It’s funny how narratives shift. Not long ago, the drag effect of the qualifying offer was perhaps the single hottest topic in discussions of open-market dynamics. Now, broader forces have far eclipsed it in importance while rule changes have reduced the impact of the compensation system.
Let’s not ignore the interplay between the QO rule tweaks and the other CBA changes that have helped suppress free-agent earnings. The new qualifying offer rules represented a concession by the owners, but one that only really helped a limited range of players: those good enough to receive significant one-year offers from their existing clubs (most recently, the price was set at $17.9MM) but not so overwhelmingly appealing that the draft compensation was but a minor consideration. The burn was felt most by very good but somewhat flawed and/or older players. Reducing the magnitude of draft compensation helps, but those same players have gone on to be squeezed by other changes to rules and market dynamics.
In any event, the present market setting is one in which the qualifying offer factor is actually perhaps under-appreciated. Parting with draft picks for the right to pay top dollar to a free agent is still a tough pill to swallow for some teams. And there’s little doubt that the cost will be passed through to the player. As Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos has put it, “we’ll put the value into an offer, but it wouldn’t stop us.” The inverse of that sentence might be a more accurate way of stating the prevailing approach.
As you’re no doubt aware if you’ve read this far, there are two remaining free agents who declined a QO this past winter: all-time-great reliever Craig Kimbrel (Red Sox) and former Cy Young-winning starter Dallas Keuchel (Astros). This is the age-31 season for both players. They each have had their hiccups; despite producing generally commendable results of late, neither was at his finest form in 2018. Draft compensation has surely played a role in their rather stunning failure to sign to this point of the season, though it’s far from the only or even the predominant factor.
Both Kimbrel and Keuchel decided against settling for short-term bailout offers that emerged when their markets didn’t. Once the season started, it became quite likely that they’d end up waiting until at least June before putting pen to paper. That’s because the June draft represents an important point on the timeline for the qualifying offer rules.
Per the express terms of the most recent collective bargaining agreement, draft compensation is only available when a qualified player signs on or before the day immediately preceding the Rule 4 draft. This year’s selections begin on June 3rd. MLBTR has confirmed that, unless Kimbrel and Keuchel officially sign (with full league and union approval) on or before 11:59pm EST on June 2nd, all draft compensation relating to those players will be nullified.
With just over three weeks remaining until that vanishing act takes place, it’s rather difficult to see a deal materializing in advance of the draft. If teams are still capable of emotional decisionmaking, this is perhaps the time of year when draft choices are likely to be valued most highly, as clubs are tantalizingly close to turning those selections into actual prospects they like. And if the value of the draft pick compensation is effectively drawn out of the salary the team would otherwise offer, as Anthopoulos suggests and as stands to reason, then it surely makes sense for the player to wait a few more weeks at this point.
A surprise is always possible, but it’s all but certain now that the reps for the K&K holdout hurlers are already chatting with teams about post-draft signing scenarios. What exactly does that mean? For one thing, the countdown could be on for these accomplished hurlers to finally begin pitching again. In some respects, the scene will shift; teams weighing a signing will also be considering trade-deadline alternatives that will require the sacrifice of young talent (and that may not be available for at least a few more weeks). The wild card here is the players’ asking prices; it remains to be seen if they’ll hold out for (and receive) significant, multi-year offers.
For the teams potentially involved, the situation is clear. The Red Sox will not receive the post-4th-round comp pick they would have otherwise, which would have landed after the 137th pick that they already hold. And the Astros will miss out on a choice after competitive balance round B wraps up; it’d have been the 79th overall selection. For all the prospective signing teams, they would hang onto the picks they’d otherwise have to punt to sign one of these pitchers. Putting a real price on those picks is a tricky thing to do — here’s one recent attempt — because any real-world valuation would include team context (such as other picks and negotiating opportunities) as well as the grades placed on the actual prospects that might be taken.
If a deal does formally come together before the draft for one of these players, it’ll likely be with the former team. That’s how it played out back in 2014, the other time we’ve seen players turn down qualifying offers and then languish on the open market. Stephen Drew signed in late May, but that was a deal with the incumbent Red Sox, who by that time already knew they’d miss out on compensation with the draft so close. Kendrys Morales waited until early June for draft compensation to clear, then landed with the Twins.