With a headline that clever, one should just say "That’s it, folks — you’ve been a great audience!" and ride off into the sunset. Trouble is, for all I know you have only been a slightly-above average audience and it is exceedingly difficult to ride off into the sunset at high noon. So I will continue with an actual article about Coco Crisp, and the vesting option that is causing a bit of a stir.
The stir is that Crisp needs to play in 130 games for his $13M option to vest for 2017 and currently he is slightly behind pace. Coco would have to appear in 38 of the team’s final 46 games in order to hit 130. As a result, each time he sits the conspiracy theorists squawk, tweet, accuse, or imply that perhaps the A’s are trying to make sure the option does not vest or that a union grievance could be in order if it doesn’t.
If anything, this bubbling controversy underscores how ill-advised these kinds of vesting options are. They turn every lineup decision into a subtext that does not naturally exist. Oakland has rightly decided, and stated, that having fallen out of contention they want to take a look at some of their younger players, some of the guys under contract control for several years — guys like Jake Smolinski and Brett Eibner, for example. That is completely legitimate and the A’s don’t have an obligation to play Crisp just because he has a vesting option.
Yet the implication seems to be that if you offer a vesting option then you intend to give the player every chance to reach it. It is almost as if offering the vesting option implies that you have to play the guy if he is able to go, even if he isn’t your best choice.
Perhaps the A’s front office laughed when they included the option. "Coco? 130 games? Ha ha. Yeah, right!" Be careful what you wish for.
Now there are most certainly instances where you could argue for a legitimate grievance. If Crisp gets to 129 games with 7 to play and then is benched for the final week, that looks like a concerted attempt to rearrange normal plans in order to save $13M.
In contrast, though, what is currently occurring is that Crisp is being placed in the lineup about 4-5 days a week instead of about 5-6. This is hardly unreasonable given that for all his rejuvenation — and truly Coco has been a bright spot among dim bulbs — he is batting .234/.303/.407 and Fangraphs believes he is one of the worst OFers in the game this year (-25.0 UZR/150 overall, -41.2 in CF).
The presence of a vesting option is not supposed to oblige you to find playing time for a guy just because he is healthy when others are performing better or better fit your present/future needs. And yet every time Khris Davis starts in LF it’s not because he has 28 HRs it’s because the A’s are trying to manipulate Crisp’s vesting option. And every time Jake Smolinski starts in CF against a RHP it’s not that the A’s need to see what they have in Smolinski, or that Smolinski has played a far, far better CF than Crisp has, it’s because the A’s are trying to manipulate Crisp’s vesting option.
Now don’t get me wrong: I love Coco Crisp. I appreciate Crisp and want him not only to retire as an Athletic but to do so with the same warm and fuzzy feelings towards the A’s as I have towards Coco. Crisp is arguably the closest thing the A’s have to a "face of the franchise" and is one of the last remaining relics from the magical 2012 season of which he was such an essential piece.
That being said, the A’s are doing the right thing working Smolinski and Eibner into the lineup more, hopefully taking a look at Jaycob Brugman in September, and not bending over backwards to fit Crisp’s average-if-remarkably-clutchy bat, and shell-of-what-he-once-was defense, into the every day lineup.
If Coco has any grounds for any complaint, it would be that he has been so seldom used as a pinch hitter — Crisp has just 4 pinch-hit at bats this season and even a pinch-hitting appearance counts as a "game played" towards the magic threshold of 130. However, one reason Crisp hasn’t pinch hit more is that he has started most of the games. Again, when deciding whether or not to use a pinch hitter or which one to use, Bob Melvin is not obligated to weigh whose option could vest. Melvin might just want someone with a higher OBP than .303 or better slugging than .407. On a given day, if you had Stephen Vogt or Danny Valencia available, along with Crisp, who would you choose?
All of which is to say: Yes, it’s complicated. Crisp deserves the best treatment and the A’s deserve the right to play the guys they need to see and who can help them win both now and later. Crisp will likely fall just a bit shy of 130 games and it’s not because the A’s are manipulating anything other than how prudent it is to put an average hitter and poor fielder, who will certainly not be part of the 2018 team, in the outfield more than "most of the time" — and again, Crisp is starting several times a week, just not every single day that he is healthy enough to do so.
I wouldn’t mind if the A’s brought Crisp back on a cheap deal in 2017, mostly because I love the guy. I also think that for his sake he should probably retire at the end of this season. Mostly, I hope that Crisp is able to leave feeling good about the situation and that the A’s are able to use $13M on resources better than a great clubhouse guy who is still a clutch-but-not-really-great hitter and who is now a liability in the field.
And most, most of all: I do not care for "vesting options" and think they should go the way of Coco’s fielding. They create an artificial benchmark and an unnecessary distraction for players, managers, and front offices, and they can lead to tension and bad feeling that never needed to exist in the first place. Let’s hope this one works out well because everyone involved, including A’s fans, deserve better.