Opt-out clauses in contracts have been around for a bit, but they kind of exploded in the past few years, notably in the offseason between 2015 and 2016. At the time, many were assuming that the players would all be worth as much or more money in the next few years, meaning they were almost certain to opt out of the deals when they could.
Sometimes it's still a no-brainer for the player. Look at Clayton Kershaw. He can opt out after 2018 or stick with the Dodgers for two years and just a touch over $70 million. He'd blow by that with ease on the open market.
Not everyone is such an easy call, though.
Things can always change, but as things stand right now, there are some serious question marks when it comes to some opt-out clauses here in the next few years. Let's take a quick look.
Justin Upton: This one will be very interesting. Upton was awful for much of 2016, but he closed by hitting .309/.397/.765 with 18 homers in his last 38 games. This year, he's slashing .261/.352/.503, which is good for a 130 OPS+. He can clearly still rake, even if the average will likely never be very good again. But at age 30, will a corner outfielder with power really grab four years and $88.5 million on the open market? That's what is left on his Tigers deal if he doesn't opt out.
Johnny Cueto: His case is mostly fun through the lens of whether or not the Giants are major sellers in front of the trade deadline this season. Cueto has four years and $84 million left on his deal if he doesn't opt out after this year, and it seems pretty certain he'd get that in free agency. Would a team take the chance on trading what they believe to be a rental package for him with the risk that he'd not opt out? Or, the opposite, would a team trading a big prospect package be hoping to convince Cueto to not opt out and stick with what's left on the deal? Of course, we should also consider that Cueto hasn't been very good this season (4.33 ERA, 95 ERA+) and he'll be 32 next year.
Masahiro Tanaka: Before this season started, it seemed obvious Tanaka would be hitting free agency after 2017, but right now he leads the AL in earned runs allowed and sports a woeful 6.55 ERA. He's mixed in some good performances, but has a 10.72 ERA in his last five starts (all Yankees losses). There are three years and $67 million left on his deal if he doesn't opt out and we have to consider that he has a partially torn ligament in his elbow. Remember, teams require players to pass physicals upon signing a contract in free agency.
Ian Kennedy: He's 32 years old and is 0-6 with a 5.33 ERA through 10 starts. From 2013 until this point, Kennedy has gone 40-55 with a 4.18 ERA (92 ERA+) and 1.30 WHIP. There are three years and $49 million left on his deal with the Royals. I know there's always a premium on able-bodied starting pitching, but I just can't see Kennedy coming close to getting three years and $49M on the open market at this point in his career.
Wei-Yin Chen: In 27 starts with the Marlins, he has a 4.85 ERA and is currently out indefinitely with an elbow injury. There are three years and $52 million left on his deal if he doesn't opt out. Do the math.
Jason Heyward: He is leaps and bounds better at the plate this season than he was last year, but he's still a below-average hitter (.256/.311/.399 entering Friday, good for an 88 OPS+). He's probably the best defensive right fielder in baseball and is a great baserunner. His baseball IQ is off the charts and he's an exceptional teammate. He's also due five years and $106 million after 2018 if he doesn't opt out. I just can't see anyone giving him that at this point. There's just too much offensive shortfall at a corner outfield position. There's plenty of time for a turnaround, though.
David Price: He led the majors in innings pitched last season and he's often toward the top of that leaderboard. That's a feature worth paying a premium. Of course, Price also led the majors in hits allowed and was bad again in the postseason. He's posted a 5.29 ERA in three starts since returning from a lengthy DL stint this year. His velocity is down nearly 2 miles per hour from where it was in 2014-15. After 2018, Price could opt out or he could decide to stay put for four years and $127 million. If he pitches back to form, he could easily get that. If he doesn't, that's a tough call. He'll be 33 years old in 2019 with a ton of wear on that left arm.
Heyward: If he doesn't opt out after 2018 and then gets 550 plate appearances in 2019, Heyward could then opt out. There are four years and $86 million left on the deal after 2019. It feels like the only way this is exercised if is he doesn't play overly well through 2018 but then explodes in 2019. Still, would a team give a guy coming off a possible fluke season that kind of money? Again, things change ... but it's hard to see Heyward not keeping his current deal intact.
Giancarlo Stanton: This is more a speculative exercise, because there's no way of knowing how Stanton fares or how the market alters in the years leading up to his opt-out clause after the 2020 season. Further, we don't know what the Marlins' new ownership group will be like or if Stanton might even be traded before then. But he'll be heading into his age-31 season with seven years and $208 million left on the deal. It's actually a guaranteed $218M, because there's a $25 million team option for 2028 that has a $10 million buyout, should the team decline the option. If I had to bet right now, I'd go with Stanton not opting out.