With 2.5 months left in the season, Aroldis Chapman has put himself in position to opt out of his contract after the season.
The Yankees’ closer is faced with a dilemma; After this season, he’ll have to choose between opting into the two years and $30 million remaining on his contract, or the open market, where even great players have struggled to find deals in the offseason.
The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that it may not be such a dilemma at all as Chapman is likely to opt out after the season, citing a source who put it at “one million percent.” Chapman, for what it’s worth, denied the report’s validity.
Chapman will be 32 years old on Opening Day 2020 and has over 500 innings on his register through 10 Major League seasons. He’s yet to have a serious, long-term injury and still averages 98 mph on his fastball, regularly touching triple digits. His 2.30 postseason ERA nearly matches his 2.25 regular-season mark. He does have a domestic violence suspension in his recent past, though that did not seem to affect his previous free agency.
Contrary to expectations, Chapman’s performance has improved every season since signing a five-year contract with the Yankees during the 2016-17 offseason. While his strikeout rate peaked in New York last year, so did his walk rate, which he’s nearly halved in 2019. The flamethrowing reliever has a 2.45 ERA (and 2.09 FIP) through 36.2 innings this season while leading the American League with 25 saves.
Saves and proven closers seem a thing of the past, yet the southpaw has saved at least 20 games for the last eight years and isn’t intimidated by big moments. That carries some weight on the open market.
When Chapman signed his five-year, $86 million deal with the Yankees, it was easy to expect a less-than-graceful decline within the contract, making opting in attractive. He has lost more than two mph on his fastball since 2016, and his repertoire going into the contract was a steady diet of fastballs with an occasional slider.
However, he’s adjusted by throwing his fastball less and his slider more. The mid-80s offering began to bloom into a more efficacious offering in 2017 and has become a consistent part of his attack plan.
In 2016, Chapman threw his slider just 15.7 percent of the time despite getting a 50.5 percent whiff rate on the pitch. Why? Well, his fastball got a 40 percent whiff rate and was averaging 100 miles per hour.
Now? He throws it a third of the time as his fastball has fallen in effectiveness. While it has gotten less positive results as he’s thrown it more often, it’s still an effective pitch, 21st-best slider among relievers after ranking 11th a year ago.
|Pitch %||Avg. Against||xWOBA||Exit Velocity||Whiff %|
Beyond the numbers, it’s evident that Chapman trusts the pitch more. When he loses control of his fastball early in an outing, he begins to go heavy on the slider to get back into counts and find the zone. It’s turned into his safety valve.
Still, even with a real secondary pitch, Chapman’s opt out isn’t risk free. He’ll be 32 years old on Opening Day 2020. The Yankees will be able to slap a qualifying offer on him, which was the death knell last offseason that forced Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel to wait until this June for deals.
Chapman looks like he’ll have a better walk year than Kimbrel, who showed signs of decline and had a rough postseason despite not blowing a save (and winning a World Series). Still, he’ll be a year older than Kimbrel was on the market. The bearded right-hander is similarly based on his fastball, though he more regularly used his slider before recent seasons.
Kimbrel ultimately received three years and $43 million after the stress of seven months as a free agent. Chapman should be able to hit around those numbers with the qualifying offer attached.
And that’s why Chapman might simply be able to do what CC Sabathia did in 2011 and leverage the opt-out into adding years and money to his current deal. Maybe turn his two-year, $30 million deal into three-year, $50/51 around what Wade Davis received in the 2017-18 offseason?
The Yankees would be pressed to either keep Chapman or add to their bullpen, so they’d be incentivized to negotiate. Dellin Betances will also be a free agent and the team has found a sweet spot with a four-man back-end to carry the load. Losing the ninth-inning of Chapman without bringing back a healthy Betances or another top reliever would be a risk to their 2020 success.
Therefore, Chapman, despite his age and declining velocity, has the leverage and talent to make more than his current deal and thus opt-out after the season. I’d expect him back in pinstripes anyway, albeit on a different deal.