The least surprising element of what is sure to be a Major League Baseball offseason full of surprises occurred late this past week. Giancarlo Stanton chose not to exercise an opt-out clause in his massive contract, likely tethering him to the Yankees for the next seven years.
Stanton, who will turn 31 on Nov. 8, signed a 13-year, $325 million contract with the Marlins in 2014. In December 2017, as part of the Derek Jeter-led ownership group’s efforts to strip down payroll and conduct a rebuild from the ground up, the Marlins traded Stanton to the Yankees.
Stanton, who has a full no-trade clause, still is guaranteed roughly $218 million. He is slated to make $29 million in 2021 and 2022 before his salary jumps to $32 million per season from 2023-25. He is due $29 million in 2026 and $25 million in 2027, the final year of the deal. The club has a $25 million option it can exercise for 2028 or, if it declines the option, Stanton will be due a $10 million buyout.
Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner wants the Yankees' payroll to be less than next season’s $210 million luxury tax threshold. If Stanton had opted out, thus becoming a free agent, it would have helped the Yankees to accomplish that goal, but no one with the club actually believed he would do so.
And that was true before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on Major League Baseball, leading to a 60-game regular season contested in empty stadiums. The financial fallout from that has players girding for an uber-slow offseason when it comes to free- agent deals and deals in general. That is evidenced by a bevy of cost-saving moves from teams this past week when it came to picking up player options.
Stanton was terrific in the 2020 postseason, hitting six home runs and driving in 13 runs in seven games and compiling a .308/.387/1.038 slash line. However, he is coming off two straight injury-riddled seasons, and even in the best of circumstances, he would have had a difficult time bettering his current deal on the free-agent market.
And these are not the best of circumstances.
Stanton hit 59 homers and drove in 132 runs in 159 games for the Marlins in 2017, which earned him National League MVP honors. He hit 38 homers and drove in 100 runs in 2018, his first season in pinstripes, but has experienced mostly frustration since. He was limited to 18 games in 2019 and 23 games in this 60-game season because of various injuries.
Though Stanton has been a solid and at times good outfielder much of his career (he played 72 games in the outfield in 2018), general manager Brian Cashman said Stanton likely will be primarily a DH next year and beyond.
"I don’t think he’s not capable of playing the outfield. He’s very athletic and can clearly handle that position,'' Cashman said during his season-in-review news conference Oct. 14. "[But] I would think our best strategy would be to deploy him on an everyday basis at the DH role like we’ve been doing. Our intent is to try to keep him as healthy as much as we possibly can because, just this postseason alone, you saw what he’s capable of doing. He always seems to hit when he’s healthy."
So with Stanton remaining a Yankee, what are Steinbrenner's spending plans for the offseason? "We'll see," he said Oct. 13 during an appearance on "The Michael Kay Show."
"It depends what kind of money is going to be required to be spent based on what we look at and decide needs to change. But there's no doubt we sustained significant losses this year, more so than any other team in baseball. It's been a crazy year, but we're just going to have to see what we really feel we need and what that's going to cost, and we'll go from there."
In other words, Yankees fans shouldn’t expect any big-money free-agent deals similar to the nine-year, $324 million contract signed by Gerrit Cole last December.
The Yankees made two moves toward trimming payroll Thursday, declining a $10 million option on 37-year-old outfielder Brett Gardner — who received a $2.5 million buyout — and the $17-million option for 38-year-old lefthander J.A. Happ.
The Yankees did pick up reliever Zack Britton’s $14 million option for 2022; had they declined, Britton could have opted out of his $13 million salary for next season and become a free agent.
They very much would like to re-sign two of their own free agents — DJ LeMahieu and Masahiro Tanaka — but it is not clear what the Yankees, as well as other teams, might be willing to offer.