After five offseasons in existence, the qualifying offer system underwent a makeover in the latest collective bargaining agreement. (Click here for a rundown of the new QO rules.) It remains to be seen how teams will approach this 2.0 version of the qualifying offer, though the most obvious impact can be seen in the relatively short list of names mentioned in this post. Several of the winter’s top free agents aren’t eligible to receive the qualifying offer due to regulations both new and old: players who have been tendered a QO in the past can no long receive another, and players still cannot be issued QOs unless they have been on a single team’s roster for a full season. This means that Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, Jay Bruce, Neil Walker and other notable pending free agents who were traded in midseason deals will be able to hit the open market without any draft compensation attached to their services.
With so many notable names off the QO board, we certainly won’t see a replay of the 2015-16 offseason, when a record 20 players were issued qualifying offers. This winter’s free agent class could, however, potentially match or even top last offseason’s number of ten qualifying offer players, depending on how a few of the “borderline” cases play out.
This winter’s qualifying offer will reportedly be worth $18MM or $18.1MM on a one-year deal, as per ESPN.com’s Buster Olney. Teams have until 10 days after the World Series to issue these offers. If a free agent rejects the offer, his former team becomes eligible for some form of draft pick compensation (an extra pick just prior to the third round, in most cases) if the player signs elsewhere. Of the 64 qualifying offers issued in five previous offseasons, only five have been accepted — Colby Rasmus, Matt Wieters and Brett Anderson after the 2015 season, and Neil Walker and Jeremy Hellickson last winter.
Multiple factors can weigh into a player’s decision about whether or not to accept the QO. If a player is dealing with some injury questions or is coming off a good but not great walk year, the player and his representatives could choose to take the one-year guarantee ($18MM is no small chunk of change, after all) and look for a better and healthier performance in 2018 to better set the player up for a big multi-year contract next winter.
Two big factors may impact this thinking, however. The 2018-19 free agent class is loaded with superstars, so a player who takes the QO now would be entering a much more crowded marketplace next year. Also, players no longer have to worry as much about their markets being hampered by a first-round draft pick being attached their services, thanks to the new CBA’s lesser compensatory costs for teams who sign qualifying offer free agents. It seems likely that teams will be much more willing to give up their second- or third-highest draft picks (depending on the scenario) to sign a QO free agent than they would their first-rounder — we’ve already seen multiple examples of this willingness under the original QO rules, when some organizations added multiple pick-bound free agents in a single offseason (with each successive signing coming with a progressively less significant draft penalty).
Since we’ve seen that players will take a qualifying offer, obviously teams are prepared for such a scenario and wouldn’t issue a QO that they wouldn’t be comfortable seeing accepted. That’s why the lesser amount of compensation (in most cases) coming back to teams that lose a QO free agent probably won’t dramatically affect a club’s decision to tender or not tender a qualifying offer to a particular player. If anything, the lesser compensation has shown us that we could expect more trades of big free agents in future seasons, as non-contending clubs would obviously prefer to land a big return on a deadline trade than to collect merely a compensatory pick prior to the third round (in most cases) if that player rejected a QO and left for free agency. (This reasoning helps explain the Rangers’ decision to deal Darvish this summer, for example.)
With all of this preamble and explanation out of the way, let’s start making some projections about which players will receive the qualifying offer this winter. Quite a bit can still happen (performance-wise or health-wise) over the season’s final six weeks that could influence these rankings, though let’s see how things stand at the moment…
- The Easy Calls: Jake Arrieta, Lorenzo Cain, Wade Davis, Greg Holland (player option), Eric Hosmer, Lance Lynn, Mike Moustakas, Masahiro Tanaka (opt-out clause)
It looks like we’ll have at least seven QO free agents this winter, with an eighth if Tanaka exercises his opt-out. There also doesn’t appear to be much chance that any of the initial seven would accept a qualifying offer, as all are enjoying good-to-outstanding seasons that will deliver them lucrative multi-year contracts. Both Lynn and Holland missed all of 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but both have looked healthy and effective enough in their return seasons that teams shouldn’t have any immediate concerns about their injury status. Lynn’s peripherals aren’t great, while Holland has shown some cracks of late, but on balance both are on track to receive and decline a QO as things stand.
It remains to be seen if Tanaka will opt out of the three years and $67MM remaining on his contract with the Yankees, since he has a career-worst 4.86 ERA over 140 2/3 innings. However, since he has pitched better over the last two months (3.98 ERA, 106-to-18 K/BB ratio since May 26), it seems more likely that he will indeed exercise his opt-out should this form continue through September. Tanaka doesn’t turn 29 years old until November, so even coming off an inconsistent year, he’s still likely to command a strong multi-year deal from someone. Regardless, there isn’t a plausible scenario where Tanaka opts out but then accepts the Yankees’ qualifying offer.
Under the new compensation rules, the Yankees (as a luxury tax payer) would only get a pick after the fourth round if Tanaka rejected the QO and signed elsewhere. The Cubs and Cardinals (as revenue-sharing contributors but not luxury tax payers) would receive a pick between Competitive Balance Round B and the third round if Arrieta, Davis or Lynn signed elsewhere. The Royals and Rockies are both revenue-sharing recipients, so their potential compensation pick(s) for Moustakas/Cain/Hosmer/Holland would fall after the first round for any of those players that end up signing for $50MM or more in guaranteed money.
For what it’s worth, there are several star players (e.g. Jose Altuve, Madison Bumgarner, Gio Gonzalez, Ian Kinsler, Andrew McCutchen, Chris Sale) who could theoretically become free agents and receive qualifying offers if their teams declined club options on their services for 2018. But it’s hard to imagine circumstances where that would really make sense, so we’ll assume these big names won’t be making a surprise entry into free agency.
Based on pure all-around production, Cozart would seem like a lock; only 16 players in baseball have generated more than Cozart’s 4.1 fWAR. The longtime Reds infielder just turned 32, however, and he has battled a couple of quad injuries this season, on top of the knee injuries that hampered him in 2015-16. There’s at least a chance that Cozart would accept the QO, as Zach Buchanan of the Cincinnati Enquirer recently outlined, due to a lack of a shortstop market and the fact that Cozart may jump at the chance to lock in an $18MM+ payday, having earned just over $12.2MM total over seven big-league seasons. The rebuilding Reds have alternative options at short and surely aren’t keen to add $18MM in payroll. Plus, that price tag would make it harder for Cincy to trade Cozart (not to mention the fact that players who accept the QO can’t be dealt without their consent until June 15).
Cozart’s case is an interesting test run for the new free agent compensation rules. If the original rules still applied, the Reds might be more inclined to take the risk of extending the QO since they would’ve landed a draft pick after the first round if Cozart rejected the offer and signed elsewhere. Under the new rules, however, the Reds (a revenue-sharing recipient) can only recoup a pick after the first round if Cozart signs elsewhere for at least $50MM guaranteed. If his next deal is less than $50MM, which is a distinct possibility given the lack of teams looking for shortstops, Cincinnati would only get the standard compensation pick prior to the third round.
After a slow start to the season, a red-hot July and August has put Santana on pace for yet another year of above-average offensive production. He’ll be entering his age-32 season, however, and last season showed that the market for aging first base/DH types is increasingly cool. Cleveland may not want to take the risk that Santana accepts a qualifying offer, as that could mean that the Indians would have over $36MM committed to their first base/DH mix in Santana and Edwin Encarnacion next season — not exactly ideal payroll distribution for a smaller-market club. The lack of extension talks between the two sides could indicate that the Tribe is ready to move on from Santana. Still, if Santana keeps raking, he could be more assured that he could find a nice multi-year offer elsewhere, and Cleveland might feel more secure that Santana would reject a QO.
Morrison got a first-hand look at last winter’s crowded market for first base bats, having to settle for a one-year, $2.5MM deal to return to Tampa Bay. While Morrison is enjoying a career year, however, his lack of a strong track record prior to 2017 may lead to another relative lack of suitors, so he could be a candidate to accept a QO. (It’s also relevant that left-handed sluggers such as Yonder Alonso and Lucas Duda will also be on the market, and neither will be saddled with draft compensation.) Cobb has good but not great numbers in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, and likely also would consider taking a qualifying offer in the hopes of really re-establishing himself as a frontline starter in 2018.
Since both LoMo and Cobb could potentially accept qualifying offers, the Rays aren’t likely to issue them. A team that only rarely edges over the $70MM payroll threshold simply can’t afford to have one (or two) players earning upwards of $18MM per season.
Castillo is posting good numbers in Baltimore and is therefore quite likely to opt out of his $7MM player option for 2018. As always, teams will be looking for catching help this winter, and they’ll be intrigued by a backstop who offered good production against both righties and lefties this season, plus some slightly above-average pitch framing totals behind the plate in the eye of Baseball Prospectus (StatCorner, it should be noted, has a much less positive view of Castillo’s framing performance this season). The Orioles have enough big salaries that they might not want to risk having an $18MM catcher on the books, especially with Caleb Joseph turning in a strong season and Chance Sisco nearing MLB readiness. If the season ended today, I doubt they’d issue Castillo a qualifying offer. That said, this could be a situation to keep an eye on if Castillo keeps hitting well through season’s end.
Gomez has played well enough this season in Texas that the memories of his nightmarish Astros tenure can be fully relegated to the past, though he has been limited to 86 games, largely due to a month-long DL stint recovering from a strained hamstring. Gomez has a 108 wRC+ and has been roughly average defensively in center field, so he could probably land a decent multi-year deal in free agency but would also have a sound case for accepting a qualifying offer. The Rangers likely don’t want to pay Gomez $18MM for one year, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team pass on issuing a QO but still try to re-sign him this winter.