The qualifying offer system turned Kyle Lohse's name into a verb following the 2012-13 offseason. Lohse didn't sign a free agent contract until late March, a long wait that was attributed to Lohse turning down the Cardinals' one-year, $13.3MM qualifying offer the previous November, and thus attaching the price of a first-round draft pick to any team that wanted to sign him.
Lohse, at least, ended up with some solid long-term security in the form of his three-year contract from the Brewers. This offseason's four free agents who "got Kyle Lohse'd" haven't been nearly so lucky in finding a multiyear commitment. Ervin Santana, coming off a 3.0 fWAR/2.9 rWAR season in 2013, could only find a one-year, $14.1MM contract and had to wait until almost the middle of March to find it. Nelson Cruz, who posted an .833 OPS with 27 homers in 2013, could only find a one-year deal worth $8MM from the Orioles. As for Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew, it's almost mid-April and both players remain unsigned.
While such factors as defensive limitations, injury worries and (in Cruz's case) PED histories limited the quartet's market, the qualifying offer stands out as the biggest reason why Santana and Cruz were limited to one-year deals, and why Morales and Drew are still available. Teams simply weren't willing to give up first- or second-round draft picks in order to make major commitments to these players, while other similar free agents (i.e. Jhonny Peralta or Matt Garza) who didn't require draft pick compensation were able to find four-year contracts.
No free agent has accepted a qualifying offer in the two years that the system has been in place, yet as ESPN's Jayson Stark noted today, "clubs are already getting the vibe from some agents that player/agent strategy is about to change — and players will be far more open to taking qualifying offers next winter." Next year's qualifying offer will be in the range of $15MM for a one-year deal, so while players will be giving up long-term security, they'll still make significant money for accepting a contract. A National League executive tells Stark that teams could employ a tactic of offering a multiyear deal to players who accept a qualifying offer in order to both spread the money out and to give the player more security.
As Lohse himself tells Stark, however, settling for a one-year qualifying offer may be profitable but it goes against the spirit of free agent. "I know we're fortunate to be making the money we're making. But when you get that option where you only have a one-year deal, you don't have any security," Lohse said. "To penalize guys who, in my case last time, have put in 10 or 11 years, and to lock me into a situation where I only have the opportunity to get a one-year deal…it puts guys in a totally different situation that have worked so hard to get to where they want to be." Another issue, as Lohse notes, is that a player who accepts a one-year qualifying offer deal could find himself stuck in the same position the next offseason.
I'd argue that player/agent relations could be another factor in the decision about accepting a qualifying offer process. If an agent advises his client that a one-year qualifying offer is the best option, a player who has waited years for free agency (as Lohse described) and is coming off a strong enough season to merit a qualifying offer in the first place might not accept this advice and seek out a new agent instead. Granted, unrealistic contract expectations may have played a part in why Cruz (reportedly looking for a $75MM deal) and Santana (looking for a nine-figure contract) drew such limited interest on the open market, but agents pride themselves on finding the best possible deals for their clients and don't want to be seen as "settling" on a one-year deal for a client coming off a good season.
Being open to accepting a qualifying offer could, conversely, become a tactic unto itself for players, Stark notes. If players are more open to accepting these offers, teams could be more wary of extending them in the first place to so-called "borderline" free agents. The Red Sox might not have risked Drew accepting their offer, for instance, as the team seemed eager to give Xander Bogaerts an everyday role at shortstop. (Boston did explore re-signing Drew for a one-year deal, but likely not at a $14.1MM price.)
There's still a ton of baseball to be played before we reach the 2014-15 offseason, of course, and still to early to speculate about which of the 2015 free agents stand out as possible candidates to be "Kyle Lohse'd" — or, maybe this term is now "Kendrys Morales'd" or "Stephen Drew'd." Still, given how this most recent offseason has played out for Morales, Drew, Cruz and Santana, do you think we'll see at least one free agent bite the bullet and accept a qualifying offer in November?