If the Cardinals hope to retain the services of Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward, it’s likely going to cost them close to $200 million, according to a CBS report.
But that potential deal would come with an asterisk.
According to the report, Heyward’s representatives will ask for an opt out clause that would allow him to again hit the free agent market at the age of 29.
That means he could cancel the remainder of the deal after only three seasons. If the total is divided equally, that would work out to close to $70 million for three years.
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I’ve been a vocal opponent of opt out deals. I think they should be banned from baseball the next time the collective bargaining agreement is up because they give players a ridiculous advantage over teams. Unless they’re hurt or they’re a complete bust, we all know the players are going to opt out and cash in again as soon as they can.
But if they’re hurt, or if they have a sudden deterioration of skills, the clubs are stuck holding an empty bag. That’s a scary thought when the specter of performance-enhancing drugs still lingers over the game.
The upside of committing to a player long term is minimized while the danger of getting stuck with a bad contract is maximized.
I don’t know how St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak will react to a proposal of a 9 or 10-year contract with an opt out after three seasons. But that’s apparently the new way of doing business in the big leagues and it’s unlikely a deal will get done without that clause.
If the Redbirds must submit to an opt out deal, here are terms I believe would make it more palatable:
▪ The contract should be structured in a way that would offer the team some relief if Heyward would be unable to play out the pact at a high level.
If the team can get an insurance policy on the deal, it should definitely do it. But, beyond that, the contract should be written in a way that would allow the team to defer part of the payments over a longer period of time should the outfielder become injured or ineffective. If he’s released, the balance ought to be allowed to be paid out over 20-25 years.
The odds of something like that happening may be slim. But it would be devastating to the Cardinals to have to pay more than $100 million -- potentially more than $150 million -- to a player that doesn’t perform anymore. It would be like flushing one-sixth of the team payroll down the toilet for half a decade.
Language could be written that would prevent a worst case scenario of Heyward blowing out his shoulder or suffering a back or hip injury during season one or two that would leave him unable to hit effectively -- and then waiving his opt out clause to guarantee himself $25 million a year over the last six or seven years of the deal.
▪ I’d feel much better about the contract if the opt out was after the fourth year instead of the third. That would give the Cardinals a more reasonable amount of control of a guy they’d be paying to be a cornerstone of the future. Three years is a blink of in eye in baseball time. If the Birds inked Heyward to that short of a term, he’d only be in the fold for one or two years past the time aging outfielder Matt Holliday leaves.
That could put the Cardinals in a talent crisis a few years from now when Holliday, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright are retired and Jhonny Peralta, Jaime Garcia and others have moved on as free agents.
The idea behind keeping Heyward is to give the core of the Redbirds an injection of youth. An opt out defeats that goal. Adding another year at least helps somewhat.
▪ The deal should be back-loaded in a way that not only gives the Cardinals some flexibility in the short term - but that makes it appealing for Heyward to opt in if he can still play at a top level.
It’s not realistic to think he’d sign a deal that would pay $30 million the first three years and then $170 million spread out over the last six. But if the Cardinals can negotiate a deal that escalates a little bit every year they could end up getting a relative bargain for three or four years of Heyward that would make the potential of an opt out more palatable.
That would also give the Cardinals more flexibility to put a strong supporting cast on the field during the first four years of the deal so Heyward could claim his $200-million contract isn’t really about the money -- it’s about a chance to win.