Players and teams had until the end of Friday to exercise their options, whether it was a team option, a player option, or a mutual option. That included Cincinnati Reds outfielder Nick Castellanos, who chose to stay with the organization for at least the 2021 season. If a team or a player decided to turn down the option, the player becomes a free agent.
Teams signaled before the season even ended that they weren’t going to be spending money in the offseason on free agents. With the last few days of seeing how teams have been declining nearly every option on players that they can, it’s become evident just how much money they are trying to save after a season with no fans in the stands.
Take Brad Hand for example. Since the start of 2016 he’s posted a 2.70 ERA with 104 saves, 434 strikeouts, a 1.07 WHIP, and a 157 ERA+ in 320.0 innings pitched. Last season with Cleveland he posted a 2.05 ERA in 22.0 innings with four walks and 29 strikeouts. The Indians declined his option for $10M, and every team in baseball could have had him for that same price as he went through waivers in the process, and not a single team felt one of the best relievers in baseball was worth that price heading into this offseason.
All of these options being declined has changed the free agent class in ways that maybe we didn’t foresee back when spring training began. And with the impending non-tender date coming up in just over a month, the free agent market will likely get stronger as players who would normally never be non-tendered due to small raises (in comparison to what they’d get as free agents) become available to every team.
There have been some good players who have not had their options picked up and become free agents. Charlie Morton had his option declined by Tampa Bay at $15M. In 2019 he finished 3rd in the Cy Young Award voting. Last season he threw just 38.0 innings for the Rays, then threw 20.0 more innings in the postseason with five walks and 23 strikeouts to go with a 3.15 ERA.
Where the Reds, or any other team could separate themselves is by going out and spending money this offseason to add talent. Most teams have signaled they aren’t going to spend. They are opting instead to cut talent rather than pay for it. Is it likely that the Cincinnati Reds would look to add payroll? History doesn’t suggest that they would. But history didn’t suggest they would go out and sign Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos, or Shogo Akiyama last offseason. History also didn’t suggest that they would go out and trade for a Trevor Bauer in July two seasons ago. But those things did happen.
There’s an old saying in some other sport about zigging when others are zagging. This offseason seems to be the one where the team that chooses to
zig spend when everyone else is zagging cutting payroll, that team could really put themselves in a situation to get out in front of their division. Maybe it could be the Reds if Bob Castellini and the minority members of the ownership group are willing to write the checks. Whoever it is that does decide that they can make it work, though, could really stand out from the pack this winter and have that investment pay off in 2021.