA and 3.83 FIP in 487.2 innings in that span, obviously in part because he missed this season, though his injury would have cost him a substantial chunk anyway, and Morton did have just the 38 regular season innings. That said, there’s a 7 1/2-year age difference between the two, and Morton’s fastball velocity has dropped 2.4 mph over the past two seasons (from 95.7 to 93.3), though he’s still bringing more heat than Stroman (92.5 mph in 2019). Anyway, the bet here is that Morton winds up with some kind of one-year-plus-option or two-year deal from a contender if he does return.

Happ will probably fare reasonably well, too. His overall regular season numbers were only so-so (3.47 ERA, 4.57 FIP), but that was still an improvement over his lousy 2019. Over his final seven starts he pitched to a 2.34 ERA and 3.45 FIP across 42.1 innings, though the Rays knocked him around in his lone postseason appearance.

Of the others that stand out, Leake has a long track record as an innings-eater; he opted out in 2020, that after posting a career-worst 5.19 FIP in ’19. Pérez pitched well enough in Boston under the circumstances (4.50 ERA and 4.88 FIP in a tough ballpark in front of a lousy team) that it rates as a mild surprise his affordable option wasn’t picked up. Lester’s fastball velocity and peripheral statistics have been eroding for quite awhile, so it’s no shock the Cubs weren’t going to pay him $25 million, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he returns to Chicago — or Boston, even — after pocketing a $10 million buyout. Like Lester, Sánchez’s average fastball velocity slipped below 90 mph, and so he got hit much harder.

As for the relievers, Hand is coming off a dominant 22 innings (2.05 ERA, 1.37 FIP, 29.1% K-BB%) in which he finished in a virtual tie for third among all relievers in WAR (1.1). Pick any larger increment — two, three, four, five years — and he ranks as one of the majors’ 10 most valuable relievers across that span as well, which makes it all the more surprising that the Indians declined his option in favor of paying him a $1 million buyout; the move came in time for him to make our Top 50 Free Agents list at number 23, third among relievers; he’s likely to receive a multi-year deal, with Edwards’ two-year, $20 million estimate coming in as more conservative than the crowdsource.

O’Day appeared to be back to top notch form in Atlanta (1.10 ERA, 2.76 FIP), so declining his $3.5 million option raises some eyebrows, though injuries have limited him to just 41.2 innings over the past three seasons. Phelps, so strong in a brief stint in Milwaukee, fell into the vortex of suck in Philadelphia, allowing five homers in 7.2 innings — as many as he did in either the 2018 or ’19 seasons. Robertson, who was once among the most consistently reliable and durable relievers in the game, made just seven appearances in two years in Philadelphia; he’s likely to have to go the make-good route via a minor league or incentive-laden deal. (That’s probably true for most of these guys besides Hand, as bad numbers in the shortened 2020 aren’t going to elicit big guarantees in a tightening market.)

Moving on to the position players cast adrift:

Position Players Whose 2021 Options Were Declined
Player Pos Bat Team Age 2020 WAR 2021 Proj Option Med Yrs Med Tot
Kolten Wong 2B L Cardinals 30 1.3 2.3 $12.5M 3 $29.1M
Carlos Santana 1B S Indians 35 0.3 2.2 $17.5M 1 $11.0M
Adam Eaton RF L Nationals 32 -0.5 1.6 $10.5M
Wilson Ramos C R Mets 33 0.2 1.5 $10.0M 2 $20.0M
Mike Zunino C R Rays 30 0.0 1.5 $4.5M 2 $10.0M
Brett Gardner LF/CF L Yankees 37 0.6 1.4 $10.0M 1 $8.0M
Ryan Braun OF/DH R Brewers 37 0.1 0.7 $15.0M
Jedd Gyorko 1B/3B R Brewers 32 0.7 0.7 $4.5M
Eric Sogard 2B/3B L Brewers 35 -0.3 0.6 $4.5M
Howie Kendrick 1B/DH R Nationals 37 -0.3 0.6 $6.5M
Mitch Moreland 1B/DH L Padres 35 0.9 0.5 $3.0M
Robinson Chirinos C R Mets 37 -0.9 0.3 $6.5M
Edwin Encarnación DH R White Sox 38 -0.3 0.2 $12.0M
Todd Frazier 3B/1B R Mets 35 -0.1 0.1 $5.75M
Daniel Murphy 1B L Rockies 36 -0.9 0.1 $12.0M
Dee Strange-Gordon 2B/OF L Mariners 33 -0.3 0.0 $14.0M
Daniel Descalso 2B/3B L Cubs 34 0.0 $3.5M
2021 projections via Steamer. Median years/total contract via FanGraphs crowdsource.

Wong, the second-youngest player here, was the Cardinal in the coal mine as far as the pandemic-related economic impact on players with reasonably-sized options is concerned. While he did not have a great year with the bat (.265/.350/.326, 91 wRC+), he played strong enough defense (3.8 UZR, 6 DRS) to win his second straight Gold Glove; the Cardinals’ acknowledgement was every bit as awkward as the White Sox’s one regarding the fired Rick Renteria being an AL Manager of the Year finalist, minus the congratulations. Anyway, Wong got the bad news in time to sneak into our Top 50 at number 26. While he had his ups and downs in St. Louis due to injuries and inconsistent offensive performances, he’s averaged 3.8 WAR per 600 PA since the start of 2017, and merits a multiyear deal.

Beyond Wong, this isn’t exactly a flock of spring chickens; this group’s average age (34.5 years) is about that of the pitchers (34.7), weighted down by aging DH/1B types whose 2020 statistics were way down, and whose numbers may be up in the existential sense. Santana, who just a year ago set career highs with 4.4 WAR and a 135 wRC+, shed 3.9 mph of exit velocity (the majors’ fifth-largest drop, with Encarnación tied for third at -4.7 mph) and collapsed to a 95 wRC+; he couldn’t do anything well against righties except take a walk (.179/.365/.303, 22.2% BB%). Encarnación swung and missed 14.8% of the time (up from three years in the 10-11% range) and somehow hit only as many singles as homers (10) while finishing at .157/.250/.377 (71 wRC+). Kendrick couldn’t replicate his storybook 2019, shedding 2.9 mph in exit velo and slipping to an 82 wRC+. Braun limped to the finish line of his five-year, $105 million deal while missing time due to an infected right index finger as well as the usual back and oblique woes. Murphy cratered to a 44 wRC+ in his second miserable year in Colorado. These guys really need the National League to retain the designated hitter if they’re going to further their careers.

The outfielders will probably find work, albeit not in starting roles. Gardner, thanks to his glove and plate discipline, managed to remain useful amid a slew of injuries to other Yankees outfielders and could return to the Bronx. Eaton’s production collapsed from a 107 wRC+ in 2019 to 75 in ’20 while he dealt with multiple injuries, including a season-ending fractured left index finger. Strange-Gordon — he resumed using his full legal surname — was reduced to a superutility role (10 starts at both second base and left field, two at shortstop) while managing just a 42 wRC+. Sogard (54 wRC+) and Frazier (82 wRC+) were dreadful as well. The utility type that stands out is Gyorko, who hit for a robust .248/.333/.504 (118 wRC+) with nine homers in 135 PA.

And the declined options added a veritable flood of declining catchers to the market. Zunino, the youngest player here (he doesn’t turn 30 until March 25), not only remains offensively challenged but is perhaps defensively overrated. He hit just .147/.238/.360 (65 wRC+) — that’s three singles, four doubles, and four homers in 82 PA — and his framing numbers (and overall defensive ratings) slipped into the red via our numbers as well as those of Baseball Prospectus and Sports Info Solutions. Even so, he projects reasonably well. Chirinos hit for a 26 wRC+ in 82 PA, Ramos a comparatively Piazza-like 89 in 155 PA. Their futures may be as backups.

All told, while it was not a good week for the option crowd, much of that had to do with players who struggled mightily and faced a harsh reckoning because they couldn’t work out the kinks or heal quickly enough to alter the arcs of their seasons. Under sunnier skies, Wong, Hand, Morton, Gyorko and maybe a few others would have been retained; as it is, they’re among the better free agents at their respective positions, and should land on their feet.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

Minor point – JA Happ did not start in his postseason game, which might play a role in his under-performance.