It is officially draft day in Major League Baseball, and as the clock has struck midnight on the east coast, it also means that teams can sign free agents who rejected the qualifying offer without having to surrender the draft pick compensation usually attached to QO picks. Thus, after months of speculation, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel have been one of their chief obstacles to a new contract fall by the wayside.
While several players have seen their free agent markets impacted by the qualifying offer over the QO’s seven offseasons of existence, Keuchel and Kimbrel join Kendrys Morales as the only players to escape the qualifying offer’s draft penalties by simply waiting out the draft itself to sign new contracts. Stephen Drew’s free agent visit also extended into the 2014 season, though he ultimately re-signed with the Red Sox before the draft.
Of course, waiting this long to sign has the obvious drawback of inactivity. The two pitchers have now given up over two months of their careers and a proper Spring Training camp, though Keuchel and Kimbrel have both been working in preparation to eventually get on the field, Keuchel and Kimbrel will have to ramp up their activity without the benefit of a proper Spring Training camp. According to Keuchel’s agent Scott Boras, the southpaw will be ready to join his new team about a week after signing, which seems like a somewhat optimistic projection. It’s worth noting that Morales and Drew both struggled badly in their abbreviated 2014 seasons, and we’ve seen several other examples (i.e. Greg Holland last season) of how players with QO-induced extended layoffs can struggle without the benefit of a proper offseason.
As a reminder, here is what each team would have had to give up in terms of compensation had they signed Keuchel or Kimbrel at any point in the last seven months. The large majority of teams would have had to give up just one draft selection (either their second-highest or third-highest pick), and the 12 clubs who didn’t exceed the luxury tax or receive revenue-sharing payments would have also had to surrender $500K in international bonus pool money. The Nationals and Red Sox were the only two teams who did surpass the luxury tax threshold in 2018, and thus would have had to give up their second- and fifth-highest picks plus $1MM in international bonus pool money. (This only applies to Boston in regards to Keuchel, as the Sox obviously could have re-signed Kimbrel with no penalty since he was most recently on their team.)
The Red Sox and Astros are further impacted, as the two clubs will now no longer receive the extra picks that would have been owed to them had Kimbrel and Keuchel indeed signed elsewhere. Since they paid into the luxury tax, the Red Sox would have only received a pick between the fourth and fifth rounds, while Houston would have received a pick between Competitive Balance Round B and the third round. While the current draft order would have been altered in this scenario depending on what team gave up their pick to sign Keuchel, the Astros would have had either the 78th or 79th overall pick if Keuchel had indeed landed on another team.
Rather than discussing how Keuchel would impact a new rotation, or how Kimbrel would shore up the back of a contending team’s bullpen, the two pitchers instead became the poster children for the increasing lack of action in baseball’s free agent market. With modern front offices putting so much value on possessing a young player (either a draft pick or an international signing) through six or as many as seven seasons pre-free agency, as well as an increased wariness in how veteran players decline in their 30’s, teams are simply loathe to give up draft capital and/or spend money on established free agents, even noted stars like Keuchel and Kimbrel.
In fairness to teams, the qualifying offer draft compensation wasn’t the only reason both pitchers are still available as the calendar turned to June. There were legitimate baseball reasons to hold off on spending huge money on either player — Keuchel’s grounder-heavy arsenal and lack of a power fastball might not age well, while Kimbrel looked shaky down the stretch and throughout Boston’s postseason run in 2018.
Keuchel and Boras were looking for at least a five-year contract, while Kimbrel entered the offseason hoping for what would have been a record-setting $100MM+ contract for a closer. Both those sky-high initial asking prices have since been lowered, as Kimbrel was said to be looking for a three-year deal in early April, while Kimbrel was reportedly open to a one-year contract worth more than the value of the $17.9MM qualifying offer he turned down from Houston. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman, however, notes that such a prorated one-year offer isn’t being considered by either Keuchel or Kimbrel, as “both would be signed” if they were willing to settle for such contracts.
With the draft pick hurdle now cleared and over a third of the season gone, it remains to be seen exactly what type of contracts Keuchel and Kimbrel will end up signing. A one-year pact would have allowed either pitcher to test free agency again this winter without the qualifying offer, though that scenario might not be appealing if the shortened season does lead to a downturn in performance. At the same time, it’s rather hard to imagine teams extended multi-year guarantees given the circumstances.
As odd as it sounds after seven months of inaction, but Keuchel and Kimbrel now aim to be hot commodities for a wide range of teams looking for rotation or bullpen help. The Braves, Brewers, and Rays have each had interest in both pitchers, with Atlanta, St. Louis and the Yankees considered “favorites” for Keuchel, as per Heyman, and such teams as the Mets, Diamondbacks, and Twins have also been mentioned as possible candidates to sign Keuchel. For Kimbrel, the Phillies and Cubs are known to have some level of interest in the closer. A signing could some relatively quickly, or Keuchel and Kimbrel may still take a bit more time to properly sort through the offers coming their way.