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A look at Giancarlo Stanton’s opt-out question after one year with the Yankees

The Yankees have a couple of opt-out questions looming, none more important than Giancarlo Stanton’s.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, I examined Aroldis Chapman’s opt-out clause that would allow him to re-enter free agency after the 2019 season. Chapman’s the only player that could opt out of his contract with the Yankees after this year, but he’s not the only Yankee with a very interesting impending opt-out question. Giancarlo Stanton’s opt-out clause looms two years in the distance, and after one year in pinstripes, the picture regarding Stanton’s contract status is ever murkier.

Part of the reason the Yankees’ pursuit of Stanton last winter was so fascinating was the complicating factor of his opt-out clause. When the Yankees acquired Stanton, he was owed $295 million over 10 years, $77 million of which was guaranteed over the first three years, after which Stanton could opt-out. The question became how exactly to view Stanton. Was he a superstar to be acquired for a three-year term? Was the team signing up for a decade of Stanton? Was his contract a steal, or an albatross?

Ultimately, the Yankees sent a couple of half-interesting prospects and Starlin Castro to the Marlins in return for Stanton and $30 million. Regardless of exactly how you saw Stanton and his contract, the deal was a coup for New York; given the team’s revenues, the Yankees should be connected with every superstar-caliber player that becomes available. That the cost was merely two low-level prospects and a league-average second baseman made Stanton’s acquisition a no-brainer.

That being said, Stanton’s opt-out still stands to make the situation more complex. One season into his tenure in the Bronx, what are the chances Stanton exercises his opt-out? Have the circumstances changed at all since his acquisition by the Yankees?

Stanton’s debut season in New York has been much-discussed. It feels pessimistic to label Stanton’s campaign as disappointing, but it certainly was a step down from his 2017 season. After smashing 59 homers and winning the NL MVP, Stanton hit 38 homers with the Yankees in 2018, running a .266/.343/.509 slash line. He was worth a bit over 4 WAR according to both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, meaning he was more All-Star-caliber rather than MVP-caliber.

At times, Stanton carried the team, and at others, he seemed to press. It was an uneven season, but still a good one by anyone other than an MVP’s standards. Now, Stanton enters his age-29 season. In spite of his slight drop-off last year, projection systems are still optimistic. Steamer currently projects Stanton to bounce back, to the tune of a .267/.354/.570 slash line and 45 bombs.

Where would that leave Stanton, one year away from his opt-out clause? Probably in a similar to place to where Chapman is now. I concluded that Chapman, under baseball’s historic economic structure, would stand to gain from opting out, but might take the security of his current deal in the face of an ice-cold labor market. Stanton might face a similar set of questions as well.

Should Stanton maintain his level of production, around 4-to-5 WAR, he’d be faced with hitting the open market as a 31-year-old, or sticking with the Yankees, due $218 million over seven more years. That $31 annual guarantee, in most other years across baseball’s history, would appear to be beatable for Stanton.

From a cold $/WAR perspective, FanGraphs pegged Stanton’s 2018 contributions as worth over $33 million, even in a down year. Normally, we could assume that the price of one WAR on the market would continue to increase into the future, and that Stanton would easily be able to tack on another guaranteed year or two, or perhaps up his annual rate somewhat.

If that sounds outlandish to you, remember that Robinson Cano signed for $240 million at age-31 five years ago. Albert Pujols got the same guarantee as a 32-year-old in 2012. Stanton isn’t the player Pujols was in his prime, but he is of a similar caliber to Cano. Typical inflation would put Stanton, even as he entered his 30’s, in position to match or top Pujols and Cano’s guarantees.

Yet we run into the same problem we did with Chapman; we have no idea if opting out into this market will be a good idea for players. Teams are ever-more reticent to invest heavily in free agents, with less incentive to spend to win than ever. Should the labor market continue to prove hostile to players, Stanton may look at his $218 million guarantee and sit tight in New York. This is before even taking into account that Stanton’s aging curve may not look typical. A man of his size may prefer to take the safe route and not opt out, rather than ask hyper risk-averse teams to bet on the graceful aging of an unique, 6-foot-6 behemoth.

It’s hard to project something like this two years out, but given the way the past two offseasons have played out, I would personally bet my money on Stanton sticking around. If we were all playing by the same rules as before, where teams understood that they’d have to pay up in free agency after underpaying players through their team-control years, then Stanton would stand to re-up nicely with his opt-out. In this increasingly harsh market for players, however, the safe play is looking like staying for Stanton. Plenty can change over the course of two years, but this is where we stand as of now.