Should he stay or should he go?

The question of whether Alex Rodriguez will exercise his opt-out clause and become a free agent next winter isn’t going to be answered for eight months. A key piece of information-how Rodriguez plays in 2007-is a complete unknown at this point. For all the discussion of this issue over the past few days, the fact that we have no idea what kind of year Rodriguez is about to have undercuts the chatter. Whether it’s practical or not, free agents get paid based on their most recent performance. It’s why Gil Meche and Alfonso Soriano and, before that, Carl Pavano and Eric Milton became very wealthy men despite thin track records. Timing, in free agency, is everything. So without knowing what Rodriguez’s 2007 stat line will look like, it’s hard to speculate whether he can reasonably opt out.

Just for snicks, though, let’s take a look at this. The fact that it might even be considered an option for Rodriguez shows how much the market has changed over the past few years. Rodriguez’s current contract, signed in December 2000, would be worth $252 million if it is played to completion. Six years later, no other player has come close to the total value of the average annual value of his contract. If a winter with no true superstars can yield $136 million and $126 million deals, though, it’s fair to say that both twos–$20 million a year, $200 million total-will be reachable. Whether Carlos Zambrano, or Johan Santana, or Miguel Cabrera, those numbers are going down in the next few years.

Turning 32 in July, Rodriguez won’t be the player to crack the second figure, although $20 million a year is within his reach. As it stands, he’s set to make $27 million a season in 2008-10, so he’d be opting out of a three-year, $81-million deal to leave. Those figures are why the comps to J.D. Drew don’t work. Drew, coming off a big year, with a non-backloaded contract, and entering a market that was demand-heavy, was a certainty to make more in a new deal than the $33 million he had left on his old one. (He did, getting $70 million guaranteed, a $37 million difference.) It is going to be much more difficult for Rodriguez to make more guaranteed money, and essentially impossible for him to exceed the average annual value.

For opting out to make sense, Rodriguez would have to be assured of making at least $85 million in his next contract. That would mean at least a four-year deal, and more likely a five-year one. Neither of those seem unrealistic, and an AAV of more than $18 million a year-“Soriano money”-is a lock as long as Rodriguez has a typical season. So it does seem possible for Rodriguez to make up the guaranteed money, or even exceed it, in a new deal.

The problem is that he’s trading time to do so. If Rodriguez plays out his current deal, he’d be a free agent after 2010 as a 35-year-old. Projecting players three years out is risky, but even a gradual decline would seem to leave him in position to pick up another three or four-year deal for well over $15 million a year. So Rodriguez wouldn’t have to make up just the $81 million he’s guaranteed, but the $30 million or so he’d be in line to make in 2011 and 2012. That means he has to sign a five-year deal for about $23 million a year just to break even, and that seems to be at the outside edge of expectations.

At that point, I come back to the unknowns: what kind of season will Rodriguez have in 2007, and how much money will he be willing to risk to end his relationship with the Yankees? PECOTA suggests that the first answer is “a good year, but one that extends the decline”: .288/.385/.531, with 34 home runs and slightly below-average defense at third base. He projects as a seven-win player. Adding more PECOTA-flavored information, Nate Silver‘s system suggests that Rodriguez will be worth about $58 million from 2008-2011, meaning a rational market would value him in a manner…OK, I started laughing at “rational market,” too. Rodriguez would make more than that as a free agent.

There’s an idea-fed by Rodriguez himself in a rollicking interview with Mike Francesa and Chris Russo-that if the Yankees don’t win a World Series in 2007, Rodriguez will opt out just to get out of this situation. I won’t repeat the arguments that Rodriguez has taken a disproportionate share of the blame for the Yankees not winning a Series in his three years in New York; the fact is, he seems to have convinced himself that the criticisms are valid, in which case any mental and emotional anguish generated by another season that ends in a loss is a factor.

Remember, Rodriguez was prepared to leave some money on the table to facilitate a trade away from the Rangers in 2004, a process nixed, correctly, by the MLBPA. With the decision all his this time, would he again choose to pass up cash for a more comfortable situation? And if he did, would the nation’s reactionary old men with microphones find themselves locked in a logic loop that fried them all? “He took less money to be happy!” … “He quit on New York!” … “He took less money to be happy!” … “He quit on New York!” … “Hello, Dr. Falken…how about a nice game of chess?”

The heavily-backloaded contract makes this a much tougher decision than comparable ones faced by Drew or Aramis Ramirez. Rodriguez would almost certainly have to leave money on the table to escape from New York. The market for his services would be limited by his financial demands and his likely desire to be with a good team. Furthering hindering his movement would be the state of third base in the majors right now: many of Rodriguez’s likely suitors have established star third baseman, large investments in same, or top third base prospects knocking on the door. It’s not out of the question that he could change positions, but it would be down the defensive spectrum, not back to shortstop.

That, of course, brings us back to the original point: we don’t have enough information to answer the question. There are too many unknowns, starting with Rodriguez’s 2007 stat line and extending into how he values playing his position against money against external pressure and a host of other factors. One of the arguments I’ve made, when asked in the offseason about free agents, is that we only see a fraction of the factors that go into these decisions. Like many of us, baseball players are husbands and sons and fathers, and where we see things like salaries and contenders and ballparks, they see cities and schools and proximity to family. A situation like Rodriguez’s, with so many layers, is impossible to parse eight months out.

Let the man play baseball, and check back on November 1.

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