Cliff Corcoran breaks down the impact of this year's qualifying offer decisions, including the acceptances by Matt Wieters, Colby Rasmus and Brett Anderson.
The deadline to accept or reject a qualifying offer has come and passed for the 20 free agents who received one. Players who took it would get a one-year, $15.8 million contract for 2016 and can't be traded until June 15 without their permission. Those who turned it down are free to test the open market with the knowledge that their options might be suppressed by the compensation system that forces any team that signs them (other than their 2015 team) to forfeit its top unprotected draft pick.
For the first time in the three years this system has been in place, three players actually accepted; a fourth, Marco Estrada, elected to sign a new deal with his most recent club (the Blue Jays). But just how will this year's qualifying offer decisions affect the free-agent market? Below is a breakdown of all 20 players and how their choices could impact the hot stove season.
Anderson, Rasmus and Wieters will be returning to the Dodgers, Astros and Orioles, respectively, and all three will hope to build on their 2015 seasons to make a bigger splash in next winter’s thinner free-agent market.
Anderson, though he stayed healthy for a full season for the first time since his rookie year of 2009, had middling results, including a 101 ERA+, 5.8 strikeouts per nine and fewer than six innings pitched per start. Rasmus is hoping to build on the strong finish that saw him hit .310/.425/.710 with 12 home runs and 20 walks in 32 games from the start of September through his memorable postseason performance, which his agent attributes to an alteration in his batting stance. Wieters, meanwhile, appeared in just 75 games in 2015 after returning from Tommy John surgery and is hoping that a full, healthy season at Camden Yards will allow him to recapture the luster he once held as a strong defensive catcher capable of annual 20-homer seasons.
Of the remaining 16 players, several (but not all) could see their earning potential this off-season harmed by the draft pick compensation attached to their signing.
These are five of best free agents on the market and five of the top eight per the annual rankings assembled by SI's Ben Reiter. Each man listed above is so valuable and so desirable that draft pick compensation is just assumed to be part of the price tag of acquiring them, and no team seriously considering a bid for any of these five is going to let that impact its decision making. Nor does the qualifying offer figure to be a factor when these players are measured against the other elite free agents who were ineligible for qualifying offers due to having been traded at midseason, a group that includes Yoenis Cespedes, Johnny Cueto, David Price and Ben Zobrist.
Just enough doubt exists for these players that the qualifying offer could impact the size of their market, but not the size and scope of the contract they ultimately sign. That is to say: Draft pick compensation could tip the balance for teams that might be on the fence about each one. Davis will turn 30 in March and has just two star-quality seasons under his belt, separated by a lousy 2014 performance (.196/.300/.404). Desmond is already 30 and is coming off a lousy 2015 season (.233/.290/.384). Kendrick is a second baseman who will turn 33 in July and was below average in the field in 2014, according to multiple advanced statistics.
Ultimately, however, enough teams should be interested in all three that they will eventually land a deal comparable to what they would have even without the extra burden of a lost draft pick.
These are players who will lose either years, dollars or both off their eventual contracts because of the additional cost of draft pick compensation. The impact may not be dramatic—none of these players is likely to remain unsigned past the spring training reporting date for pitchers and catchers in February, as happened to five players, including Nelson Cruz, in 2014—but these six are far enough away from the top of the market that compensation will absolutely be a factor in the offers they receive.
Let's look at them in reverse alphabetical order:
Samardzija, who will be 31 in January, led the majors in hits and earned runs allowed with the White Sox in 2015 and was tied for the American League lead in home runs allowed. He has never had a season worth more than 2.0 bWAR.
Murphy, despite his impressive postseason for the Mets, is a poor defensive second baseman who has averaged 1.6 bWAR over the last four seasons. The market for his services may be stronger among teams looking for a slightly above-average bat to stash at a corner infield spot, or even at designated hitter. Teams looking for a free-agent second baseman will likely prefer Zobrist and Kendrick, as well they should.
Iwakuma finished third in the AL Cy Young voting in 2013, but he will turn 35 in April and has averaged just 154 innings and a 105 ERA+ over his last two seasons in Seattle.
Gallardo is coming of a very valuable season for the Rangers (4.1 bWAR) but has seen his strikeout rate decline steadily since 2009. That pattern has accelerated in the last three years, resulting in just 5.9 strikeouts per nine this past season, due in part to a drop in velocity.
Fowler will be helped by the absence of Rasmus from the centerfield market. Still, despite a year in which he posted career highs in home runs (17) and walks (83), stole 20 bases for the first time since 2009 and helped the Cubs reach the postseason, Fowler is nonetheless below average in the field and will be 30 in March.
As for Chen, he had a below-average strikeout rate (7.2 K/9) and an above-average home-run rates (1.3 HR/9) for the Orioles in 2015. What's more, he has never thrown more than 193 innings in a season and was not widely heralded when he came over from Japan after the 2011 season. All of that seems likely to make him somewhat undervalued relative to the strong season he had this past year.
Estrada finalized a two-year, $26 million contract with Toronto just before Friday's deadline, so we'll never know what kind of free-agent deal Estrada could have gotten, but MLB Trade Rumors’ Tim Dierkes projected him to get $30 million over three years. That seems accurate in length but low in value for a pitcher who, postseason included, had a 3.05 ERA over 200 1/3 innings in 2015.
There are good reasons for teams to doubt the ability of Estrada to repeat that performance, most significantly his inferior track record coming into what was his age-31 season and his heavy reliance on the Blue Jays’ outstanding team defense, as illustrated by his 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings and .217 opponent’s batting average on balls in play. Still, without a draft pick attached to his price, he might have landed a four-year contract, even if one of those years came with an option attached. Instead, it appears he’ll settle for returning to the Blue Jays for what amounts to the qualifying offer plus a second year at $10 million.
As for Lackey, as good as he has been since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2013 and as strong a year as he had in '15 (2.77 ERA in 218 regular-season innings for the Cardinals), he is not without drawbacks. He turned 37 in October and has a 3.73 Fielding Independent Pitching mark over the last three seasons due to a below-average strikeout rate and an above-average home-run rate. With Lance Lynn lost for the 2016 season due to Tommy John surgery, Lackey will likely wind up returning to St. Louis, possibly on a two-year deal, rather than landing the three-year, $50 million contract Dierkes predicted for him, admittedly with full knowledge of his qualifying offer.
Should Have Accepted
Kennedy will be 31 next month and has posted an 84 ERA+ over the last three seasons. His fourth-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting in 2011 now seems like a distant fluke fueled by his 21 wins that season. Since then, he has posted a 4.05 FIP, and in 2015 he allowed a whopping 31 home runs and averaged less than 5 2/3 innings per start despite pitching his home games at Petco Park. According to bWAR, he has been a sub-replacement level player over the last three seasons combined. Yes, he has stayed healthy and has solid strikeout rates, but any team that gives up a draft pick to pay him tens of millions to join their rotation is taking a huge and foolish gamble.