Jimmy Rollins and the Incentives of Vesting Options

The news out of Phillies camp this week is that Ryne Sandberg and Jimmy Rollins were not on the same page. Despite being healthy, Rollins wasn’t in the line-up for four straight games, and Sandberg went out of his way to praise Freddy Galvis‘ energy. Suddenly, a pretty cut and dried starter/backup depth chart seems to be not quite so cut and dried.

In the end, this may turn out to be nothing. Perhaps Sandberg is just trying to motivate Rollins by letting him know that he’s not guaranteed a spot in the line-up everyday. Perhaps he was just resting an aging player in meaningless spring training games. Perhaps the team just wanted to see if Galvis could hit big league pitching, and the only way to get him those at-bats in March is to let him play the first few innings. But because of the structure of Rollins’ contract, it isn’t too hard to see that this could also be the groundwork for ensuring that 2014 is his last year in Philadelphia.

After the 2011 season, Rollins signed a three year extension with the Phillies that included a vesting option for the 2015 season. That $11 million option becomes guaranteed if Rollins gets either 600 plate appearances in 2014 or 1,100 plate appearances between 2013 and 2014 combined. Because Rollins is a durable guy, he racked up 666 PAs last year, meaning he’s now just 434 PAs away from that option becoming a guaranteed salary. Given his health track record, it is very likely that option will vest, and the Phillies will be on the hook for an additional $11 million for next year as well.

Unless, of course, Rollins just finds himself out of the line-up on a regular basis, even if he’s healthy. The Phillies would vehemently deny that they would ever make playing time decisions based on preventing an option from vesting, of course, but teams still deny that they hold players down in the minors until after the service time windows pass to get a year towards free agency and Super Two arbitration status as well. The reality is that, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, the Phillies hold the power of deciding how much Rollins plays, and how much Rollins plays determines whether or not the Phillies have to pay him a salary that would likely be more than he could get on the open market for 2015. There’s a conflict there, even if team officials insist it doesn’t influence their decision.

And Rollins case is actually even a little trickier than just a traditional vesting option, because his contract stipulates that if the option does not vest, it converts into an $8 million team option or a $5 million player option. While $11 million for an aging Rollins might be a tough pill to swallow, an $8 million option for a player who can still start for most teams might actually be seen as a boon to his trade value. Or at least, it wouldn’t be a serious impediment, since even if an acquiring team didn’t want to pay the $8 million for 2015, his player option is only worth $5 million. It’s almost impossible to imagine that he’d be worth less than that on the open market, so if he falls short of 434 plate appearances, all the outcomes start to lean in favor of the team who controls his rights.

And there’s probably a pretty high likelihood that, come August, that team won’t be the Phillies. They’re unlikely contenders in 2014, and he’s the kind of guy that would be easiest to move and most desirable to other teams, given the short commitment and his ability to still play shortstop. In fact, if the Phillies anticipate trading Rollins at some point in 2014, not playing him everyday in the first half may do more to boost his trade value than letting him take the field.

If the Phillies made him share time with Galvis in the first half of the year, limiting him to a couple hundred plate appearances before the All-Star Break, then they could market Rollins as a potential regular for any team acquiring his services, since there would may not be enough time left in the season for Rollins’ option to vest, even if the new team returned him to his role as an everyday shortstop. In other words, the Phillies could depress his playing time in the first half to such a degree that they were essentially saving those plate appearances for any team looking to pick him up for the last two months of the season, while still keeping the option for 2015 from being guaranteed.

The Phillies can’t overtly put this plan into place. This is the kind of thing that would get the attention of the Players Association very quickly, and they’d be in for a legal fight if it was clear that they were benching Rollins for the primary purpose of keeping that option from vesting. But, with Galvis already getting praised for his energy and taking at-bats away from Rollins in spring training, the Phillies are creating a plausible scenario where Galvis could get starts at shortstop in the regular season without giving off the appearance that the decision has anything to do with contractual matters. And in reality, the gap between Rollins and Galvis isn’t so great that the Phillies wouldn’t be justified in giving the younger player a share of the at-bats.

Our depth charts projections give Rollins an expected .302 wOBA, while Galvis checks in at .281. Over the course of 600 plate appearances, a 20 point wOBA gap is about 10 runs. While Rollins has traditionally been a good defender, he is going to be 35 this year, and it’s not too difficult to make a case that Galvis is a better fielder at this point in their careers, and if Galvis is five runs better defensively than Rollins in 2014 — not a ridiculous assumption — then the gap between the two would be something like half a win over the entire season. In other words, transferring a few hundred PAs to Galvis from Rollins would likely have little tangible effect on the Phillies, and it’s not like they’d be intentionally making themselves much worse just to save a little money.

If the Phillies are as bad as our projections think, they’re likely going to be playing for the future by mid-May anyway, and a team that isn’t a likely contender shouldn’t be prioritizing fractions of a win over evaluating and developing future talent. Even putting the contract issues aside, the Phillies could be justified in playing Galvis over Rollins just because of their organizational place on the win curve. The contract issues just push the incentives even further in Galvis’ direction.

Of course, all of this will be denied, and the Phillies would say that no major league organization would ever let these factors influence their decision making. And maybe none of this ever materializes into anything, with Rollins going right back into the line-up and staying there all season. But it’s not crazy for the Phillies to want to play Freddy Galvis, especially because Rollins’ contract incentivizes them to do just that.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Aaron (UK)
Aaron (UK)

Similarly, watch for the Nationals giving Rafael Soriano a day off here and there and allowing Storen to close (or, ahem, “finish games”).