When it comes to opt-out clauses, the New York Yankees tend to opt in.
They aren’t always happy about it. They don’t always do it right away. But when Alex Rodriguez opted out of his deal during the 2007 World Series, the Yankees turned around and gave him a bigger contract they would come to regret.
When CC Sabathia was ready to opt out of his contract four years later, the Yankees added what amounted to two years and $50 million, another deal they wouldn‘t mind having back.
So now we come to Masahiro Tanaka. As every Yankee fan knows, he’s the closest to a sure thing they have in their 2017 rotation. And as every Yankee fan knows by now, he can opt out of his contract when the 2017 season ends.
There’s no way the Yankees can make this work in their favor. If Tanaka has a great year, he obviously opts out of the final three years and $67 million of what was originally a seven-year, $155 million contract. Then the Yankees pay him market value—more than his current $22 million a year, and more years—or someone else does.
If Tanaka has a decent year and stays healthy, he still almost certainly opts out. Or threatens to, with the Yankees extending his contract.
Or maybe Tanaka gets hurt. He made 31 starts in 2016, but he is still pitching with a slight tear in the UCL in his right elbow. It could tear further, requiring Tommy John surgery. He could suffer a different injury. Either way, he sticks with his current contract, and the Yankees are stuck paying him.
The Yankees obviously know all this. They knew it when they agreed to Tanaka‘s original contract. Three years into the deal, they were either going to pay more to keep him or he wasn‘t going to be worth what they were paying him.
There was no way that could work in their favor. But opt-outs are part of getting big contracts done—David Price and Clayton Kershaw have them, too—and the only way around them is to offer even more guaranteed money.
The problem for the Yankees is they’re short on dependable starting pitching, even with Tanaka. They almost certainly need to shop in the starting pitching market next winter, even if Tanaka stays.
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Opt-outs always work in the players’ favor. Ask Alex Rodriguez, whose opt-out in 2007 got him a contract that will pay him $21 million in 2017.
Behind Tanaka, they have only Sabathia (who’s old) and Michael Pineda (who’s unreliable). Both their contracts expire after 2017 (which isn‘t necessarily a bad thing).
Behind them, the guy with the most career major league starts on the Yankees roster is Luis Severino, with 22. They’re not even sure he should be a starter.
The guy with the next most career starts is Adam Warren, with 21. They don’t want him to be a starting pitcher.
You get the picture, and you get why the Yankees would rather not think about Tanaka leaving.
So why not just eliminate the risk and renegotiate his contract now? Why did Yankees general manager Brian Cashman tell reporters, including Mike Mazzeo of the New York Daily News, that the Yankees have no plans to do that?
Simple. Even though a new contract eliminates the risk of Tanaka walking away, it adds the risk of getting stuck with an even bigger contract the Yankees don’t want.
Remember the $21 million they’re still paying A-Rod in 2017. Remember the $25 million they have committed to a 36-year-old Sabathia.
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While the ligament tear in his right elbow still represents a long-term risk, Tanaka was able to pitch a career-high 199.2 innings in 2016.
When Sabathia was ready to opt out in November 2011, he was 31 years old and had just finished fourth in the American League Cy Young vote. The new contract wasn‘t ideal, but Sabathia had averaged 235 innings over his first three seasons as a Yankee. He seemed like a decent risk.
Should the Yankees give Tanaka a new contract now?
Tanaka will be two years younger when he reaches his opt-out date, but he has yet to finish higher than ninth in Cy Young voting. He has yet to pitch 200 innings in a major league season (he did it in Japan). He has pitched significantly better when he gets an extra day of rest, complicating how the Yankees set up their rotation. And he has that ligament tear.
He’s not an ideal candidate for a long, expensive contract. But maybe he doesn’t need to be. Rich Hill, who is 36 and was hurt so much he only made 20 regular-season starts in 2016, got a three-year, $48 million deal from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Starting pitching is expensive, and it’s only getting more expensive. The Yankees know that, and so does Tanaka.
They’ll take their chances and hope he pitches well enough to lift them into contention in the American League East this year. If it costs them more money and a contract they don’t love, so be it.
They really have little other choice, at this point.
That opt-out clause is going to work out well for him, one way or another. It won’t work out as well for the Yankees.
Opt-out clauses rarely do.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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