Kyle Schwarber ended the 2020 season on the edge of the unknown. He had picked a bad time to author his worst season with the Cubs, and he wasn't shocked when hitting .188 got him designated for assignment.
He became a free agent on Dec. 2 and a month later signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Nationals that included an uncommon mutual option for 2022. Options typically belong either to a player or team for a reason, because only rarely will their interests align: if the player performs, he'll elect free agency; if he doesn't, the team will choose free agency for him.
So what was the point of Schwarber structuring his contract that way?
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"I'm not the smartest when it comes to that stuff," Schwarber admitted on the field before Friday's 8-3 loss to the Yankees. "It still leaves the opportunity for next year if something were to happen."
The truth is pretty straightforward, and it had more to do with the Nats than Schwarber. As a mid-market team, Washington deals with the impact of real money. By signing for $7 million in 2021 with a guaranteed $3 million buyout for 2022, Schwarber still counted for $10 million against the luxury tax, but the Nats were able to push 30 percent of his actual salary to January of 2022 and therefore next year's books. That buyout money is now the responsibility of the Red Sox.
It was effectively a deferral mechanism, which comes as no surprise, seeing as that Washington pushed fully half -- $105 million -- of ace Max Scherzer's record seven-year, $210 million contract into the future. Scherzer's deal expires this fall, but he'll still be paid $15 million annually from 2022-28.
From Schwarber's perspective, the $11.5 million mutual option essentially made his contract a one-year deal. If he performed to his standards, he could opt back into free agency in a better bargaining position this winter.
Suffice it to say, he has checked that box with permanent marker. A June power surge propelled him to his first All-Star berth and his stretch run with the Red Sox is cementing his place as one of the most patient and dangerous hitters in the game.
"I knew 2020 wasn't a representation of me," he said. "I just knew that I was better than I performed. It's no excuse. I didn't do it. It is what it is, and I got DFA'd. Going into the offseason, I was more worried about going out there and knowing that I'm better than what I did last year. It's been a good year so far, but there are still things to accomplish, playoffs and everything else. I'm a big proponent that you're never a complete player, you just keep learning and learning and learning."
In 33 games with the Red Sox, Schwarber is hitting .298 with six home runs, 17 RBIs, a .429 on base percentage, and a .964 OPS. A World Series hero with the Cubs in 2016 when he returned from a torn ACL suffered just two games into the season to hit .412 in the seven-game classic over the Indians, Schwarber wasn't sure if he'd see the postseason this year.
A serious hamstring injury sidelined him on July 2 and he didn't know what kind of interest there'd be in a player who wouldn't return until sometime in early August at best.
"Once the trade deadline came around, we had that week before where either we're going to buy or we might possibly sell," Schwarber said of the Nats. "You don't feel hopeless, but you feel bad because you're hurt and you can't help. Not knowing and then getting the call late on Thursday night saying that you got traded, it was definitely a new experience for me and it was an exciting time. I always felt very grateful for the opportunity Washington gave me. They're going out there trying to win and it just didn't happen. But to end up on a contender, there's nothing more you can want as a baseball player."
Schwarber's currently focused on nailing down the first wild card slot and winning a one-game playoff at Fenway Park on Oct. 5. "September baseball, especially when you're in the hunt -- it's on," he said.
But he has meshed so well in Boston as a centerpiece offensive performer that he's intrigued about extending his stay beyond October. He'll certainly be in a better bargaining position than last year.
"I think any player would be not very smart to X off a team for no reason, especially when you're playing for an historic franchise like this and a team that's always in it and always wants to win," he said. "I view myself as that type of player. I want to be the best teammate I can, I want to be known as a winner. It's definitely a town and city that fits that mold. I will definitely be interested if that came back around."
We'll know soon enough, from a Red Sox perspective, if the feeling is mutual.