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.

12 Responses

  1. CFD3000

    This IS a very interesting and important question Doug. The whole issue of service time is especially frustrating as a Reds fan. For the first time ever, the Reds front office made a major push to improve the team by signing free agents – Moustakas, Akiyama, Miley and Castellanos. And in addition to those four, Bauer and DeSclafani are free agent eligible in 2021. If there is no season or a very shortened one, all six of those guys are potentially gone in 2021, or one year closer to gone with nothing to show on the field. I think it’s critical that players have the individual option to stay home this year. But the price for that choice has to be a service time deferral. It would be a huge disappointment if, say, Castellanos opts out of 2020, then exercises his right to declare free agency for 2021. So much for the rebuild. That would just add insult to injury – no baseball in 2020 and loss of the best shot at a playoff spot in many years. I get that conquering this pandemic is priority one. Absolutely. But I’m pretty bummed that my only baseball news is doubly depressing right now.

  2. SultanofSwaff

    Interesting idea about a safety option. That said, I’d be shocked to see even a single player exercise it. These men get such a tiny window to earn enough money to set themselves and their families up for a very long time. To forego a full salary, one of maybe three or five (or more if they’re really good) they’ll likely collect for their life’s work to date is simply too tempting to pass up. It’s absolutely their right to refuse, but compared to the rest of us who don’t get all the protections with testing etc. these players will be afforded, I think the risks they’re taking pale by comparison.

  3. SultanofSwaff

    The expanded playoff format in the new proposal is encouraging. 7 of the 14 teams in each ‘league’ will get in. You have to like the Red’s chances in that setting.

  4. Jim Walker

    Well said.

    An additional group that would be interesting to watch in terms of a safety option is guys who would be eligible to be free agents after this season.

    At first take it would seem obvious they would want to play if they were comfortable with the safety risks. However, if they are coming off injury or a down year in 2019, those in a financial position to do so might choose to sit out in order to have (presumably) a full more ordinary season in 2021 to boost their FA market value. But then of course there would be the looming CBA negotiations which might also color such a decision.

    • Jim Walker

      Here’s a hypothetical to try and illustrate what I meant from above re: safety option . Let’s stick to Doug’s example above of Trevor Bauer. As things stand he has been paid around $30M in major league salaries for his career. His contract for 2020 is for $17.5M.

      An 80 game season with prorated salary in 2020 would earn him about half of that plus his share of pocket change from the contingency amount MLb committed to in the salary/ service time agreement.

      Bauer plays in 2020, gets his ~$9M and becomes a free agent for 2021.

      Bauer doesn’t play in 2020 and remains bound to is $17.5M contract for 2021 becoming free agent at the end if that season.

      By playing in 2020, he’s putting ~$9M at risk that he won’t get injured and will get a FA contract which will make up for that over time.

      If he defers, he gets the $17.5M in 2021 along with his free agency in what is likely going to be a better FA market moneywise than the market follow the 2020 season but still has the injury risk (there have been reports already teams are planning to low ball FAs after 2020 to recoup losses in revenue from the short season).

      Is it fair to guess there are probably agents crunching numbers like this weighing their evaluation of market conditions follow the 2 seasons and the safety risks this year and overall injury risks?

  5. Jim Walker

    Along the lines I was commenting above, take somebody like Albert Pujols. Under contract thru next year at $29M this season and $30M next, “fully guaranteed” per Cot’s.

    Financially speaking, if he has the option to defer this season, why wouldn’t he? He’d give away $14.5M by participating in an 80 game season; and, at his age, be not likely to recoup on the back end.

  6. Jim Walker

    A real elephant sitting in the corner of room is the possibility an 80 or 100 game season starts but never finishes due to a second wave of virus surge (check what’s happening in S.Korea and China right now).

    What happens then in terms of player salaries? Do they get the full 100/ 80 game prorate salary or only the amount for the games that were actually played by their team?

    This is likely why the owners are rumored to be floating a set % of revenue split with the players.

    You and I both follow hockey and know the salary escrow system to manage a hard split like this in the NHL is at the top of the list of things that may cause a labor war at the next CBA negotiation in that league. Are the players MLB going to accept a hard split with the attendant circumstances that could interrupt play or result in decreasing revenue?

  7. Doug Gray

    They get to negotiate that stuff.

    • Jim Walker

      What have the owners negotiated among themselves? Does every team get an equal cut of all the 2020revenue?

      What happens if (the rumored) 48% for players doesn’t cover a team’s salary commitments under the prorated plan?

  8. Melvin

    Another interesting article Doug. It’s easy to tell you’re passionate about the Reds and have a lot of wisdom and knowledge to go with it. If players like Bauer and Castellanos choose to forfeit their 2020 season because of health risks then pushing back their current contract to the next year makes sense to me with maybe a reduction in pay for the last year like you said or maybe even the last couple of years depending on the contract. I’m going to stop right there this time as some times I feel like I maybe talk to much on here and the Strat-O-Matic season. LOL I love to talk Reds baseball though especially being bored to death without a season to watch right now.

  9. RedNat

    I think the optics will be worse for the game of baseball than for the individual players if there is no mlb this year. And again 2020 mlb does not have to be masterpiece brand of baseball. it just has to give the country hope in a time of tragedy.

    Look, if Mike Trout and the like don’t want to play because of health concerns that is fine. they should not be considered cowards or disparaged in anyway. But the owners need to put some type of product out there this year. If the quality isn’t the best, trust me the fans will understand. And they will consider the players that are risking their lives true heroes!