The hot stove is underway, and news has been flooding out surrounding qualifying offers and players with opt-out clauses. Jake Arrieta and J.D. Martínez have decided to stay with their respective teams, but World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg, coming off an excellent year, has decided to test the market. Let’s take a closer look at each of these decisions.
In March 2018, Arrieta signed a three-year, $75 million contract with the Phillies. The deal included an opt-out after the second year, and club options for a fourth and fifth year at $20 million each. The Phillies were believed to be at least a year away by many including myself. Paying $25 million for a two-win player should be a no-brainer for a team trying to contend, but if he becomes a replacement level player or worse, then that becomes problematic.
Arrieta is coming off his worst year since his time with the Orioles. He had a 5.04 RA9, though he pitched in a hitter-friendly ballpark and in front of a terrible defense. However, his walk rate was worse than average, and his 18.5 K% ranked in the bottom twenty in baseball among pitchers with at least 130 IP. Those peripherals were likely significant factors in his 5.45 DRA.
Worse yet, Arrieta is coming off an injury plagued season that ended on August 17 because he had to have a bone spur surgically removed from his right elbow. As a pitcher coming off of elbow surgery, a down year, and going into his age-34 season, declining his opt-out is something I am sure surprised absolutely nobody.
I applaud the Phillies for opening their checkbook and taking a chance on Arrieta, but I can’t see them picking up his option after 2020, even if he has a bounce-back year. The good news for him is that if he does have a bounce-back year and the Phillies decide not to bring him back, next year’s free agency class is not particularly strong.
The Red Sox smartly believed that J.D. was worth a shot, and signed him to a five-year, $110 million contract with an opt-out after the second year. He has easily surpassed that contract in the first two years. Last year he hit even better than he did in 2017 by slashing .330/.402/.629, and only Mookie Betts and Mike Trout surpassed his 170 wRC+. He took a big step back this past season, but still hit .304/.383/.557 with 36 HR. As I alluded to, his .386 wOBA was a drastic 41-point drop-off from the year before.
I think if Martínez had hit close to what he did in 2018, he would have more seriously considered opting out. As is, however, he is a declining 32-year-old who should only play the field sporadically at most so he would only appeal to AL teams, and he also happens to be a pretty poor baserunner. There was little chance that he was going to do better than the $62.45 million left on his deal, especially if the state of free agency does not improve this winter. It says a lot that a Scott Boras client is choosing not to test free agency.
This, of course, does not mean that J.D. will still be in Boston come April. The Red Sox have made it perfectly clear that they want to shed salary, even though the team is still competitive, is one of the wealthiest franchises in the league, owner John Henry is worth $2.7 billion, and they have nobody as good to replace him. A trade would almost certainly act as a salary dump, therefore leading to a minimal return in talent, and ultimately resulting in making the team worse in a division with the Yankees and Rays. The Red Sox deserve a ton of credit for being the game’s biggest spender in recent years, but it does not make any sense to cut salary when it will only result in making the team worse.
If someone had asked me before the season started if I expected Strasburg to opt out, I would have said it’s highly unlikely unless he surpassed his career-best 2017 season by a comfortable margin. Free agency is too unpredictable nowadays, and he would have to believe that he could do better than the four years and $100 million left on his contract as a 31-year-old pitcher with an injury history. Scott Boras seems to believe that he can.
Whether or not Strasburg had a career year is debatable. He had a 3.40 RA9 compared to a 2.82 RA9 in 2017, even though his peripherals were astonishingly similar, and his 209 IP were about 34 innings more than 2017. If we go to DRA, he actually led the league with a 2.13 DRA and 8.3 WARP, and he had a 2.93 DRA two years ago. There is solid evidence that he pitched better this year than he ever has, so why was his RA9 so much higher than his 2017 career best? I am sure you will not be surprised to hear that it was because of the juiced ball. He gave up 24 HR as opposed to 13 HR in 2017. Put another way, that is a 2.8 HR% on a 16.2 percent HR/FB ratio, compared to a 1.9 HR% on an 8.7 percent HR/FB ratio (HR% = HR/TBF).
I would be remiss if I did not mention Strasburg’s outrageously good postseason run. He pitched 36 1⁄3 innings and had a 2.24 RA9, while striking out roughly a third of the hitters he faced against only three unintentional walks. As impressive as his October was, teams have learned not to put extra weight on the small sample that is the postseason.
I am sure Boras is aware of all of this. Despite the risks of opting out, there are certainly competitive teams out there in need of starting pitching, especially if they fail to get Gerrit Cole. I am guessing that Strasburg would prefer to stay with the Nationals, but there is an intriguing other option out there: the Padres.
Strasburg is from San Diego, and the up and coming Padres are in desperate need of pitching help. They might be able to sell him on returning home and helping to bring the Padres their first ever World Series championship. Despite the big contracts that they have handed out in recent years, they still have one of the lower payrolls in the league. If they want to compete with the Dodgers, they have to keep spending.
I am cautiously optimistic that Strasburg will do better than $100 million. I would hate to see his opting out backfire.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.