Vesting years or options aren't necessarily player-friendly or club-friendly; it all depends on the negotiation. I suspect that in many cases, it's a compromise between an extra guaranteed year and a club option, but it could also be something proposed by a player representative to improve on an existing offer.
There are, however, differences between easily obtainable vesting years and ones that aren't. For Matt Harrison to get his 2018 club option guaranteed, he'd need to pitch 600 innings in a three-year period, which is a difficult feat for just about any pitcher. On the other side of the spectrum are simple plate appearances thresholds, like the 550 plate-appearance mark that would give both Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn guaranteed salaries for 2017.
I scanned the excellent Cot's Baseball Contracts for keywords like "vest" or "guarantee" to compile a list of player contracts with some kind of vesting option that is technically active. By my count, there are 35 such contracts in MLB, but in four cases, public information is incomplete—and there are probably options I've missed.
The Phillies dominated the list, with six players currently having vesting options; the next-most such contracts for a particular team was three, a distinction the Tigers, Rangers, Dodgers and Giants all shared. Handing out vesting options is habit-forming, it seems; only six teams had a single player on the list, and of those, three had their contracts handed out by a previous regime (or different team entirely).
From the list of 35, there are 16 players who were in a position to affect whether or not an option would vest based on 2014 performance (I'm excluding Matt Harrison and Brandon League, both of whom were only able to affect the dollar amount of a vesting option with 2014 play). Of the 16, 12 concern vesting options for the 2015 season. Let's start with those first.
2015 Vesting Years: Likely
Of those 12, just two have good shots of vesting 2015 options:
Dan Haren: Dan Haren is the only starting pitcher on the list of 12, and he is one of the few that have even an outside shot at having a 2015 option vest. Haren has a player option guaranteed at $10 million if he finishes with at least 180 innings pitched this season (and the performance bonuses from his 2014 deal would then transfer to 2015 as well). He's at 156 innings right now, and with Josh Beckett and Hyun-Jin Ryu on the shelf, Haren isn't going anywhere. He has at least four, and possibly five starts left; to finish with 24 more innings, he'd have to either average six innings per start the rest of the way, or get that fifth start (in which case an early-inning implosion could still threaten his chances).
Jimmy Rollins: The Phillies have done some interesting things with vesting years recently. Chase Utley's contract carries a series of vesting years, from 2016 through 2018, which all vest based on 550 PA. If he doesn't reach that threshold in a year preceding the vesting year, the guarantee switches to a club option for between $5 million and $11 million, all depending on PA. That's the kind of contract you give a guy who you have health concerns about, but about whom you have some confidence that he'll produce if he's playing — and there are shades of the John Lackey deal in there, too, considering that Utley would pay for missed time through a reduction in salary the following year. Next to that, the contract of Jimmy Rollins seems uncomplicated: he need only reach the 600 PA threshold in 2014 (or 1,100 PA in 2013-2014). Well, with one caveat: either he needs to avoid the DL at the end of September, or, if he is hurt, he has to hope that a "mutually agreed-on doctor" deems him available for the beginning of 2015. The good news for Rollins: even though he's still a touch short of 600 PA this year, he's got 1,258 already from the last two seasons. All he needs to do is not get hurt at the end of the year.
2015 Vesting Years: Unlikely
The other 10? Not so much. And while a one-year sample of vesting years doesn't tell us much, it does seem to suggest that most vesting options don't end up being guaranteed. See what I mean:
Alex Avila: Avila's $5.4 million club option for 2015 would have become guaranteed if he had made the All-Star Team this year, which didn't happen. He could also see it vest if he finishes in the top 15 of the MVP vote or wins a Silver Slugger, both of which won't happen. In the end, this shouldn't affect Avila; the Tigers will almost definitely exercise the club option anyway, barring some kind of catastrophic injury. Although relatively simple, Avila's vesting option is one of the more bizarre on this list, because if he had triggered it, he'd almost certainly be worth more than $5.4 million per year on the open market — and in that event, the club probably would have exercised its option anyway.
Nick Punto: Punto's 2015 club option for $2.75 million was due to vest so long as he spent less than 30 days on the DL this season. Unfortunately, Punto was placed on the DL on August 3 with a hamstring injury and has not yet returned; as you read this, Punto is either just about to lose that guarantee or has just lost it. Either way, he'll get at least a $250,000 buyout, and there's a good chance the Athletics will exercise their option anyway. This does not appear to be an example of gamesmanship; last week Punto started batting practice, but also wasn't yet running at full speed.
Justin Smoak: Smoak's deal called for a 2015 club option to vest if Smoak had 525 PA this season. After a 2013 campaign that saw him post a solidly above average 111 wRC+, Smoak didn't do much to help himself get that option to vest according a contract he signed in February. Smoak is back on the active roster now, but a quad injury put him on the DL at the end of June for nearly a month. Other than a brief 10-day visit in July, Smoak had spent the rest of the season on optional assignment with Triple-A Tacoma, showing once again that where there's Smoak, there's a dumpster fire. 525 PA was an attainable goal, but it's no longer attainable now, with a 260-PA shortfall to make up in less than a month. Given that Logan Morrison was not exactly killing the ball in July (33 wRC+) before turning it on in August (110 wRC+), you be the judge as to whether Smoak's vesting clause played a role in him remaining in Triple-A for such a large chunk of the season.
Rickie Weeks: When Weeks signed an extension with the Brewers in February 2011, he was coming off a season in which he led all MLB in plate appearances, with 754. So the terms of his vesting option for 2015 seem reasonable in hindsight, even if that doesn't matter now. Weeks was due to make $11.5M in 2015 so long as he was healthy at the end of 2014 and met a plate appearances threshold: either 600 PA in 2014 or 1,200 PA in 2013-2014. Unfortunately for Weeks, Scooter Gennett hit the scene in Milwaukee last season, for good at the end of that July, limiting Weeks to just 399 PA in 2013 and 248 PA so far in 2014. There is no way for the option to not become "voidable" now, and what's worse (for him), Weeks is unlikely to receive a buyout of $1M based on a 400 PA threshold this year.
A bunch of relievers: Heath Bell and Sean Burnett both have vesting options based on games finished, but both thresholds are so out of reach that if each player finished a game every day for the rest of the season, they'd still fall short. The same probably goes for Kyuji Fujikawa, who reportedly has a vesting option based on a games finished total; I don't know what that threshold is, but considering he's finished a total of 8 games with the Cubs, he's probably not getting there. Mike Adams will also fall short; his deal with the Phillies includes a vesting year based on a 60 innings threshold for 2014 (120 IP in 2013-2014 would bump the salary from $6M to $6.5M). With just 25 IP in 2014, Adams won't sniff that. There's also Scott Downs, due to make $4M in 2015 if that year vests; unfortunately, I was also unable to find the details on that, beyond a comment from Ken Rosenthal last winter that he'd attain it with "a normal workload." Your guess is as good as mine whether the 35 innings he's pitched for the White Sox and Royals put him on a pace to get there, but my guess is that the threshold would be at least 50 IP.
Rafael Soriano: Soriano is something of a different case. Reasonable minds can differ on whether he has a snowball's chance of finishing 16 more games by the end of the 2014 season, but with just 25 games left to play on the Nationals' schedule, I think the odds are heavily against. The Scott Boras "save face" deal for Soriano saw him make $14M per season this year and last (just over the QO yearly value two winters ago), but with a hefty chunk deferred. If Soriano had finished a total of 120 games between 2013 and 2014, he'd have gotten another year with the same deal (although the value might have been a little higher, as the deferred payments for all three seasons would start at the same time).
Vesting Years Down the Road
As we saw in the notes above, it's not uncommon for an innings or plate appearances threshold to have an alternative threshold including more than one season. This year, there are four players who were able to impact their chances of vesting an option in a year beyond 2015.
Matt Garza: Among players with vesting years, the starting pitching club is relatively small. But with the possible exception of Matt Harrison's (outlandish?) vesting clause, Garza's might be the most comprehensive from the list of 35. To get $13M guaranteed for the 2018 season, Garza must pitch at least 115 innings in 2017 and not finish that season on the DL -- and he must total 110 starts over the duration of his four-year deal. By missing most of August, Garza has tallied just 23 starts thus far. If he finishes at 27, he'll be just off the needed pace.
Adrian Beltre: For being one of the best players in the game and putting up a historically good season as a 35-year old, Adrian Beltre hasn't gotten much contract love since signing with Seattle. Beltre's current deal with the Rangers includes a "voidable option" that only becomes guaranteed with 1,200 PA in 2014-2015 and at least 600 PA in 2015. With 517 PA and a month to play as of this writing, Beltre should breeze past 600 PA this year; that makes the 1,200 PA requirement all but moot, putting the pressure on for 2015. The good news: unlike most of the vesting options out there (especially for beyond 2015), Beltre need not be healthy for the voidable option to become guaranteed. The worst that can happen, if he's on the DL at the end of 2015 and unable to play at the outset of 2016, is that $12M of the $16M salary for 2016 will get deferred at a measly 1% interest. Very inventive way to handle the health issue, giving a team flexibility to make a follow-up move if necessary while still guaranteeing the player a certain dollar figure.
Marlon Byrd: Ruben Amaro just can't help himself, and for all we know, giving Marlon Byrd a vesting year separated the Phillies from a handful of other teams offering a straight two years last winter. If so, given the track record for 2015 vesting options, that might have been a relatively safe move. But Byrd is on track now to vest the $8 million club option for 2016; he needs either 600 PA in 2015, unless he reaches 550 PA in 2014, in which case the 2015 threshold drops to 550 PA. Good news for Byrd: he's already surpassed 550 PA this season, so the burden for 2015 will just be staying in the everyday lineup for at least five months or so.
Jonathan Papelbon: For last, I saved the vesting year that's been most talked about. As outstanding as he's been, even with a dip in fastball velocity, it seems like there'd be no way for Papelbon to get a $13M salary for 2016 through any way other than his vesting year. To get there, he needs just 55 games finished in 2015, or a total of 100 games finished for this year and next. As Rafael Soriano will tell you, 55 GF is not a sure thing for a full-time, great closer who avoids the DL. And so, it's quite good for Papelbon that he's now in a position to chip away at that requirement; he's at 45 GF right now, and every game he finishes from now on is one fewer he has to finish in 2015 to get the option to kick in. A couple of weeks ago, Buster Olney of ESPN made the case that Ken Giles should be swapped in as closer right then and there, to keep Papelbon's 2015 threshold at 55 GF; the thought was that if the vesting option seemed not particularly attainable, Papelbon might have been more attractive as a trade target in the offseason. That's probably true, but even in the absence of a vesting year, the Phillies could have had trouble getting anything of value for Papelbon's 2015 services. If the Phillies keep Papelbon, they're probably best served financially by waiting to move Giles up in the pecking order until August of next season. That would probably kill Papelbon's chances of getting that $13 million salary in 2016, while also limiting Giles' saves totals in advance of arbitration. Giles may be putting up Kimbrel-esque numbers now, but he need not stay at that level to get Kimbrel-eque arbitration numbers if he's a closer for three and a half years before his first hearing.
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Ryan P. Morrison is a writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a site on the Arizona Diamondbacks with a sabermetrics slant. You can follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.