Major League Baseball’s postseason begins Tuesday, which means the start of free agency isn’t far away. Before the market opens, there are several teams that will have decisions to make on whether to issue qualifying offers to pending free agents. The qualifying offer, which should be worth upward of $18MM, gives a club the ability to keep a player for an extra year if he accepts it. Otherwise, should he walk as a free agent, the team would receive draft pick compensation for its trouble. Those who have received the QO in the past can’t get it again (Dodgers southpaw Hyun-Jin Ryu is among those exempt), nor can players who were part of in-season trades.
We’ll begin this two-part series by looking at soon-to-be free-agent pitchers who may have set themselves up to land QOs before reaching the market…
- Gerrit Cole, RHP, Astros: As the lone pitcher in this year’s class who has a chance at a $200MM contract (or maybe even a $100MM deal), Cole’s an obvious bet for a qualifying offer. The 29-year-old may well hit the market off a Cy Young-winning season, having amassed a jaw-dropping 326 strikeouts (against 48 walks) with a 2.50 ERA/2.64 FIP in 212 1/3 innings.
- Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants: Throughout the first half of the season, it didn’t look as if Bumgarner would be in position to get a QO. That wasn’t because of his performance, but on account of the fact that he looked like a clear-cut trade candidate. The Giants ultimately held on to the franchise icon, though, and if he does reach the market in a month, he’s sure to come with a QO attached. After enduring back-to-back injury-shortened seasons, the 30-year-old Bumgarner restored his reputation as a workhorse in 2019 with 207 2/3 innings of matching 3.90 ERA/FIP ball with 8.8 K/9 and 1.86 BB/9.
- Zack Wheeler, RHP, Mets: One of the hardest throwers in the game, Wheeler has bounced back from arm injuries that derailed his career from 2015-17 to regain his status as a coveted hurler over the past couple seasons. The 29-year-old just finished a season in which he logged a 3.96 ERA/3.48 FIP with 8.98 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 over 195 1/3 frames
- Jake Odorizzi, RHP, Twins: Odorizzi may not look as exciting as the above names on the list, but the 29-year-old recorded compelling results during the regular season for the World Series-contending Twins. Thanks in part to an increase in average fastball velocity (92.9 mph, up from 90-91 during the earlier portion of his career), Odorizzi registered a stingy 3.51 ERA/3.36 FIP in 159 innings this year. While Odorizzi’s trouble inducing groundballs continued (his GB rate checked in at just 35 percent), so did his ability to limit home runs (fly balls left the yard at a paltry 8.8 percent against him). Odorizzi also put up 10.08 strikeouts per nine against an even three walks.
- Will Smith, LHP, Giants: Like teammate Bumgarner, Smith was a much talked-about trade candidate whom the Giants decided to keep. Now, if they issue him a QO, they’ll get a draft pick should he depart during the coming months. The 30-year-old Smith was a force this season, notching a 2.76 ERA/3.23 FIP with 13.22 K/9 and 2.89 BB/9 across 65 1/3 innings. Smith converted 34 of 38 save chances along the way.
- Cole Hamels, LHP, Cubs: Injuries prevented Hamels from enjoying another high-inning season, as he totaled just 141 2/3, though he was still effective. But whether Hamels was effective enough to merit a QO is iffy. Hamels, who will turn 36 in December, managed a 3.81 ERA/4.09 FIP with 9.08 K/9, 3.56 BB/9 and a 47.3 groundball percentage. Considering a QO wouldn’t be much of a step down from Hamels’ 2019 salary of $20MM, it’s likely he’ll give strong consideration to accepting it if the Cubs make the offer.
- Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals: It’s up in the air whether Strasburg will become a free agent for the first time, as opting out of his deal would mean leaving a guaranteed four years and $100MM on the table. That’s a risky proposition for a 31-year-old who has dealt with plenty of injuries during his career, though the Nationals will surely hit Strasburg with a QO if he does gamble on going to the market. Strasburg stayed healthy during the regular season and put up a tremendous 3.32 ERA/3.25 FIP with 10.81 K/9, 2.41 BB/9 and a 51.1 percent groundball rate in 209 innings – the second-highest total of his career.
- Yu Darvish, RHP, Cubs: For the majority of the season, a Darvish opt-out would have been unthinkable. Now, even though it still doesn’t seem as if it will happen, it’s not the impossibility it once was. The 33-year-old ended the season on an absolute tear, piling up 12 or more strikeouts in each of his last three starts. Darvish closed 2019 with a 3.98 ERA/4.18 FIP with a fantastic strikeout/walk ratio (11.54 K/9 against 2.82 BB/9) in 178 2/3 innings. Still, it seems he’d be better off sticking with the four years and $81MM left on his deal. However, if Darvish takes a risk on free agency, he won’t get there without a QO hanging over his head.
- Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Yankees: Chapman still has two years and $30MM left on his contract, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the fireballer opt to test the market again. He’s fresh off an age-31 season in which he pitched to a 2.21 ERA/2.28 FIP with 13.42 K/9 against 3.95 BB/9 in 57 innings. As has long been the case, Chapman was almost a lock to preserve wins, saving 37 of 42 opportunities.