On Tuesday, Liam Hendriks signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox that will pay him $54 million. Craig Edwards covered the signing, and Tony Wolfe took a look at the South Siders’ new bullpen, which is now one of the best in baseball. But there was something confusing about Hendriks’ contract. It will pay him $54 million, but how many years he’ll play to earn that money isn’t yet set.
A quick overview: over the first three years of his deal, Hendriks will receive $39 million. After that third year, the White Sox have a team option to bring him back for a fourth year with a $15 million salary. If they don’t want to pay him for that year, they can pay him a buyout instead, a common structure in contracts with team options. Here’s the rub: that buyout is for $15 million, the same amount as the option salary. It’s deferred over multiple years, so it isn’t exactly the same, but Hendriks will get $54 million in cash, and he’ll do so whether he plays for the Sox for three or four years.
Why design such a strange tax structure? It’s in pursuit of one of the oldest American pastimes — tax avoidance. Let’s quickly walk through how Hendriks’ contract works in Chicago’s favor, and take a quick jaunt through other contract structures while we’re at it.
When the league came up with the CBT, they put some thought into working around loopholes. Consider, for example, a team who has plenty of room under the tax level in 2021 but projects to go near it in 2022. Now imagine that they sign Trevor Bauer to a two-year, $80 million deal. If they paid him $40 million in each year, it would look like this:
Hypothetical Tax Implications ($ millions)
Assuming a tax threshold of $210 million, they’d be $30 million under the line in ‘21 and $20 million over in ‘22. Why not, then, pay Bauer $60 million in year one and $20 million the next year?
Hypothetical Tax Implications ($ millions)
Why not? Because the league doesn’t fall for that nonsense. For the purposes of the CBT, salaries are spread out evenly across the term of the deal. Design wild roller-coasters all you want; a two-year deal for $80 million will count for $40 million each year, no matter when the actual checks go out.
Next, let’s consider a different way around the tax, and a different way the league closed that loophole. Consider a team going for it this year. They’re right up against the tax in this hypothetical world, and they’d prefer not to pay it. Instead, they offer a different deal, this time to a hypothetical closer. In year one, he’ll receive $10 million. Year two is a team option with a salary of $30 million. Should the team decline the option, they’ll pay a $10 million buyout.
One of two things will happen: either our closer will make $40 million for two years of service, or he’ll make $20 million for one year. That feels like a reasonable contract for both sides — and if the league didn’t look too hard at it, they might give the team a tax number of only $10 million in year one.
Let’s make it more absurd, though. What about a one-year deal for $5 million, with a team option for a second year at $60 million and a $15 million buyout. Now the team will certainly pay the buyout. Our pitcher still gets his $20 million over one year. Would anyone think that’s really only a $5 million salary in year one, though?
The league doesn’t. Buyouts of team options are treated as part of the total salary paid in guaranteed years. What does that mean? Let’s take a look at Ronald Acuña Jr.’s contract to explain it. His contract looks like this:
Ronald Acuña’s Contract Extension
That’s $90 million over eight years. After that, there are two team options, the second of which we’ll ignore (given that it only kicks in if the team exercises the first one, CBT math ignores it). The first team option is for $17 million, with a $10 million buyout. That brings the total guaranteed money in the deal to $100 million over eight years — $90 million in salary plus the buyout. What’s Acuña’s CBT number in each year? $12.5 million, or $100 million split evenly over eight years.
Should the Braves exercise Acuña’s option, they’ll pay him $17 million in 2027, but $10 million of that will already have counted against their tax numbers in previous years. How does that hit the salary cap? The league has left it purposely ambiguous, but one interpretation is that the tax number will be lower to account for that previous hit. In Acuña’s case, he has another $10 million buyout the next year, so it’s hardly a lock, but we’re just using him as an example. Again, we don’t know exactly how the league accounts for buyouts — but in my mind, there’s a decent chance that having the cost of the buyout on previous years’ CBT numbers decreases the number the league uses in the option year.
With that explanation out of the way, let’s get back to Hendriks. He’s due $39 million over three years, an average of $13 million per year. After that, there’s his buyout, which also counts against the tax. It’s for $15 million deferred over time. The league discounts deferrals slightly, and without getting into the exact math there, let’s assume that they treat Hendriks’ buyout as worth $13 million in present-day terms. That means he’s due $52 million over three years for the purposes of the tax.
Should he remain with the team for a fourth year, the deal has only $2 million in “new money” — the difference in value between a deferred and present-day $15 million. That makes for big tax numbers in the first three years — roughly $17 million per year — and a minuscule $2 million hit in the fourth year. Again, I’m not certain that this is how options are treated — but it’s a reasonable guess, at the very least, and one of the best reasons I can see for structuring a contract in such a strange way.
Why would a team want to do this? The Sox are no dummies. They’re nowhere near the CBT threshold in 2021 — they check in around $160 million even after Hendriks’ contract. Will they be so far below the threshold in three years? It’s far less clear! Lucas Giolito will need a new contract by then. Nick Madrigal, Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech, and Codi Heuer, just to name a few, will be in their arbitration years. If they’re planning on keeping Lance Lynn, he’ll surely earn more than this year’s $9.3 million salary.
By taking a bigger tax hit now, the White Sox are setting themselves up to avoid paying taxes in the future. Are they actually considering declining the option? Almost certainly not. Why would they? Short of Hendriks being out for the season with an injury, they’ll keep him, because the difference between $15 million now and $15 million over 10 years simply isn’t much in the grand scope of things.
One thing worth monitoring: I’m not actually sure if the league is going to allow this nonsense. I feel reasonably confident that they wouldn’t have allowed a $15 million team option with a $15 million buyout if there were no deferrals involved. Even including that fig leaf, I don’t think there’s much confusion about what’s going on here. The league can treat vesting options that are very likely to be triggered as guaranteed, and it wouldn’t shock me if they did that here. For now, though, it sounds like Hendriks’ contract counts as $54 million over three years in the eyes of the tax man.
In other words, Hendriks signed a four-year, $54 million dollar contract this week. It won’t be reported the same way everywhere — it’s a complex contract, after all. At the end of the day, however, the White Sox wanted to pay Hendriks $54 million to secure his services for the next four years. They did just that — with a little financial chicanery thrown in for good measure.