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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?
It's a quiet night on the transactional front, and it's been a while since we've had a poll. So, here goes:
This extension season has included three pretty sizeable contracts to young infielders, each of which features fairly similar terms. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs compared two of those players/deals earlier today (Jason Kipnis and Matt Carpenter), but we'll add a third in Andrelton Simmons to make things interesting.
We'll tick through some of the positives and (relative) negatives of each player below. The question is simple: which of these contract is likely to deliver the best value for the player's team?
Jason Kipnis, 2B, Indians: 6 years, $52.5MM. $16.5MM club option. (2.075 years of MLB service.) Kipnis is not the youngest guy — just turned 27 — but he's put up one good and one very good year in his first two full-time runs at the MLB level. He brings pop and speed to the table. Look at his lines: .257/.335/.379 12 HR, 31 SB (2012); .284/.366/.452 17 HR, 30 SB (2013). What's not to like? If we're quibbling, strikeout rate rose and is slightly above league-average, and he benefited from a .345 BABIP. Perhaps more importantly, the converted outfielder has (for the second time in three years of MLB time) posted a solidly negative UZR rating; in fact, he was last in the league among full-time second baggers last year. Though DRS saw things more positively, the new Inside Edge fielding ratings put him at second-to-last among regulars at the keystone.
Matt Carpenter, 2B/3B, Cardinals: 6 years, $52MM. $18.5MM club option. (2.012 years of MLB service.) Carpenter, 28, had a huge year in his first as a big league regular. Solid defense and a 143 OPS+ is quite a combination, especially when you can do that at second, third, or even the corner outfield. (What is good for your fantasy roster is also good for the Cards.) That all sounds good, but re-read that first sentence. Carpenter did not even reach Triple-A until 2011, which leads to questions about both repeatability and (moreso, perhaps) longevity. And Carpenter has been a slightly below average defender on balance, which could be something to watch given the perception that he is not terribly athletic (relatively speaking, of course).
Andrelton Simmons, SS, Braves: 7 years, $58MM. (1.125 years of MLB service.) The 24-year-old Simmons appears likely to have immense defensive value for the foreseeable future, and he has enough pop to dream of upside on top of that floor. If he can improve his on-base capabilities, Simmons could cement himself as one of, if not the, best shortstops in the game over the entire life of this deal. But what if he doesn't? And what if his solid power numbers and huge defensive metrics come back to earth somewhat? Simmons was one year behind the other two players in terms of service when he inked his deal, so it covers one less free agent season.
It's never good for a team with its sights set on the World Series to incur a major injury in Spring Training, as there often few viable alternatives to be had. That's not necessarily the case for the Tigers, who recently suffered the loss of defensive wizard Jose Iglesias for what appears to be most of the 2014 season. The Tigers have seemingly have three legitimate routes to address the problem: stick with internal options, sign a free agent (i.e. Stephen Drew) or swing a trade for a suitable alternative.
Detroit GM Dave Dombroswki said at the time of the deal that the club planned on sticking with internal options. That means some combination of Danny Worth, Eugenio Suarez and and Hernan Perez would see the bulk of the time at shortstop. The 29-year-old Worth has a .622 career OPS in 246 Major League plate appearances to go along with just 219 big league innings at shortstop. Suarez, 22, has yet to play a game above Double-A and owns just a .253/.332/.387 batting line at that level. Perez, also 22, has gotten a brief taste of the Majors and possesses plus speed, but he's OPSed a meager .642 in parts of six minor league seasons. He's also played just 16 games at the Triple-A level. Suffice it to say, none of these three represents a particularly exciting option for a contending club.
While it's rare for a viable free agent option to be present at this stage in Spring Training, the Tigers have one of the premier free agents of the offseason available to them in the form of Drew. Saddled by a qualifying offer that has helped drive down his value, Drew is working out at the Scott Boras Training Institute in Miami. Fresh off a season in which he batted .253/.333/.443 with plus defense, Drew would require the Tigers to forfeit their No. 23 pick in the upcoming draft. It remains to be seen whether Drew would be amenable to a one-year deal (perhaps with a player option to coax the shorter guaranteed term out of Boras), but he appears to be a natural fit despite Dombrowski's comments. After all, it wasn't that long ago that the Tigers signed a high profile Boras client in light of an injury; Detroit inked Prince Fielder to a nine-year deal after losing Victor Martinez for the year prior to the 2012 campaign.
One has to wonder how genuine those comments from the GM were, in light of recent reports. FOX Sports' Jon Morosi tweeted yesterday that Detroit placed a call to Arizona regarding shortstop Chris Owings, though talks didn't progress far. Today, ESPN's Jayson Stark tweets that several scouts tell him they've been asked by the Tigers if their clubs have shortstops available in trades. One such candidate could be the man Owings beat out for the shortstop gig in Arizona — Didi Gregorius. The D'Backs are said to be making Gregorius available for MLB-ready pitching. He, of course, represents more of a long-term solution than a stopgap until Iglesias is healthy, but the Tigers could always move one of their defensively inclined shortstops next offseason should they swing a deal for Gregorius. Other names that could be available (my own speculation) are Cliff Pennington, Pete Kozma and Elliot Johnson, each of whom could provide solid defense without a heavy cost of acquisition.
It's hard to imagine the Tigers truly being closed off to the possibility of Drew or a trade, should either become available at a price with which Dombrowski is comfortable. However, he may prefer to stick with internal options rather than overpay at this juncture. A summer trade is always possible as well, as more shortstops could be available at that time.
There are now three free agents remaining who are tied to draft-pick compensation. For two of them — defense-first infielder Stephen Drew and defensively-limited slugger Kendrys Morales — the situation appears simple. Their limitations prevent them from being the kind of premier players who drive their own market. And, at present, their skillsets do not have the multiple suitors (i.e., teams with both need for and motivation to spend on that player) necessary to create a small bidding war.
But that is not the situation of Ervin Santana, a starting pitcher who could, in theory, upgrade any rotation in baseball. (Indeed, he's been tied to a laundry list of clubs.) He has posted 200+ innings with a sub-4.00 ERA in three of the last four years. At age 31, Santana is not particularly young, but neither is he particularly old.
As the spring goes on, potential demand is likely only to rise as the inevitable arm injuries continue to occur. Santana is the only impact hurler left on the open market. Meanwhile, the most attractive trade targets increasingly seem likely to stay home for the time being.
In other words, Santana's market is still wide open; after all, the Brewers were a surprising, late-March landing spot for Kyle Lohse last year. In that respect, it is hardly shocking to hear that Santana has not dropped his demand, which reportedly stands in the range of four years and $50MM (the comp du jour for good-but-imperfect starters).
Though there is plenty of time for Santana to find a taker for his price tag, of course, he could ultimately reach a point at which waiting for a buyer means missing regular-season action. Agent Bean Stringfellow said recently that his team had discussed the possibility of waiting to sign until after the June amateur draft to shed the drag of compensation. "Ervin Santana is a front-line starting pitcher. He will be compensated as such," said Stringfellow. "Whatever it takes to make that happen, we will make it happen, simple as that." If it comes down to it, though, would Santana take what he can get, as did Lohse? Or would he really be willing to test the uncharted waters of a qualifying offer holdout?
So, the poll covers two questions: First, what kind of deal will Santana ultimately get? And second, when will he get it?
Click here for the results.
Love it or hate it, there's no denying that the qualifying offer has disrupted baseball's free agent economy. With less than a month to go before Opening Day, three capable players - Stephen Drew, Kendrys Morales and Ervin Santana - are still on the market, potential suitors remaining hesitant to give up a draft pick and its associated bonus pool money. Some players, like Ubaldo Jimenez, have still commanded sizeable deals. Others, however, haven't fared so well. Few would have expected Nelson Cruz to settle for a one-year, $8MM guarantee at the offseason's outset, for example.
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow argued in a recent interview with MLB Daily Dish's Chris Cotillo that turning down this offseason's $14.1MM qualifying offer, which links players with draft pick compensation, is rejecting "what a lot of people would consider pretty generous, life-changing money." The current system is, in any case, "an improvement over what was there before," Luhnow said. On the other hand, there can be little doubt that the qualifying offer is suppressing the salaries of some players at a time when Major League Baseball has never been more profitable. The system can also frustrate fans. Adding Drew, Morales or Santana would improve many clubs' chances for a 2014 postseason berth, and some find it hard to digest that the value of a draft pick can outweigh that of a player who can impact a team now.
The qualifying offer system will remain in place through at least December 2016, when the current collective bargaining agreement expires. At that point, MLB owners and players will reconvene to try to hammer out a new deal, and the qualifying offer is sure to emerge as a topic of discussion. At that time, should the system be scrapped?
Earlier today, Justin Masterson told reporters that he believes that "somehow, some way" he'll be in Cleveland for a few more years after this one. That statement can serve as a beacon of optimism for Masterson/Indians fans, but there have been plenty of instances of a player going on record to say he thinks he will/wants to/hopes to stay with a team, only to sign elsewhere in the future.
Masterson isn't likely to give the Indians a hefty discount with just seven to eight months sitting between him and free agency, and the price for extending players has seemed to trend upward recently. Masterson is one year older than fellow right-hander Homer Bailey, who signed a six-year, $105MM extension with a comparable amount of service time. The similarities don't stop there, either. As that comparison shows, fWAR assigns Masterson the higher value due to his higher innings total, but in terms of ERA, FIP and xFIP, the two have accumulate very, very similar results over the past three seasons. Masterson relies more on ground-balls, while Bailey's leaned more heavily on superior command and a few more whiffs.
Regardless, Bailey signed away five free agent seasons for roughly $95MM. That figure, as noted by Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in an updated piece on Masterson's comments, simply isn't going to be on the table from the Indians.
Masterson currently faces a decision: he's experienced his ups and downs in recent seasons (2010 and 2012 were not pretty), but he's a talented pitcher in the midst of his prime who is months away from being one of the best pitchers on the free agent market alongside James Shields, Max Scherzer and Jon Lester (Lester, of course, is widely expected to sign an extension this spring). Another strong season would give Masterson three years of an ERA well under 4.00 with 193-plus innings and one of the league's best ground-ball rates. However, his comments today also hinted that he'd like to stay in Cleveland, and an extension would eliminate the risk of a poor season or injury sapping his potential earnings.
It would be beneficial to the Indians' long-term outlook to keep Masterson around and pair him with the likes of Danny Salazar for years to come, but the team could also look to fill the void internally (or with cheaper free agent/trade options) and recoup a draft pick via qualifying offer next offseason in letting Masterson walk.
It is not often that things line up quite so cleanly as this, but after a roller-coaster offseason, three of the market's top starters all landed quite similar overall guarantees. It would be too much, perhaps, to argue that the market valued them identically; after all, each signed at different points in an always-changing market, agreed to various terms that impact the overall value of their contracts, and had differing situations with regard to qualifying offers. Nevertheless, it seems fair to suggest that Ricky Nolasco, Matt Garza, and Ubaldo Jimenez were each valued in rough proportion to one another.
Yet each pitcher brings a very different set of risks and benefits to their new deals. (Player name links are to MLBTR's Free Agent profile series; deal links are to reported signing, which includes contract details.)
Ricky Nolasco (age 31; received four years, $49MM from Twins) — Nolasco is durable and solid, having made at least 31 starts in each of the last three regular seasons while consistently maintaining a walk rate hovering just above 2.0 BB/9. While his overall results have been less than stellar, Nolasco has tended to post much better ratings by advanced metrics than ERA, and finally saw the results to match last year. Has he been unlucky, or does he just give up a lot of solid contact? Either way, Minnesota has put its money into a pitcher who has about as good a record of durability as could be hoped.
RISK: disconnect between advanced metrics and results
Matt Garza (age 30; received four years, $50MM from Brewers) — Garza has been consistently above-average … when healthy. Striking out batters consistenly in the range of about eight per nine, and holding down walks to less than three per nine since maturing as a pitcher, Garza's results are hard to argue with. (He has not ended a season with an ERA above 4.00 since his rookie year.) But a string of injuries held him to 103 2/3 innings in 2012 and 155 1/3 in 2012. If healthy, there is every reason to believe that Garza will continue to be an excellent (albeit not dominant) starter, but therein lies the rub.
BENEFIT: reliably above-average performance
Ubaldo Jimenez (age 30; received four years, $50MM from Orioles) — Unlike either of the previous two hurlers, Jimenez has at times been amongst the most dominant starters in the game. He has been an unquestioned ace over complete seasons (earlier in his career, with Colorado) and parts of seasons (the second half of last year, with Cleveland). In between, however, Jimenez has posted some genuinely unsightly stat lines. While his 2011 campaign may have taken a downturn due to some bad luck, he was terrible in most respects over the entirety of 2012, as he lost both his control and his ability to register strikeouts. Like Nolasco, Jimenez has been supremely durable. But if his new club can count on at least 180 innings, of what quality will they be? Jimenez showed flashes of both good and bad last year, and it remains to be seen which side defines his tenure in Baltimore. [Note: Orioles also gave up a first-round draft choice to sign Jimenez.]
BENEFIT: durability, upside
So, MLBTR readers: putting aside the particulars of their new teams' situations, which of these three similarly-priced investments do you think was money best spent?
Mike Trout's on-field excellence need not be repeated here, nor compared to that of other players. He is really young, and really good, and is those things combined in a manner unmatched by any other current player. Also, having not yet qualified for arbitration, he is really cheap.
Trout will remain youthful for some time, and every indication is that he'll continue to be outstanding. But he will not continue to play for a league minimum salary for much longer.
Set to hit arbitration next year with potentially unprecedented levels of performance, Trout could well shatter records if he is allowed to go year to year. Then, qualifying for free agency after the 2017 season at just 26 years of age, Trout could become the most sought-after open-market player in baseball history.
On the other hand, injury or decline could change things. And Trout's career earnings are relatively meager as things stand, in spite of his two monster years of performance, leaving him somewhat exposed entering his platform seasons.
So, both Trout and the Angels face risk, and both sides have incentives to talk about a new deal. Indeed, recent reports indicate that the parties are legitimately interested in making a serious run at reaching an extension at the start of the current year.
That makes this an opportune time to ask MLBTR's readers how they see things. The poll below comes with two questions, broken into two parts, both of which assume an extension scenario during the current offseason (or reasonably early during the 2014 campaign, when any contract is likely to be inked due to luxury tax considerations).
First, it asks you to opine as to the largest deal that the Angels should be willing to agree to with Trout (years and dollars). Second, it asks you to predict what deal Trout will ultimately land.
I have set fairly generous response parameters, designed to avoid patently absurd responses. The number of years must be between 3 and 15, while the amount (in $MMs) must fall between 50 and 500.
Click below to view survey results.
Despite the fact that we're now into February, ten of MLBTR's Top 50 free agents remain free agents, as they've yet to find a contract that meets their desires this offseason. The market includes three of the market's top bats and seven pitchers — six starters and one closer coming off a pair of elite seasons.
Ervin Santana, A.J. Burnett, Ubaldo Jimenez, Stephen Drew, Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales, Bronson Arroyo, Fernando Rodney, Suk-Min Yoon and Paul Maholm have yet to sign contracts. Of the group, it's interesting to note that three of the seven are Scott Boras clients — Drew, Morales and Yoon — and Boras is no stranger to signing large deals late in the offseason.
There are currently more obvious fits for most of the free agent pitchers than there are the hitters; few teams are in desperate need of a starting shortstop, and the teams that could use additional power in their lineup aren't high on the defensive limitations of Cruz and Morales. Also of note is that five of remaining Top 50 — Santana, Jimenez, Drew, Cruz and Morales — rejected qualifying offers and would therefore require forfeiture a draft pick in order to sign.
Free agent deals can materialize very quickly at this juncture of the offseason, as we saw last week in deals for Top 50 free agents such as Matt Garza and Jason Hammel. Cruz and Rodney have both been connected to the Mariners as of late, while Drew has been connected to both the Mets and Red Sox for much of the offseason. Santana, Jimenez, Arroyo and Burnett have been linked to numerous teams, particularly since Burnett announced that he may pitch for a team other than Pittsburgh in 2014. Yoon held a workout seen by the Giants and Orioles recently and has also been connected to the Twins and Red Sox. Maholm has been linked to the Rangers (following Derek Holland's injury) and Angels in recent weeks. While each has seen his fair share of rumors (some more than others), each is without a job as many teams' pitchers and catchers are preparing to report to Spring Training.
One of the most notable "file and trial" teams in baseball, the Braves have a team policy that they will not negotiate once arbitration figures are submitted. This is of particular note given the fact that three of their best players — Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward — were unable to come to an agreement in advance of the filing deadline. Now, all three are likely headed for hearings.
The gap between Kimbrel and the Braves is the largest, as he submitted a $9MM figure while the Braves countered at $6.55MM. As MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz pointed out back in November, Kimbrel's arb case is perhaps the most interesting of the offseason as there is truly no precedent for a closer doing what he's done to this point of his career.
Freeman is fresh off his first All-Star nod and a fifth-place finish in the NL MVP voting. He's looking at a $1.25MM gap between his $5.75MM figure and the Braves' $4.5MM figure. The gap between the Braves and Heyward is a mere $300K ($5.5MM vs. $5.2MM), which one would think is small enough that an agreement can be worked out.
However, GM Frank Wren flatly said, "We're done," following the exchange of arb figures, indicating that he does indeed plan on heading to trials. It's worth noting that the team did avoid arbitration with Jeff Francoeur the night before his scheduled hearing back in 2009, but the team's strict policy has been adopted since that time. With all this said, let's vote on each case. You can keep track of the results by clicking here.