Eight Ugly Options

When attached to long-term contracts, club options are strange things. In a sense, they are a way for a team to say, “Just in case you perform beyond our wildest dreams, we want to have the chance to pay you another 15 million bucks. You know, when you’re 38.”

In no other part of contract negotations do executives show so little awareness of aging patterns. Five years ago, the Astros thought it somehow advisable to add an $18 million club option to Jeff Bagwell’s monster contract. Such clauses are easy to write off as risk-free for the organization—which is true—but as with anything risk-free, they come with a price. Bagwell’s option carries with it a $7 million buyout. In other words, the Astros chose to spend $7 million in order to have the privilege to choose whether or not to overpay Bagwell after his 39th birthday. So, does insurance cover buyouts?

Bagwell’s contract has one of the most ridiculous club options among “active” players, but there’s plenty of competition. Here are eight of the ugliest club options currently on the books.

Garret Anderson (2009 option: $14 million, $3 million buyout)

In the ’03-’04 offseason, Anderson was the picture-perfect example of an oversized deal waiting to happen. He got MVP votes for three years running, topped 25 HRs and 100 RBIs every year of the century, and was a key part of the Angels’ championship team in 2002. On the flip side, he was a 31-year-old corner outfielder with declining speed and low walk rates, one who hadn’t put together a single Hall of Fame-caliber campaign. The Angels, of course, paid him for past performance ($70 million over five years, 2004-08) and spent $3 million to ensure that they’d have the first chance to overpay for Anderson’s age-37 season. This contract will never quite be the albatross that Bagwell’s became, but each year, it looks more likely that Anderson may not play for anyone at all in 2009.

Jason Giambi (2009 option: $22 million, $5 million buyout)

I’m not sure which is more striking: that Giambi, making $18 million in 2006, was only the third-highest paid Yankee, or that if his option were to be exercised for 2009, he still wouldn’t be #1. It’s very unlikely Giambi will be paid $22 million by anyone in his age-38 season, but after returning from the steroid-scandal dead in 2004, he has made it possible that it won’t be an easy decision for the Yankees. After all, the first $5 million is spent no matter what; while Garret Anderson won’t be worth $11 million no matter how you crunch the numbers, the Yankees just might go for a $17 million designated hitter with a historically great batting eye.

Ken Griffey Jr. (2009 option: $16.5 million, $4 million buyout)

Like Giambi, Griffey has had a resurgence in the last two seasons, but even at $12.5 million (the option amount minus the buyout), the Reds almost certainly won’t bite. Unlike Giambi, Griffey’s patience at the plate (or, perhaps, the fear he inspires in opposing pitchers) hasn’t returned with his power. That kind of statistical profile, combined with Griffey’s fragility, suggests that Griffey will be lucky to be a productive player in his last guaranteed season, to say nothing of the option year. Making it all the more difficult will be the eventual realization that Junior is a designated hitter, not even an average centerfielder.

Mike Hampton (2009 option: $20 million, $6 million buyout)

In a stack of poor judgments, Hampton’s 2009 option stands out as the worst of all. Hampton is the Garret Anderson of pitchers: consistently above-average, durable until recently, occasionally good enough to gently hint at greatness. Like Anderson, he hit the market at an opportune time, signing one of the more ridiculous contracts in baseball history at the height of baseball’s 2000-01 spending spree. While Hampton has pitched well since leaving Colorado and he’ll only be 36 in ’09, it would take another spree of ’00-’01 magnitude in order to make $14 million this guy’s market value.

Todd Helton (2012 option: $23 million, $4.6 million buyout)

When putting this list together, I wondered about the psychology of club options—are they, like non-guaranteed NFL salaries, big numbers set up simply to impress colleagues? A way of saying, “if we wanted to spend $20 million on an old and slow guy, we could?” If so, Dan O’Dowd, having authored both Hampton’s and Helton’s contracts, should probably get a therapist before sitting down with Matt Holliday’s agent. It’s crazy enough to spend nearly $5 million betting on someone’s production a full decade down the road, but when the result of winning the bet is the chance to spend $18 million more, that’s just a poor investment.

Geoff Jenkins (2008 option: $9 million, $0.5 million buyout)

His option may be a mere seven figures, but relative to Milwaukee’s budget, it’s among the worst on this list. Making matters worse, Jenkins is the only guy on this list to have spent a good portion of the 2006 season below replacement level. Here’s a fun comparison, at least if you’re not a Brewers fan. Another NL corner outfielder with a $9 million club option at the end of a three-year deal? Brian Giles. Giles, in his option year, will be 38, compared to Jenkins’s 33 in his, but I don’t think very many THT readers would think twice before taking ’09 Giles over ’08 Jenkins.

Carl Pavano (2009 option: $13 million, $1.95 million buyout)

How quickly things change. Less than two years ago, Pavano was on the grand tour of suitor cities, signing a deal that just might’ve made the Yankees look intelligent. The option has a particular twist: if Pavano reaches 200 IP in 2008 or 400 IP between ’07 and ’08, he has the right to void the option, forfeiting the buyout. Seventeen starts and two seasons later, it’s not clear which is more far-fetched: the idea that Pavano will manage 200 IP in either of the next two seasons (or, for that matter, ever again) or that, if he did, he’d forego the $2 million in easy money.

Manny Ramirez (2009 and ’10 options: $20 million each, no buyout)

Since Manny’s options have no buyouts, these are the richest in baseball. You can think of them as special presents the Red Sox will send along with their slugger, should they ever trade him. It’s tough to imagine the Red Sox (or any other team) choosing to pay Ramirez $20 million in his age-37 and age-38 seasons, but Manny is one of the very few players in baseball who has put up several seasons where he was actually worth that much. Personality aside, these might be among the most palatable options on the list—after all, no one else is better at chasing doubles in Fenway’s left field.

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