Mutual options are among the most useless additives to contract negotiations, designed to make a player feel better about having to make a compromise. The most recent example is Joey Bautista, who badly misread his market as a free agent and had to return to Toronto for 2017 on a one-year contract with a mutual option for 2018. In other words, he received a one-year deal that was made to sound better and bigger than it really is.
The stark reality of the situation is that Bautista won’t be back with Toronto next year unless the club wants him to stay (and if he chooses to return).
Even so, options that need to be exercised by both parties are not as worthless as the sweetener added to the contracts of several St. Louis Cardinals free agents back in 2006. Team management creatively offered player bonuses for winning a non-existent award, the National League Division Series Most Valuable Player.
But back to the subject at hand, mutual options.
This could be crucial for the Cardinals and their star catcher Yadier Molina. The 34-year-old, long considered the gold standard for players at his position, is in the final guaranteed year of his contract in 2017. At the time the deal was negotiated back in the spring of 2012 (see photo above), the sixth-year option drew little notice, tacked onto the end of a five-year, $75 million commitment that covered the 2013-2017 campaigns.
Now, that mutual option is getting more and more attention.
Molina’s agent, Melvin Roman, is on record that he plans to discuss an extension with Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak this spring, but there is no indication whether the club will move this quickly to lock down the catcher’s future services.
I have already delved deeply into the various considerations that make these negotiations a potentially challenging effort, including Molina’s legacy, his defense, prospect Carson Kelly and more, so I am not going to repeat that here.
This week, ESPN looked into the odd phenomenon of mutual options, going back to their origin in 1993 as the small-market Minnesota Twins got creative in their successful attempt to sign closer Rick Aguilera.
The title of the article speaks volumes: “Show me the mind games! Mutual options not about the money.” The apt descriptor “illusion” is prominently used by one agent.
The factoid from the ESPN research that reached out and grabbed me was this:
Of the 100 mutual options included in Major League Baseball player contracts over the last two decades, only four were exercised.
In other words, 96% of the time, something else occurred – one side turned it down, a trade, release, retirement or something else.
Could Molina beat the long odds and become the fifth of 101?
This mutual option may be necessary to buy time.
Certainly, the optimist could look at this situation and see there is more behind the decision than in the case of most others. Interestingly, one of the four exercised mutual options was between the Cardinals and Mark McGwire late in the slugger’s career. But that was a different situation in a different time.
If the Cardinals and Roman do not come to terms on a tricky extension in the next 10 months or so, the 2018 option could be the only lifeline to sustain Molina’s legacy as a career Cardinal.
Even if so, exercising the option would only delay for another 12 months the bigger decision as to where and how Molina finishes his career as an active player, a body of work that could one day lead him to Cooperstown.
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