Should We Start Worrying About Anthony Rizzo’s Option Being Declined?

I can’t believe I’m even presenting this as though it’s a realistic option, but we all know the Cubs are looking to cut costs and the first day of the offseason already saw several options declined. And though it’s not worthwhile to compare Wilson Ramos, Todd Frazier, Adam Eaton, or Corey Kluber to Anthony Rizzo for a variety of reasons, the Cardinals’ choice to buy out Kolten Wong’s $12.5 million option for 2021 felt like more of a bellwether.

Those other players are either injured or way past their prime, so it’s really not surprising that they’ve been made free agents. Wong, on the other hand, just turned 30 and was named a Gold Glove finalist for the second time after wining last year. He’s also coming off of a season that would have extrapolated to at least 3 fWAR over a full campaign, right in line with his 2.8 in 2018 and 3.7 last year. His 2021 option would have been a bargain had he been anywhere close to those numbers again.

Speaking of which, I’d love to see the Cubs try to find a bargain by scooping Wong up and letting him haunt his old team. However, with their own Gold Glove finalist in the fold and payroll as a very real limiting factor, they might not be able to work anything out there. That brings us back to Rizzo, who has a $16.5 million option for 2021 that comes with a $2 million buyout.

Though it once would have seemed unthinkable, the idea that the Cubs could decline that option now seems at least like a possibility. Wednesday kicked off a five-day period prior to full free agency during which teams and players have five days to make decisions on whether or not to exercise their respective options, so there is still a little time for exclusive negotiation. That could mean there’s a chance the Cubs try to work out a new deal with Rizzo that relieves a little of their immediate payroll obligations while providing him more security.

This concept might seem elementary to those who have a firm grasp of MLB’s salary rules, but it can be a little confusing for those who aren’t well-versed. Either way, I’ll keep it short. A club is obviously responsible for paying players the amount they’re due in a season based on their contract, but the luxury tax (competitive balance tax if we want to be accurate) payroll amount used by the league is based on the average annual value of each player’s deal.

The Cubs will almost certainly be using the $210 million luxury tax threshold as a very hard cap, though they’ll almost certainly aim for a number well below that. Since that’s not “real” money, it’s more a function of avoiding a third consecutive penalty and reducing overall exposure. Likely more influential when it comes to their moves this offseason is actual payroll, or how much ownership has to pay players in 2021.

With all that in mind, the Cubs might look to negotiate a deal with Rizzo that pays him less than $16.5 million this year and next, then bumps up higher over two or three subsequent years. The CBT rules prohibit egregious back-loading for the express purpose of circumventing the penalty, but that’s more about having massive team options or incredibly lopsided salary figures that allow a team to load up without penalty while also avoiding big payouts later.

Just as a quick example, maybe something like $64 million over four years broken down to 12/12/20/20 would make sense because the Cubs reduce both their immediate responsibility and their CBT hit. That’s a little light and absolutely favors the team, just like Rizzo’s current deal has since he signed it, but the market is really down right now and figures to be next year as well.

If you don’t like the idea of the Cubs “winning” here, maybe pump each of those annual figures by $2 million and get to an $18 million AAV. That saves the team on actual payroll next season and gives Rizzo a little more on average than what he’s been making while carrying him through his age-34 season.

So do I really think there’s a chance none of this works out and the Cubs actually decline Rizzo’s option? Yeah, I kinda do. You may recall that there were some tenuous exchanges last winter when the two sides weren’t able to make any headway on extension talks, and that’s before all this mess with biblical losses and whatnot. That said, I believe it’s far more likely that the Cubs either pick up the option or work something out on an extension.

At least that’s what I’m hoping.

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