Prince Fielder, Opt-Outs, And A Contract I Would Support
It’s no secret that I’ve been generally opposed to the idea of giving Prince Fielder a long term, big money contract. I think his value on the field is fairly overrated and the side benefits of having him on the team are mostly made up and unsupported by facts. In general, I’d rather the team spread their money around to fill multiple holes and upgrade the roster rather than going all-in on Fielder, and have said that my maximum offer to Fielder would be something like $120 million over six years. Even if the market for Fielder never does develop in any real way, that seems unlikely to get it done, as it’s hard to see Boras letting Fielder settle for a contract less than what Adrian Gonzalez got back in March, when he wasn’t even a free agent.
Now, reports are beginning to surface that not only is Boras looking for a lot of guaranteed money, he’s also going to look for an opt-out clause for his client as well. This would give Fielder the duel benefits of long term security (if he performs poorly or gets hurt) as well as the ability to raise his future earnings if he performs well. It’s a win-win for the player, and in general, opt-outs are a terrible idea for an organization. In most cases, an opt-out for a player essentially eliminates any chance the contract has to turn out in the organization’s favor, while still saddling the team with all the risks of a long term guarantee to a player who might not be worth the price.
However, I do believe there is a way that the Mariners could satisfy Boras’ need to beat prior precedent (in this case, the Gonzalez extension), give him the opt-out clause that would let Fielder potentially increase his earnings by hitting free agency again in a few years, and make the contract work for the organization. In fact, including the opt-out might be the best way for the Mariners to make a run at Fielder while still keeping the contract offer to a reasonable price.
To help Boras save face, let’s put the total value of the contract at $155 million over seven years, $1 million more than what Gonzalez got from Boston on his extension. It’s not Mark Teixeira money, but Fielder isn’t as valuable as Teixeira was when he reached free agency and the Yankees aren’t involved in the bidding here, so Boras will just have to go pound sand if he’s set on beating that mark. 7/155 at least gets him a deal that won’t look like a total failure, especially if he can flaunt that he also got an opt-out for Fielder that could let him land another big deal in a few years.
How does 7/155 with an opt-out work for the Mariners? Simply put, you structure the salaries so that the organization gets a lot of the projected value from the contract up front, to the point where Fielder would have to perform at an elite level in order to want to use the opt-out. For instance, the annual salaries could go something like this:
2012: $13 million
2013: $16 million
2014: $16 million
2015: $25 million (player option for remainder of contract)
2016: $25 million
2017: $25 million
2018: $30 million
2019: $25 million (team option, $5 million buyout)
This contract would essentially break down into three parts – $45 million guaranteed over the first three years, then Fielder would have an option to exercise four more years for $105 million, with the team finally having the ability to void the eighth year for a final $5 million. It could shake out as being 3/45 (if Fielder opts out), 7/155 (if Fielder doesn’t opt-out and team buys out final year), or 8/175 (if Fielder doesn’t opt out and team picks up eighth year option).
By significantly backloading the salaries until after Fielder’s opt-out, it essentially transfers nearly all of the potential surplus value from the deal into the first three seasons. Most long term contracts are value for the team at the front end and value for player at the back end, but this kind of aggressive backloading would shift that even further, and would ensure that the team would have already received nearly 100% of the value of the contract before he opts-out. If he plays well enough to justify walking away from 4/110 in order to get another guaranteed year or two tacked on (much like what CC Sabathia just did with New York), then this deal will have almost certainly worked out for the Mariners, as he’d have had to have been a monster in his first three years to forfeit a $27.5M AAV from ages 31-34.
While an opt-out on a balanced salary contract is essentially lose-lose for the team, the terms could be structured in such a way that would greatly reduce the odds of there being much value lost by the organization if the opt-out is exercised. Essentially, you make Fielder walk away from so much money that there’s no real chance that the team would be losing a significant asset, even if Fielder had performed well and justified his price tag.
The opt-out would give Fielder the flexibility to say that he’s giving the organization a chance to turn themselves around while he and Felix are both on the team, but he’s not locked into a potential loser for the rest of his career. It would also give him a chance to opt-out and negotiate those last couple of option years into guaranteed years if he performs well, and Boras could sell the contract as having total potential value near Teixeira’s deal and being superior to what Gonzalez got. It might not be the contract of Boras’ dreams, but in this market, it’s probably at least a competitive offer.
Yes, it takes my 6/120 maximum and throws it out the window, adding an extra year and $35 million in guaranteed money that I think could probably be spent better by pursuing a different strategy. However, the low base salaries over the next three years reduce the strain of having two market value stars on the payroll at the same time, giving the team the flexibility to potentially still pursue other upgrades. In this scenario, the team could potentially still afford to go after a guy like Will Venable and perhaps a decent veteran third baseman as well.
It would also essentially give the team a three year window to win with Felix/Fielder as the core of the team. If they managed to turn it around and challenge for the AL West, attendance and revenues would likely improve, and the team could get a bump from their television contract in 2015 that would help them absorb another extension for Felix and Fielder sticking around for his big paydays at the back end of his contract. If it didn’t work, Felix would probably be trade bait, and Fielder might be more inclined to opt-out and go somewhere else, at which point the team would be free of both of their big money obligations, allowing the team to reboot and go in another direction.
It’s not the plan I would pursue if I was Jack Z, but if the team is serious about making Fielder a competitive offer without hamstringing the organization, this is probably the best path they could take. By dangling the opt-out clause to get an extremely backloaded contract and a lower AAV than Boras might want otherwise, the team might be able to make an offer that gives Fielder enough flexibility to accept the deal. If they’re dead set on getting closer to $200 million guaranteed, the team should just walk away, but if Boras is open to this kind of deal, then there might be room for a contract that could work for both sides.