When we normally talk about player options in Major League Baseball we are speaking of the ability for a team to move a player back-and-forth between the majors and minors without penalty. In 99% of cases, a player has three seasons in which they can be optioned as many times during the season between the majors and minors. In rare cases a player will qualify for a fourth year in which that can apply to them. Once their number of option seasons are up a team can still try to send that player to the minors, but another team could claim them before that happens if they are willing to keep that player on the big league roster.
Today we’re going to talk a little bit about another player option and how it may only apply for the 2020 season. This week, as we noted yesterday, Major League Baseball is expected to send a proposal to the Major League Baseball Players Association with plans on how to, and when they want to start the season back up. There have been some leaked details about what could possibly be in that proposal, but we’ll have to wait and see how much of that was actually true.
This weekend, Dan Szymborski brought up an interesting question at Fangraphs – and one we’ve had more than a few commenters here at Redleg Nation bring up as well over the last month or so – will players be able to opt out of playing in 2020 even if the union votes to move forward to play?
While an overwhelming majority of the players themselves are in an incredibly low-risk category for death from COVID-19, that isn’t true for all players. There are cancer survivors playing in Major League Baseball. There are a few players who have had heart surgery playing Major League Baseball. Players exist that have underlying health conditions that we know about (and there are probably a few out there that have some that they don’t know about, too) that put them at a higher risk than the majority.
But it’s also not just about the players themselves. Not every player has a 100% uncompromised family situation, either. Perhaps they have a wife, kids, parent(s) that they live with who would also fall into a more risky category for a variety of reasons. And, of course, that simply also ignores that even if it’s just getting really, really sick – this isn’t exactly something you want to catch. There are plenty of people that are asymptomatic and never get any inclination at all that they’ve contracted it – and another percentage that get it and only have mild symptoms. But we’ve also seen real damage done to people’s lungs, livers, kidneys, etc as a result of catching this virus and getting sick from it. There’s often a focus on just the risk of death when the public talks about the rates, but it’s a lot more than that. And some players have spoken publicly about their concerns for not just their health – but others, too.
As we’ve seen these “plans” leak out over the last month, it seems that we’ve gotten to the point where Major League Baseball got enough feedback from the players – even if it was just public feedback – that they weren’t willing to quarantine away from their entire families simply to play baseball. So MLB backed away from those plans and is now shooting for plans to play in the host cities so that players can live at home with their families. That plan seems to be playing a little bit better, at least publicly, among the players.
So the question is, if the players union gets enough votes to allow the season to go on, what will be the options for players who simply don’t want to take that risk to play? As things are agreed upon right now, if a season in 2020 doesn’t happen, the players still get their service time based on what they got in the 2019 season. But what if the season takes place but a player chooses that they can’t take that risk? It may be one thing if the player is a guy who was a fringe 40-man roster player. Perhaps a team could just place that player on the restricted list, or simply release him. But what if that player is, say, Clayton Kershaw? That puts the team in a very different situation.
It will be interesting to see if, and this could be a real interesting if, the players association goes to Major League Baseball after they see their proposal with something about allowing players to opt out of the 2020 season due to safety concerns.
Let’s assume that the union were to approve playing, but wanted to still have that “safety option” available, how could that work? One situation would be that a player could opt to not play in 2020, but would not accrue any service time at all for 2020. Using Trevor Bauer as an example because he’s an easy guy to work with here since he’s a free agent following the year – if he were to use the “safety option”, he would remain under contract with the Reds for 2021 under the same salary structure he would have been under for 2020. Let’s use another Reds as an example and look at Nick Castellanos – let’s say he were to use the “safety option”, he would just have his entire contract pushed forward as if he signed it following the 2020 season – meaning he can’t opt out for free agency until after the 2021, or the 2022 seasons instead of after the 2020 or the 2021 seasons.
With how teams want to pay more for the early parts of free agent deals and less for the later years, maybe something happens where there’s a reduction for the final year of a free agent contract if a player were to use a “safety option” year – maybe something like a 10% reduction on that last year’s salary to exercise their option.
As noted by Szymborski in his piece, Collin McHugh told this to Chris Cotillo of MassLive on the Fenway Rundown podcast:
We’re in a situation right now where you can’t make this mandatory. You can’t tell a guy, ‘You have to come play or else your roster spot is not going to be here when you come back.’ You can’t tell a guy to risk his life and the life of his family and the lives of anyone he chooses to be around to come play this game. There’s probably going to have to be some waivers signed and whatever else you need to have done to make guys feel comfortable coming back.
There are players who are going to feel this way. And there’s probably more than a few of them among the 1200 players that the players association represents. How the two sides work around that situation may be the second biggest hurdle they’ve got to figure out in order to get an agreement in place.