Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman made headlines earlier this week when a report from Ken Rosenthal came out suggesting that he’d “one million percent” opt out of his contract after the 2019 season. Chapman later refuted the report in an interview and on social media, calling himself a “Yankee 100%.”
Regardless of truth, the whole fiasco was an unfriendly reminder that Chapman reserves the right to change teams next year. Chapman’s record five-year, $86 million contract signed before the 2017 season contains an opt-out after year three, which is this season.
But, should Chapman even want to opt out? After all, he’s got a pretty good thing going on with the Yankees right now, both in terms of performance and finances. If he were to opt out, Chapman would be walking away from two years and $34.4 million in guaranteed money. That’s a lot of cash to leave on the table, especially with the unpredictability of modern-day MLB free agency.
First, consider the seven most expensive contracts signed by relief pitchers in this year’s market:
A couple of things stand out here. For one, those are all brand names, but the only ones who have actually pitched up to expectations this year are Britton and Ottavino, which is incredibly fortuitous for the Yankees. Every other name on that list has bombed this year, which serves as proof for the idea that relievers are often too volatile to be worth too much guaranteed money. Good relievers aren’t usually good for that long, which makes guys like Chapman special.
And let’s be clear, Chapman is still very good. He’s made back to back All-Star teams to kick off his 30s and is still among the hardest throwers in the big leagues. His strikeout rate has declined a bit this year, but it’s still stellar. His improved walk rate helps offset the slight decrease in strikeouts. There aren’t many lockdown closers anymore, but for those that exist, Chapman sits in the upper-echelons. He’s a top-five relief arm in the league.
That said, just by looking at the market, Chapman will likely have a hard time topping anything over three years and $50 million on his next contract. Kimbrel was the closer on a World Series team, and he sat around until June. His contract was even’t record shattering. In fact, he’ll only make exactly half of what Chapman is currently making in total money over the course of his deal.
The reason a player opts out is if he thinks he can fetch a contract worth more than he currently has guaranteed. While I have no doubts that a team would commit two years and $34.4 million for Chapman, I don’t think anyone would top the $50 million threshold. The only reliever who has gotten more than $50 million since Chapman signed his contract is Wade Davis, and look how that’s turned out for Colorado. It’s an investment they’d love to have back.
Again, Chapman is a better pitcher than all of those other guys, Davis included. Still, he’s already losing some of his velocity and becoming ever-so-slightly more hittable. Who knows what he’ll look like in three years at age 34?
Should Chapman decide to opt out and pursue more money, the Yankees would have to seriously consider pursuing him. The team is firmly in win-now mode, and I am personally willing to deal with a potentially watered-down Chapman in three years if it means the team gets one or two more years of his prime. The super-bullpen the Yankees have assembled would look a whole lot more beatable without Chapman closing things down in the ninth.
So, what happens? Think about two recent Yankees opt-out candidates for comparison. Masahiro Tanaka elected not to use his opt-out after the 2017 season, but it was understandable why. He wasn’t coming off of his strongest season and he was owed more years and money (three years and $67 million) than Chapman.
A better example might be CC Sabathia after 2011. Sabathia was still in his prime, and could have walked away from four years and $92 million. Instead, Sabathia reworked his contract to tack on an extra year at $30 million in salary, bringing the remainder of the deal to five years and $122 million.
I think the most likely scenario is that the Yankees agree to a similar contract extension with Chapman. Another year at his current salary would bring the total investment to three years and $51.6 million, and the Yankees could add a little bit more if they had to. I know I previously said that $50 million seemed like a hard cap on relievers this offseason, but Chapman is a guy worth breaking that for.
Opting out after this season would be a tremendous gamble for Chapman. He’s still an All-Star closer, but in a tough market, he’d be hard-pressed to top what the Yankees are currently on the books to pay him. The best-case scenario would be for him to stick around on his current deal, but a short-term, one-year extension could be the perfect way to make both sides feel like they won.