The first offseason under the newly-adjusted qualifying offer system didn’t seem drastically different from the QO’s first five years of existence. While only nine free agents were issued qualifying offers last winter, that could have had more to do with that offseason’s particular crop of players (or perhaps the shifting state of the free agent market in general) than it did with the new qualifying offer rules.
Still, as we look ahead to this year’s free agent class, you’ll notice we could have trouble even getting to nine names that stand out as clear QO candidates. In the six-year history of the qualifying offer, there has never been fewer than nine players issued the one-year deals, so a new record low could very well be set this offseason.
A brief refresher on the qualifying offer: it is a one-year deal worth the average of the league’s top 125 salaries. (This year’s QO figure will be a bit higher than last offseason’s $17.4MM price tag, but let’s stick with $17.4MM for reference purposes in this post.) Teams have until five days after the last game of the World Series to issue a QO to a player, who then has ten days to decide whether or not to accept.
If a player accepts the offer, he simply returns to his former team. If he rejects the offer and signs elsewhere, his former team receives a compensatory draft pick either immediately after the first round of the 2019 draft, immediately before the third round, or immediately after the fourth round, depending on whether or not the team was a luxury tax payer or revenue-sharing recipient, or if the player signed for more or less than $50MM in his new contract. Those same factors also impact what a team must give up in order to sign a qualifying offer-rejecting free agent, as the signing team will have to surrender at least one draft pick and potentially some international signing bonus pool money.
A free agent is ineligible for the qualifying offer if he has received one in the past (i.e. Nelson Cruz, Daniel Murphy), or if he didn’t spend the entire preceding season with his current team. That means players dealt during the year (i.e. Manny Machado, J.A. Happ, Cole Hamels) can head into the open market without draft pick compensation attached to them.
Last year’s unusually slow-paced offseason will certainly be weighing on the minds of both players and teams when it comes to weighing and issuing qualifying offers this winter. Some players may be more apt to take a one-year deal and a big guaranteed salary rather than risk getting shortchanged in free agency, particularly if that player has a notable injury history and/or a limited track record of success. By that same token, teams may also be more circumspect about issuing qualifying offers, as they obviously won’t want to end up paying over $17.4MM to a player they aren’t absolutely comfortable seeing occupy such a big chunk of payroll space. Of the 73 qualifying offers issued, however, only five players (Jeremy Hellickson, Neil Walker, Colby Rasmus, Brett Anderson, Matt Wieters) have ever accepted the deals.
Injuries, extensions, postseason performance, or any number of factors could still impact this list before the offseason officially begins. For now, however, let’s predict who is likeliest to receive a qualifying offer five days after the World Series…
- The Easy Calls: Elvis Andrus (opt-out clause), Patrick Corbin, Yasmani Grandal, Bryce Harper, Dallas Keuchel, Clayton Kershaw (opt-out clause), Craig Kimbrel, A.J. Pollock
Sticking first with the players who can opt out of their contracts, Andrus has already hinted that he’ll remain in his Rangers contract following his injury-shortened 2018 campaign. Kershaw has dealt with some injury issues of his own in recent years, though he would certainly land more than two years/$65MM (his remaining Dodgers salary) if he opted to join the open market this winter. Prior to the season, both Kershaw and Dodgers owner Mark Walter indicated they’d like to continue the relationship between the franchise and the ace left-hander, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if the two sides reach an extension agreement before the qualifying offer even becomes a factor, a la Justin Upton’s extension with the Angels last year.
Even if Kershaw does opt out, that’s still only seven players who look like strong-to-surefire candidates for a qualifying offer. It would be a surprise if any of the seven accepted the QO, since this group includes a potential $300MM player in Harper, the top closer (Kimbrel) on the market, at least two of the top three starting pitchers available, and maybe the top catcher in Grandal, depending on how one feels about Wilson Ramos.
Admittedly, I gave some thought about Pollock in this category since he suffered another significant injury (missing six weeks with a fractured thumb), giving him just 225 total games played over the 2016-18 seasons. Over that stretch, Pollock has hit .265/.327/.472 with 33 homers and 35 steals (in 43 chances) over 924 PA, while playing generally above-average defense in center field. These are more the numbers of a solid regular than a player in line for a top-tier free agent deal, though since Pollock turns 31 in December, I doubt he’d pass up his best chance at a big multi-year contract for a one-year qualifying offer. Accepting the QO would mean that Pollock would hold off his free agency until his age-32 season, which quite probably limits his earning potential unless he returned to his superstar 2015 form. Since Pollock is likely to decline a QO, the Diamondbacks can feel safe in floating one without worrying that he’d accept, since Arizona might hesitate at committing another $17.4MM-plus in payroll. The D’Backs already project to have over $65MM tied up in three players (Zack Greinke, Paul Goldschmidt, Yasmany Tomas) in 2019.
Sale ($15MM club option) and Bumgarner ($12MM club option) would also surely be issued qualifying offers if the Red Sox and Giants respectively declined to exercise their options on the two aces, though both of those options are locks to be picked up.
Smoak makes the “borderline” category since he wouldn’t be an obvious top-tier free agent like Sale or Bumgarner, plus Smoak is entering his age-32 season and the free agent market hasn’t been too kind to first base-only players over the last two offseasons. Regardless, the Blue Jays will certainly exercise their $8MM club option on Smoak for 2019, so he is just a token option on the list.
Morton discussed the possibility of retiring earlier this year, and while he could explore signing with an East Coast team closer to his wife’s home in Delaware, Morton stressed that his top option would be to continue playing with the Astros. Morton’s most recent comments seemed to indicate that he was leaning towards a return since he was still pitching so well, which led MLBTR’s Steve Adams to suggest that the qualifying offer could be a fit for both Morton and the Astros. Morton would only be committing for one more year while still collecting a nice payday, and Houston would certainly want to have Morton back given his 2018 results. (An x-factor could be the shoulder issues that have bothered Morton in recent weeks, though he is expected to pitch once more before the season ends, and throughout the Astros’ playoff run.)
The Indians already have over $90MM committed to next year’s payroll, and that isn’t counting Carlos Carrasco’s no-brainer club option, big arbitration raises for Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer, and a need to rebuild a bullpen that will likely lose Cody Allen and Andrew Miller. With this in mind, the Tribe may not want to risk adding another $17.4MM to the tally if Brantley accepted a qualifying offer. Brantley does turn 32 next May, and if his age and injury history makes him worried about what offers are available to him in free agency, he might prefer to stick in Cleveland for another year with a contending team. On the flip side, however, Brantley may also want to test the market in the wake of his impressive (and healthy) bounce-back season, and the Tribe could at least recoup some value in the form of a draft pick if he departs. It’s also possible that Brantley accepting the QO wouldn’t be the worst scenario for a Cleveland team that is clearly in “win now” mode and still has a lot of question marks around its outfield.
While he hasn’t returned to the eye-popping offensive levels he carried in 2016, and in fact has been a below-average hitter over the past two seasons, LeMahieu still profiles as a solid all-around performer. LeMahieu’s power is up to personal-high levels in 2018, but his OBP has fallen to a point (.325) not seen since he established himself as a quality regular in 2015. Though he doesn’t earn plaudits for his baserunning, the glovework is a calling card. If you believe DRS more than UZR, you may be a particular believer. The former grades LeMahieu as an outstanding defender at second base, the latter merely a very good one. Regardless, the profile here is of a two-to-three WAR regular. For a Rockies club with other needs and some infield talent waiting in the wings, it seems like it’d be risky to dangle a big single-season payday to a non-star player that might worry about his resulting market situation if he declines the offer. On the other hand, the Colorado organization has been rewarded for being aggressive with the QO in the past (Michael Cuddyer) and may feel that it’d be an acceptable result to keep the 30-year-old LeMahieu for 2019, even at a premium rate.
Most free agents fit into this (or the “absolutely not”) category, though we’ll highlight a few names that at least have some case for a qualifying offer.
David Price has already all but confirmed that he isn’t opting out of the remaining four years and $127MM on his Red Sox contract, so he won’t be a factor in qualifying offer discussions.
The A’s aren’t likely to risk having a $17.4MM player on their payroll, even if the team has little in the way of future salary commitments and may be more willing to spend now that they have a contending team. Lowrie turns 35 in April and has expressed interest in staying in Oakland, so he could accept a QO if offered rather than test the market as a mid-30’s player with a checkered injury history (though he has been healthy the last two seasons and somewhat quietly posted 8.4 fWAR in that stretch). The A’s could forego the qualifying offer and look to bring Lowrie back on a contract extension or perhaps a new deal should he reach free agency, which would give Lowrie more security than just a one-year contract.
Markakis is another veteran entering his age-35 season who could opt to take the qualifying offer and remain in a familiar (and now winning) environment rather than face the uncertainty of the mid-30’s free agent market. I can also see the Braves being open to having Markakis back on a QO contract, as he’d join Freddie Freeman as the only two truly major expenditures on a roster bolstered by lots of pre-arbitration talent. Given that Markakis’ bat has cooled off considerably in the second half, however, I’d still consider it a surprise if Atlanta extended a qualifying offer.
Recent indications seem to hint that if Beltre returns to play in 2019, it will be for the Rangers. Much about Beltre’s plans are still up in the air, of course, though it doesn’t seem like Texas would have to use the qualifying offer to retain the future Hall-of-Famer. Even considering the obvious regard the organization has for Beltre, his injury-shortened and only moderately productive 2018 season doesn’t merit a $17.4MM offer.
As for Ryu, the 31-year-old southpaw caries an exceedingly worrisome injury history. But he warrants mention, as was pointed out in the comments, owing to his incredibly productive work this season when he has been healthy. Ryu has thrown 76 1/3 innings of 2.00 ERA ball, with an impressive combination of 10.1 K/9 and 1.5 BB/9. Statcast thinks he has largely deserved the stingy results, showing a .268 wOBA and .277 xwOBA. The QO amount still feels steep, but a hefty short-term agreement of some kind is likely.