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Ferguson: Taking issue with opt-out clauses

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Scott Ferguson
1/24/2014 2:33:02 PM
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I've never been a fan of opt-out clauses in contracts. The Dodgers two-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw who just signed a 7-year $215-million dollar pact, can get out after five years if he so chooses.

Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka can escape from his seven-year $155 million dollar deal with the Yankees after four seasons. Zach Greinke and C.C Sabathia both have these kinds of deals as well.

It's easy to see why the players and agents want them. If they truly grow to detest a city or an organization they can move on. If the player continues to perform at an optimum level, he can opt out early and get an even better deal, and from the agents perspective can set the market bar even higher for every other pitcher or player in the majors. However, there just seems to be something mercenary, and sort of having your cake and eating it too kind of feel about the whole thing. I can see player option years on contracts or club options or mutual options, but opt-outs just don't feel right.

Talking about these kinds of clauses brings back memories of the deal the Blue Jays signed with Roger Clemens back in December of 1996. At the time, the four-year contract looked like an incredible coup for the Jays organization. They had lured one of baseball's all-time great pitchers -- albeit seemingly fading a bit at 34 -- away from the mighty Boston Red Sox. Not only that, but they outbid the Yankees for his services. Paul Beeston actually travelled down to Clemens' home in Texas to personally deliver the sales pitch.

Initially -- at least based on Clemens stats, over two years -- it was an incredible deal for the Jays. Clemens won over 20 games twice, captured the American League Triple Crown for pitchers both years and won back-to-back Cy Young Awards. Unfortunately, over the ‘97 and ‘98 seasons, the Jays finished a combined 24 games under .500 and attendance never really spiked the way you might have expected when Clemens pitched at home.

Then there were stories that Clemens helped pushed for the ouster of Cito Gaston as manager late in the 1997 season, and when Cito was gone campaigned for Red Sox coach Tim Johnson to take over as skipper in 1998.

All of that paled in comparison to the news that leaked out late in ‘98 about the exact details of Clemens' contract. He had a five-point secret handshake agreement with Paul Beeston and the Blue Jays, as reported by Murray Chass in The New York Times.

The key points included Clemens having the right to demand a trade two years into the four-year deal. He also had to approve which team he was traded to. He could also demand a trade to the Houston Astros at any point in the contract. The reason for that was there was a chance his agents Randy and lan Hendricks were going to buy the Astros and the “Rocket Man” really wanted to play for them. None of that transpired, but when news of this secret deal came out, the commissioner's office was not impressed. The Jays were fined for entering into a secret deal that was against major league rules.

Oddly enough by that time, Paul Beeston had left the Blue Jays and was working for MLB as the number two official below only the Commissioner himself Bud Selig.

On Feb. 18, 1999, the Blue Jays ultimately did trade Clemens to the Yankees for Dave Wells, second baseman Homer Bush and lefty reliever Graeme Lloyd. Clemens went on to get his first World Series ring in ‘99 and got another in 2000, though Clemens embarrassed himself by throwing a piece of a broken bat across the path of the Mets Mike Piazza as he ran towards first base.

The next time the Blue Jays offered an opt-clause to a pitcher it was legal, and all the “I's” were dotted and the “T's” crossed. A.J  Burnett signed a five-year deal with the Jays on Dec. 6, 2005 for five years and $55 million dollars. It was nine years after the Clemens signing, but Burnett was nowhere near the pitcher Clemens was and got more term and money.

Unfortunately for the Jays, Burnett battled injuries in 2006 and 2007 and finished with identical 10-8 records. Finally in 2008 he pitched like an ace and wound up 18-10. But that was a contract year because in effect, since Burnett had the option to opt out of his deal after three years. He did just that and signed with the Yankees, helping them beat the Phillies in the 2009 World Series.

I don't dislike the opt out just because of the Blue Jays experiences. No, it's because it simply creates the impression the pitcher or player is just using that club as a springboard to a better deal with a perennial contender when the time is right. I hope this becomes a major battle ground when the next labour deal comes up in a couple of years.

The Blue Jays opening home series is a three game set against the Yankees to cap the opening week of the season. I'd wager we won't get to see Masahiro Tanaka though. The Yanks open the season in Houston and the best bet would be Tanaka would start the second game of the season after staff ace C.C Sabathia. That would mean Tanaka's next turn would be at Yankee Stadium for the home opener against Baltimore. The lowest I could see him being in the rotation is number three. That would put him in line to start the finale in Houston and the second game at home against the Orioles. So we'll have to wait till later in the season to see Tanaka face the Jays.

Masahiro Tanaka (Photo: Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)
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