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More on Prince Fielder and Opt-Outs

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Don't make that face at me.
Don't make that face at me.

I wrote this piece on Prince Fielder and Rosenthal's mention of a desire for an opt-out clause in a bit of a hurry, which the attentive reader might have picked up on because the post didn't continue on and on as I am more likely to do because, dammit, it's more fun to explore the nuance than to reach a conclusion. Conclusions imply finality and very little of anything actually possesses finality.

And this is baseball, an ultimately minute concern, so we should feel free and even encouraged to playfully indulge in over-contemplation, knowing that failing to reach a solution suitable for a one-line media sound bite is not the end of the world, nor even our burden to begin with.

To that end, well, not end, but rather, to that goal I will wade back to the subject with a sort of response to some of the responses. Particularly, I found a few of the conclusions too absolutist in nature and therefore wanted to lay bare the entirety of my thoughts for now on the question. At the very least, reaching the end of all this will convey a slightly better idea of what I mean when I write "give it a think." I mean, in part, give it far too much thought before unequivocally stating a preference.

Mostly, my ire was raised by those who seemed to offhandedly dismiss the notion as not possibly beneficial to the team. That's ludicrous. There is clearly a possible benefit to the Mariners and if someone can't think of one, then I suggest that person retire from commenting about baseball until he or she gain some more experience in following it.

That is, of course, not saying there's always a benefit to the Mariners. "Opt out = always good for Mariners" is just as silly a thing to posit as "opt out = never good for Mariners". There have to be benefits exclusive to the players' side of course, otherwise teams would unrelentingly love player opt-out options, which would be a ridiculous extrapolation and a pointless avenue of discussion. But those benefits might end up mutual is the main point that I wanted people to realize. Parts of it would be good, parts of it would be bad and on the whole it could go either way, with perhaps a weighted mean showing a preference one way or another. That's what's potentially interesting! Not so much claims that there are no benefits at all to one of the parties.

For instance, say that if after three years (a hypothetical example), Fielder has performed well. He would almost certainly opt out and cost the Mariners the option of trading away Fielder's net positive future expected value. Sure. That's a possibility. It's not the entirety of course, and, I counter, how big of a risk is that really? Fielder isn't Michael Pineda or Matt Moore or even Adrian Beltre circa winter 2004. We're reasonably sure of Fielder's ceiling and we're reasonably sure he's going to be signing a contract that pays him to perform at a level very close to his ceiling for many many years.

How much excess future value could one really, rationally expect Fielder to produce between 2012 and 2014? Keeping in mind that said excess value actually belongs to and is banked by the Mariners. All they'd theoretically lose out on is the ability, in this circumstance, to swap an expectation of the continuation of that surplus, for something perhaps more secure, provided the Mariners find a willing partner.

How likely is all that? And how important is ensuring that cannot happen versus hedging some risk in the other possible scenarios? Put another way, operating under the assumption that adding a player opt-out to the deal (ostensibly a player's benefit) lowers the average yearly salary the team needs to get Fielder to sign, here's my breakdown on the possibilities.

Prince Fielder underperforms the contract before the option. In this case, the team is likely stuck anyways and now is probably pretty fain about having included the option and lowering their cost. Of course, there exists the possibility that some factors could conspire to convince Fielder and his agent that he could land a still better deal, or location, elsewhere on the free market and thus opt out. To the relief of the Mariners.

Prince Fielder performs to the contract before the option. In this case, who knows? But I imagine that, given the nature of baseball contracts and such, that I, in a vacuum, would be a bit worried about how the next five years will go (since players rarely get better from 31-34 compared to 28-30) and so wouldn't be terribly bothered about Fielder cutting out should he choose so. There's the chance that the Mariners could be entering a period wherein they truly need a player like Fielder on their roster, but of course they still don't walk away empty-handed. They get loads of payroll space freed up.

Prince Fielder overperforms the contract before the option. At this point, the Mariners have tucked away some surplus value and Fielder likely takes his option and heads back to free agency for a new long-term deal to pay him beginning with his age 31 season. That's not bad for the Mariners. It's potentially bad for the Mariners and I'm not being trivial in making that distinction.

It's only bad for the Mariners if they lose out on future value that they would not have lost out on should the player option not have existed. That requires a few things to transpire.

Either, Fielder would have to continue to provide surplus value over the next five years (under the hypothetical). That's usually a tough task to begin with and remember, he'd be held to a higher standard (read: salary) under the no-opt-out contract. Or, the Mariners would have to cash in (read: trade) Fielder at some point before he went south. That's possible, but again, how likely? Remember, this is assuming that Fielder is currently outperforming a contract that's probably paying him to be a 4-5 WAR player. How often do teams trade that?

It feels to me that a few people are extraordinarily focusing their concerns on that latter scenario. It's like reading some perverse loss-aversion reactions to the possibility that Prince Fielder in 2015 could still be a 5 WAR hitter when really, I think it should be the entire other way around. A player opt-out does, under narrow circumstances, limit the upside of a deal. That criticism is far more applicable to up-and-coming players than players already at their peak, but I'll grant it. However, the opt out, even though not under the team's control, does lower their risk. And that's a great benefit to a team.

Frankly, given how (correctly) often it's repeated that free agency is an awful way to build a team, I expected that anyone confronted with an opportunity to dabble in free agency with the hint of possibly escaping an excruciating collapse at the expense of a mild bit of upside would be, on the whole, for it. I assumed the debate would be more about whether it would be preferable after year three or four, or how much per year would be a suitable discount for offering him one.

In conclusion that's not actually a conclusion, I think the idea of Prince Fielder having an option to opt out of his contract roughly half way through it (per the usual) has some pluses and it has some minuses, that in neither case are they extremely weighted to either side, but that ultimately most of the benefits are mutual, the downside is not all that bad and that I have taken 1,300 words to impart that because nobody should skimp on exposition.