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Nick Castellanos, the delayed 2020 season, and how opt-out clauses will impact Reds moves

How will the fine print in MLB contracts mesh with a delayed, reworked, or altogether cancelled season?

Cincinnati Reds v Chicago White Sox Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

The whirlwind offseason put forth by the Cincinnati Reds (remember them?) was one of the highlights of the MLB offseason, as the club dug deep into their coffers to dole out a record-setting amount of money in free agency. After years biding their time in the basement of both the NL Central and baseball in general, the club pressed the accelerator this winter as it finally felt confident enough to try to win as many games as they possibly could once again.

The coronavirus pandemic has obviously tabled that effort, doing so for an amount of time we can only describe as both ‘indefinite’ and ‘going to be a really long time.’ And with the caveat that I’m not trying to sound at all insensitive to how it has gripped the entire globe and begun to squeeze it, I’m going to try to focus, for now, on how the Reds themselves are going to be particularly impacted by baseball’s 2020 hiatus.

We learned yesterday that a July start date is now the most hopeful of timelines, though that certainly brings into question exactly how many games they could play before it’s too damn cold to keep doing so. Any alteration to the season itself requires more than just moving games, though, as entire rosters, contracts, and transactions are based on a presumption of the status quo, and each MLB team is going to face specific qualms with any alterations.

How will the trade deadline be set up? That’s something clubs with players on dwindling contracts must juggle.

Will there still be two wild card spots if the season and playoffs get shortened? Lopping off one playoff spot per league would certainly take away incentive to go all-in if close in the standings late in the year.

Will contracts be pro-rated? How does service time get impacted? What time of year is the official date for free agency if the season gets now drags into November?

From a legalese perspective, there’s going to be a jumble to sort through both for front offices and for players and their agents. In the Reds case, I’d like to highlight one particular situation that I’ll be watching with one eye while keeping the other on Twitter as this daily chaos continues to envelope us all.

I’m trying to wrap my head around one of their two $64 million men, Nick Castellanos. I say that because from the moment he became a $64 million man (alongside Mike Moustakas), we immediately wondered if he’d ever be a $64 million man. That, of course, is due to the work of agent Scott Boras, who deftly help negotiate multiple opt-out clauses in Castellanos’ deal with the Reds.

In theory, Castellanos could make up to $82 million from the Reds over the course of five seasons, as his contract holds a $20 million option for the 2024 season, one that comes with a $2 million buyout. Thanks to opt-out clauses after both the 2020 season (in which he’s supposed to earn $16 million) and the 2021 season (in which he’s due $14 million), here are the current permutations for how the Reds and Castellanos could be a thing:

  • 1 year, $16 million, and he opts out at the end of the 2020 season
  • 2 years, $30 million, and he opts out at the end of the 2021 season
  • 4 years, $62 million, plus an additional $2M buyout of his 2024 option ($64 million total)
  • 5 years, $82 million

There are deferrals and bonuses for awards included, too, but the above is the bulk of the important details for now. In essence, the Reds cut a deal to get a great hitter for a varying, hard to determine amount of time, and Castellanos got up to a $64 million guarantee should he so choose. What Castellanos got more than anything, though, is flexibility, and he did so in large part because Boras was able to highlight one of the greatest attributes Castellanos had going for him this winter - his youth.

Having just turned 28 years old two weeks ago, Castellanos is relatively young for a free agent. Moustakas, for instance, is already 31 years old, an age at which another dominant season in 2020 might not even make him any more marketable if he were a free agent again after this year, as his increasing age would begin to negate that value in the eye of teams. For Castellanos, he’s got the ability to enter the free agent market again heading into his age 29 or age 30 seasons, and if he puts together a full slate akin to the way he raked with the Chicago Cubs in the last portion of 2019, he could land another huge payday as a still in-prime player.

So, how the 2020 season molds itself will be quite the watch for both Castellanos and the Reds. Will he get the full $16 million? Will that be prorated if the season is shortened to, say, 100 games? If, god forbid, the entire season gets banged, will Castellanos have the chance to opt-out without having ever played a game for the Reds at all? Will all contracts simply slide back a year? How the hell will any of this shake out?

It’s a concept that the Reds are surely planning contingencies for addressing, but one that doesn’t seem to have a clear, obvious answer. Part of that - a huge part of that - is because none of the parties involved have any chance to definitively make decisions yet because we simply do not know in what form or fashion the 2020 season will take place. What’s clear in Castellanos case, though, is that if his entire free agency trip this winter took place when he was 29, and not 28, there’s a good chance neither he nor the Reds would have pursued the kind of contract he eventually signed, as the huge selling point was his age at the time - and now, he’s getting older while the Reds aren’t getting the benefit of his play at that time.

The Reds are far from the only club facing this kind of moving target in their contingency planning. Famously, the Colorado Rockies slid an opt-out clause in their massive contract with Nolan Arenado, meaning the face of their franchise can potentially opt-out at the end of the 2021 season should he so choose. The Rockies had been dealing with whether to try to move him for what they can get before he opts out, but now are stuck watching his team control potentially dwindle while not getting his production on the field, and that’s quite the large-scale conundrum.

I have no inklings which direction the MLB and MLBPA will go on this, but I do know it’s going to be very, very hard to find a middle ground on the decision. More than anything, I just hope we get to see Castellanos’ bat in the heart of the Cincinnati lineup both in 2020 and beyond, but how his current contract gets restructured is just one tough baseball decision to be sorted out in a world where many, many, many more important ones are being presented each and every minute.