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Stephen Drew And Where An Opt-Out Isn’t Insane

Camps are opening across Florida and Arizona. Baseball is happening! Yet we’re still talking about Stephen Drew (and the other remaining qualifying offer players) because he doesn’t have a job, in no small part due to a system that absolutely does not work as currently constituted. It’s endless. I’m sick of it, and so, I imagine, are you. At least we have a new wrinkle to discuss: Scott Boras’ indication that he reportedly now wants an opt-out clause for Drew after the first year.

Predictably, this was met with a chorus of “oh yeah, well I want a pony” indignation from the internet, no doubt shocked by the impertinence of a new demand coming from an agent representing a player who, again, is still unemployed as spring training begins, and will come at the cost of a draft choice. (This also comes with the obvious caveat of believing a word that Boras says as anything other than simple leverage, especially through “a source,” but for the sake of argument let’s go with it for now.)

The negative reaction there isn’t at all unexpected, because the perception is that opt-out clauses generally favor the player, since it’s one-sided. If he’s successful, he’s free to return to the open market, while if he gets hurt or plays poorly, the team doesn’t have the same opportunity to sever ties. But then, that’s not always how it plays out in practice. As Dave Cameron concluded when looking at opt-outs in the wake of Clayton Kershaw‘s extension recently, “you want to be the team giving the player the deal with the opt-out, not the team signing the player who just opted out.”

Sometimes that’s the same team, as we’ve seen with the Yankees opening up the wallet to retain CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez after they exercised opt-outs, and sometimes it’s not, but the limited history we have on the topic shows that while an initial opt-out does favor the player somewhat — again, because they have more power of choice — it’s not to the overwhelming extent that many seem to think. (A great example here being that of Stephen’s brother J.D. Drew, who gave the Dodgers 6.8 WAR for $20.8m over two seasons, then opted out to give Boston 12.4 WAR for $70m over the next five.)

Really, the reaction seems to be to the term “opt-out,” rather than “player option,” which is basically what an opt-out is. The main difference is that opt-outs come earlier in a contract — you’d never hear Kershaw’s deal as being described as having “three player options,” partially because they come all-or-nothing — and that options come into play for the final year, usually. If Boras manages to get Drew a two-year deal with a third-year player option, I imagine the chorus of boos may not be so loud.

Either way, a team that may only want Drew for a short term may not see this as the complete deal-breaker that it might otherwise seem to be, especially because Drew’s deal isn’t going to be anything like the massive contracts the other opt-out players have received. This isn’t going to be like Zack Greinke potentially deciding he wants to leave three years and $71m (or not) on the table following 2015; Drew would almost certainly be holding the power over just a single remaining year, perhaps two at the most, at far more reasonable numbers. And, as we saw with Ubaldo Jimenez this year in Cleveland, the opt-out wouldn’t preclude a team from tendering Drew with another qualifying offer next winter if they wanted, though whether Drew would have learned from his experience this winter is an open question. It kills the idea of a team not likely to contend this year, like the Mets, but it shouldn’t for teams with a lot to play for in 2014.

Of course, this comes back around again to the draft pick, as any Drew conversation has to. As tough as it’s been to sell anybody on the idea that the next few years of Drew is worth a draft pick, why in the world would anyone give up a valuable pick for just a single season of him? The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t… except possibly under very specific circumstances. For a team with a clear need in the infield, and with a favorable enough position on the win curve that the extra win or two or three that Drew could provide (depending on who he’s replacing) would be important, and with a vulnerable pick so devalued that it doesn’t hurt so much to lose it, there’s a potential for a fit.

That team, of course, is the Yankees.

Spending $503 million in one winter — that’d be importing Carlos BeltranJacoby EllsburyKelly JohnsonBrian McCannBrian RobertsMasahiro Tanaka, and Matt Thornton, along with retaining Derek JeterHiroki Kuroda, and Brendan Ryan — is impressive, but it’s even more impressive that it didn’t buy an obvious playoff roster. Yes, McCann should be a huge improvement over Chris Stewart and the rest of the catching mess, and the new outfielders, along with Brett Gardner and Alfonso Soriano, could potentially be very good, and sure, a rotation with Tanaka and Kuroda should certainly be better than one without them.

Yet the post-Alex Rodriguez infield remains “an area of concern,” to put it kindly, despite all that spending, with questions at all four spots. Paul Swydan accurately noted recently that it might end up being the worst Yankee infield in decades. In our depth chart projections, the infield (excluding catcher) ranks ahead of only the White Sox and Marlins, and even that is partially due to the fact that projecting Jose Abreu is nearly impossible at this point. The projections show the infield as being tied with the Twins and tied with the Brewers, who are coming off one of the worst first base performances in baseball history. It has them as being behind the Astros, and even that’s with the idea that Jeter can stay healthy enough to take about 400 plate appearances at shortstop. If he can’t, even Ryan’s fantastic defense isn’t going to save his atrocious bat.

Sure, if Mark Teixeira and Jeter and Roberts all stay healthy and get transported back to 2007,  this could work out okay, but it’s not a stretch to say that this infield could be the worst in the American League, or even the major leagues if everything falls apart. A team that just spent that much money to get back to the playoffs right now can’t possibly be satisfied with that kind of risk. This isn’t news, of course, since you care enough about baseball to read FanGraphs and so you certainly already know how porous the Yankee infield looks to be.

With options limited at this point, unless anyone really wants to see a Brandon Phillips trade, the Yankees may need to make what small moves they can to upgrade. Losing the 56th overall pick (which has produced exactly two usable big leaguers in the last 30 years, J.J. Hardy and Scott Linebrink), shouldn’t be an impediment, nor should Brian Cashman’s comments that the team is unlikely to go after Drew. Were Drew to opt out and then get hit with the qualifying offer next winter, that 56th pick just turned into a higher sandwich pick, leaving the team free to go after Asdrubal CabreraHanley RamirezJed Lowrie, and Hardy, all currently set to be next year’s infield free agents. If he accepts, or it’s not an opt-out at all, then the Yankees have a perfectly acceptable stopgap in what is almost certainly a Jeter-less 2015.

For Drew, the downside of the Yankees is that he’d have to go to a situation where he’s not guaranteed to be the starting shortstop — again, assuming Jeter stays healthy — and he has no experience playing second or third. Then again, even the Red Sox may not guarantee him a starting job if they really want Xander Bogaerts to play short, and if he doesn’t go to the Mets, his options are limited. He may not have a choice, even if, as Jeff Sullivan noted, changing positions isn’t as easy as just flipping a switch.

Maybe this just drives Drew back to Boston, because as the one team who doesn’t need to surrender a pick, and with Bogaerts ready, they’re in the power position here. Maybe they sign him just so the Yankees can’t. Drew’s a flawed player, especially against lefties, but the Yankees are a flawed team. They’re an especially flawed infield. They’re also one of the extremely few teams with money, need, and little reason to worry about the pick.