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A look at Aroldis Chapman’s opt-out with the Yankees

Will the Yankees closer consider exercising his opt-out clause after the 2019 season?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, the Yankees broke the bank to sign Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million contract. The deal set the record for the largest contract ever signed by a relief pitcher, one that still stands today. Remember when the Yankees used to break records in free agency?

That deal, of course, represented an uncomfortable piece of arbitrage by Brian Cashman and the Yankees. Cashman acquired Chapman as a distressed asset, with Chapman’s standing unknown after his involvement in a domestic violence incident in the fall of 2015. After picking up Chapman for pennies on the dollar and rehabilitating his value in the first half of 2016, the Yankees flipped him at the trade deadline to the Cubs for a stellar package headlined by stud prospect Gleyber Torres. The story came full circle when the Yankees ultimately brought back Chapman in free agency.

Chapman’s five-year deal also included a full no-trade clause for the first three years, as well as an opt-out clause after year three. Now, after two seasons of scintillating relief performance, Chapman stands one year away from being able to hit the free market again. What are the odds Chapman exercises his opt out, and joins Dellin Betances, Aaron Hicks, and Didi Gregorius among the several Yankees that can leave after 2019?

Since signing with New York, Chapman has been close to everything the team expected when they offered him that record-setting contract. Across 2017 and 2018, Chapman maintained a 2.83 ERA, good for 157 ERA+. He’s fanned over 14 batters per nine innings, fifth among qualified relievers in that span.

A couple of blemishes dot his record over the past couple years. Chapman has dealt with minor injuries, limiting him to 50.1 innings in 2017 and 51.1 innings in 2018 after averaging over 60 innings per season in the five years prior. He’s seen his control waver at times, with Chapman’s BB/9 rate rising from 2.8 in 2016 to 3.6 in 2017 and to 5.3 in 2018.

In all, he’s been something short of the best reliever in baseball with the Yankees, instead ending up on the short-list of the top relief pitchers that you would most want on the mound with the game in the balance. Does that level of performance put him in line to opt out after 2019?

Chapman is due $17.2 million a season for each of the next three years. Steamer projections peg Chapman to pretty much replicate what he’s done with the Yankees, projecting him for a 2.76 ERA and over 13 strikeouts per nine in 2019. Should Chapman come close to his median projection, he would face the question of whether he could beat two years and $34.4 million on the open market.

Based on baseball’s economics through most of history, the answer would seem to be yes. Chapman set the bar at about $17 million per season for elite relievers. Kenley Jansen pretty much held to that standard when he signed for $80 million and five years with the Dodgers. Craig Kimbrel has yet to sign, but the expectation was for him to sign for right around $17 milllion a year. MLB Trade Rumors predicted Kimbrel would fetch $17.5 million a season this winter, while FanGraphs crowd-sourcing pegged Kimbrel for $16 million annually.

Another quality year from Chapman would leave him line to essentially re-up at his current rate, but perhaps for a longer-term. He’s still only 30 years old, and while his velocity has dipped a bit, he still is among the very hardest throwers in the game. Under baseball’s previous economic structure, if Chapman performed as expected in 2019, he’d be in line to opt out and receive something of a larger guarantee.

Complicating matters is the frozen state of baseball’s labor market. While Kimbrel was expected to sign at a similar per-year rate as Chapman, he obviously has yet to put pen to paper on a new contract. Neither have mega free agents Manny Macahdo and Bryce Harper. Baseball’s economics are changing, and not for the better in terms of player compensation.

So, Chapman probably stands to gain from opting out after next year if he feels the market will treat him the way it would have for most of MLB’s history. However, should Kimbrel, along with the other starry free agents still available, continue to find the market unforgiving, Chapman could be given pause. Suddenly, a two-year, $34.4 million guarantee might seem more appealing to Chapman, even if that guarantee previously would have been eminently beatable from his perspective not long ago.

All this puts to the side whether the Yankees, or their fans, should want to see Chapman opt out. The Yankees, in all likelihood, would like their closer to stick around, as would fans who exclusively care about Chapman’s abilities on the field. Plenty of other fans would likely take solace in Chapman leaving for other pastures, those who see MLB’s response to players like Chapman, among others implicated in domestic abuse, as insufficient, and a clear message to many that baseball doesn’t particularly care about them. For now, all we know is Chapman will pitch one more season in the Bronx. What happens next winter is in his hands.