Why recent Giants free-agent contracts include so many opt-out clauses

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Why Giants have included so many opt-out clauses in contracts originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The Giants missed out on their top two free-agent targets this offseason, but they're happy with what they were able to do. They signed seven veterans to contracts that totaled nearly $200 million, upgrading their rotation, bullpen and outfield.

It's a group that Farhan Zaidi has a lot of faith in. It's also a group the Giants president of baseball operations might have to mostly replace in 10 months.

The offseason spending started on Joc Pederson, who accepted the qualifying offer and will become a free agent again after this season unless a long-team deal is reached. Michael Conforto, Ross Stripling and Sean Manaea all got two-year deals, but all can opt out after 2023. Mitch Haniger signed a three-year deal with an opt-out clause after the second season.

In a perfect world for the Giants, all of the players will perform at such a high level that the team returns to contention, but that would also put them in a familiar spot next offseason. They just watched Carlos Rodón opt out of the second year of his contract and bolt for a massive contract with the New York Yankees, and it's possible the same will happen with at least a couple of this offseason's additions.

There's no doubt that the Giants seek a certain type, but Zaidi said this year's large collection of opt-outs was partly just coincidence.

"It just so happens that a lot of players that we've talked to feel like they have another level of performance in them," Zaidi said recently.

For some, Zaidi pointed out, that means simply getting healthier. Conforto and Haniger would fit that mold. For others, it's about doing something they haven't done in the big leagues -- and then cashing in.

Stripling said an opt-out clause wasn't on his radar early in free agency. He was coming off the best season of his career and a new high in innings, and he watched early on as the starting pitching market exploded. On a Zoom call in December, Stripling brought up the contracts signed by Taijuan Walker (four years, $72 million with the Philadelphia Phillies) and Jameson Taillon (four years, $68 million with the Chicago Cubs) and noted that his market never quite took off the same way.

Stripling expected that, knowing that he had never even thrown 140 innings in a season. But when Andrew Heaney got an opt-out from the Texas Rangers, Stripling's side started thinking about a similar contract. That's right up the Giants' alley.

"I want to be a Giant. I love San Francisco. I love the idea of pitching there for two years and more than two years, but if I go out and do great this season like I expect to, like a Carlos Rodón, where I throw 180 innings with good results and show teams that I can get there, then I enter the free agent market next year in a much better spot," Stripling said. "That made sense to me. It wasn't a deal-breaker one way or another. The Giants still had the best offer and they offered me an opt-out. It was literally a no-brainer and an awesome place to pitch and a great place to want to play. It was literally a no-brainer, but the opt-out in there and having that optionality is a huge deal, and that's why you're seeing it in a couple of deals so far this offseason."

It's easy to see why this year's additions would want that optionality. Stripling has bounced between roles in his career, but another season like 2022 would set him up well for a big payday. Manaea is coming off a down year and Conforto didn't play in 2022. Haniger, who got the opt-out later in his contract, has had trouble staying healthy.

All have set themselves up for another shot at free agency, on their terms. That's becoming more and more common.

For all of the attention paid to the Giants' opt-outs, the organization is following along with a trend in free agency. Kodai Senga, Josh Bell and Heaney were among those who got opt-outs this offseason, and the main storyline of the Giants' winter, Carlos Correa, only hit free agency in November because the three-year deal he signed with the Twins in March included two opt-outs.

Next year's free agent class is considered relatively weak, but it will be bolstered if Max Scherzer opts out of the final season of his three-year deal with the New York Mets. Manny Machado is expected to opt out of the final five years of his $300 million contract, putting added pressure on the rival San Diego Padres this season. He could join a free agent class that also includes Conforto, Stripling and Manaea.

The Giants have had a lot of success with short-term deals with pitchers who want to reach new heights and Zaidi said he told Stripling that he expects him to set career-highs in starts and innings this year, which, for Stripling, would set him up to hit the market again. For the Giants, players signing those deals is not viewed as a negative.

"I think that speaks to players believing in our development and our ability to help guys maximize their abilities," Zaidi said. "They want to come here and get another bite at the apple, and a lot of times that's in our best interests, too, for players to be motivated along those lines and to be better."

While it might be frustrating to have to turn over parts of the roster every offseason, every executive would tell you they much prefer short-term deals. The Giants lost Rodón, but they also got an All-Star season out of him at a very reasonable rate, and they won't be on the hook for four or five more years. They are confident in their ability to replace players who opt out, too, and they're hopeful that Stripling and Manaea can be adequate fill-ins, just as Rodón gave them exactly what they needed after Kevin Gausman signed a long-term deal in Toronto.

Of course, there are downsides, too.

The Giants had their worst attendance in Oracle Park's history last season and it's certainly not helpful that there's a revolving door every winter. Gausman was popular with fans and in the clubhouse, and Rodón gave people a good reason to come to the ballpark or tune in. If Conforto hits 30 homers this season and becomes a fan favorite, he'll opt out and seek a nine-figure deal. Recent history says the Giants won't be the one to give it to him.

There's also a reality the Giants haven't really had to face yet: The opt-in. Had Rodón gotten hurt late last season, the Giants would have been on the hook for $22.5 million in 2023. The odds are decent that one of this year's "two years with an opt-out" additions either has a down year or gets hurt, making it an easy call to stay for the second season. The Giants are certainly getting upside with short-term deals, but they do work out better for the players, who can chase huge contracts if they succeed or just stay with the Giants if they do not.

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The Giants aren't too worried about that possibility, though. Zaidi pointed out that the next deal doesn't have to come elsewhere, using Pederson as an example. After signing a $6 million deal in March, Pederson set himself up for a much bigger payday. But the Giants gave him a qualifying offer, and he'll be back in orange and black.

"We want that to be part of the model, too," Zaidi said. "When a player has an opt-out it doesn't necessarily mean they opt out and they move on to another organization. When the circumstances are right, we want to be able to retain players who play well."

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