Generally speaking, there’s only one reason why a player requests an opt-out clause in his contract: So he can use it to get a better deal.
That was the case, infamously, with Alex Rodriguez back in 2007 and it was the case, predictably, with Yoenis Cespedes this past off-season, and it most certainly would have been the case with CC Sabathia before the Yankees rushed in to extend his contract in 2012.
But there are exceptions to every rule, and it is possible that Masahiro Tanaka will be that exception.
The reasons? Two of them: one is his contract, which still owes him $89 million through 2020 even if his average annual salary of $22.15 million places him behind 10 current major-league starters, including his teammate, CC Sabathia. The other is his right elbow, which still has a “slight’’ tear in the ulnar collateral ligament, an injury that quite often leads to Tommy John surgery and a minimum of one year on the shelf.
Never mind that a “slight’’ UCL tear is best defined as one in someone else’s elbow. The fact is that if Tanaka opts out after the 2017 season, like any other free agent he will be forced to share his medicals with every interested team, and will have to pass a physical before any deal is official.
That is the risk for Tanaka if he decides to opt out, and it is the risk for any team that chooses to sign him.
Because even if Tanaka has another excellent season in 2017 – he went 14-4 with a 3.07 ERA in 2016 and was in the AL Cy Young conversation for much of the season – there will always be that ticking time bomb in his moneymaker, and when the time comes for he and his agent, Casey Close, to make the call, it is something they will surely have to factor in.
As, of course, will any team interested in taking a chance on him. It will be a very tough call for any GM to commit years and dollars – certainly more than the $69 million that will be left on his deal after 2017, or else why bother? – knowing that the whole thing could blow up in his face on any given pitch.
One GM I spoke with recently agreed it would be a tough call, but opined that many MLB teams would be more inclined to go by Tanaka’s most recent past performances than by whatever they see on his MRI.
“So many times you go into a MRI tube with a guy and it shows a labrum tear but it’s asymptomatic, or he’s got a rotator cuff tear but its asymptomatic,’’ the GM said. “We’ve had experience for years with guys who are pitching effectively without issue not getting treatment but you put them in the tube and they light up like a Christmas tree. But somehow it doesn’t affect them.’’
Bottom line, that fellow said, is “If he pitches extremely well again this year, the way he did last year, that that would make three straight years of good health. So I doubt it would be an issue.’’
That could mean that a good 2017 for Tanaka could result in a bad 2018 winter for the Yankees, who might be expecting him to opt out regardless. And a bad 2017 for Tanaka would probably mean the Yankees would be stuck with Tanaka and the ticking time bomb in his right elbow for three more seasons.
But it all remains to be seen if Close, and especially Tanaka, would risk walking away from a healthy contract with a less than fully healthy elbow, and put themselves on the open market knowing full well that many teams might shy away from a pitcher widely known to be (slightly) damaged goods. Close declined to comment yesterday.
There is at least one MLB GM who believes the injury to Tanaka’s elbow is not only not serious, but improving: the one who signed him, Yankees GM Brian Cashman.
“I do know that on the MRI the ligament looks better than when it got scuffed up (in July 2014),’’ Cashman told NY Sports Day. “It wasn’t a significant tear to begin with, and it hasn’t caused him any real problems.’’
Cashman, however, wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what Tanaka will do at the end of 2017.
“If he pitches great he’s going to have a decision to make about whether to opt or not,’’ Cashman said. “If he doesn’t, he won’t.’’
Clearly, in the case of Masahiro Tanaka, the opt-out, usually a no-brainer, is no slam dunk. And anyone who tells you otherwise is talking about a slightly torn ligament in someone else’s elbow.