Predicting The 2014-15 Qualifying Offers: Pitchers

Last week, we checked into which hitters might get a qualifying offer, and one of those questions has already been answered: J.J. Hardy, who I figured would receive an offer, has agreed to an extension with Baltimore. Now, it’s time to check out the pitchers, and this should be a little easier, simply because there won’t be as many.

In 2012, only two pitchers received an offer, Kyle Lohse and Rafael Soriano, and they both ended up beating what they would have made had they accepted, though it took Lohse a while to get there. Last year, Ubaldo Jimenez, Hiroki Kuroda and Ervin Santana were the pitchers to get hit with it. Kuroda ended up staying with the Yankees for $16 million, a small raise from what he’d made in 2013. Jimenez and Santana both had to wait until deep into the spring, and while Jimenez eventually got the big, multi-year deal he was looking for, Santana had to settle for one year and $14.1 million from Atlanta, or exactly what he’d have received had he accepted Kansas City’s qualifying offer. A.J. Burnett, to some mild surprise, did not get one from the Pirates.

So what about this year? Six pitchers seem worth discussing, and again, don’t expect to see Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Brandon McCarthy, etc., here, because players traded during the season are not eligible to receive a qualifying offer.

James Shields, RH SP, Royals

Gets offer / declines offer

The first one here is pretty obvious. The second one is going to be obvious too, but we’ll stick with Shields for a moment. Of course he’s getting that qualifying offer. Though the true outcome of the trade that brought him to Kansas City won’t be known for years, since Wil Myers still looks to have a bright future and Jake Odorizzi was quietly very effective for Tampa Bay, the Royals can now say “that trade got us to the playoffs” from now until the end of time, no matter how true that may or may not be — in no small part due to the unexpected emergence of Wade Davis as one of baseball’s most dominant relievers.

Clearly, Shields is in line for a big, multi-year deal, and for good reason. Other than an unusually homer-prone 2010, he’s been worth three to four wins per season every full year of his career, and while the “Big Game” moniker has rightfully been ridiculed, that kind of consistency is very, very valuable. It’s fair to point out that Shields isn’t that young anymore — he’ll be 33 in December — and that his strikeout rate has declined consistently from 23.6% in 2012 to 20.7% to 19.2%, which looks worse considering that overall strikeout rates have gone up. Of course, he’s compensated for that by reducing his walk rate to an excellent 4.7% this year, making his 2014 K%-BB% basically the same as his career average.

So yeah, a guy in line for a big free agent deal is clearly getting a qualifying offer and thinking about it for approximately 0.000002 seconds before declining it. Really, the only question is whether the Royals can come up with enough cash to entice him to stay, as has been reported recently.

There’s certainly some amount of risk in potentially offering five years to a 33-year-old with a lot of mileage on his arm, though he’s somehow been throwing harder than ever this season. That’s a different discussion entirely, though; Shields probably isn’t in Kansas City next year, but the Royals will have the draft pick after he turns down their offer.

Max Scherzer, RH SP, Tigers

Gets offer / declines offer

Sticking with the “yeah, duh,” camp, Scherzer reportedly turned down $144 million from the Tigers this spring, then went out and had himself a second consecutive stellar season. He only just turned 30 in July, and that age difference makes him all but certain to top what Shields is going to get, perhaps considerably so. Scherzer had a little bit less batted ball luck this year, and that’s what fueled a small ERA increase, but otherwise he had basically the exact same season in 2014 as he did in 2013, when he was the nearly-unanimous Cy Young winner. (This year, he might not even finish in the top five, thanks to Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, Lester, Shields, and David Price. Baseball is weird.)

So yes, of course he’s getting the qualifying offer and turning it down, and I won’t bore you with more words on why, except to ask this: What is his free agency going to look like? Between Lester, Shields, Hammel, McCarthy, Kenta Maeda, the remaining names on this list, and some potential trade options (the Reds, for example, could shop Johnny Cueto or Mat Latos), there’s a decent amount of pitching to be found on the market. Scherzer and Scott Boras have clearly set a floor with that declined $144 million offer, but will he be able to find more out there?

The guess here is yes, but not quickly, or easily. We’re probably going to be reading “did Scherzer make a mistake” columns in early January, I think, but he’ll get his money.

Ervin Santana, RH SP, Braves

Gets offer / declines offer

After those obvious two, it gets a little more interesting. Santana took the equivalent of a qualifying offer to join the Braves in the second week of March after Kris Medlen went down. Having missed so much of camp, Santana made a tune-up start in Triple-A, then joined the Atlanta rotation with eight shutout innings on April 9. While he’d outperformed his FIP with the Royals in 2013, he under-performed it this year, with a 3.95 ERA looking worse than a 3.39 FIP. (A career-worst .319 BABIP didn’t help, despite having Andrelton SimmonsJason Heyward behind him.)

Santana turns 32 in December, and he’s always going to have to deal with concerns about his elbow, especially since no righty starter in baseball has thrown a higher percentage of sliders than he has over the last two years. That figures to limit teams looking to give him long-term money, and he knows better than anyone else how hard it can be to be a solid-but-not-elite free agent starting pitcher on the market with a draft pick tax. It’s hard to see anyone paying him more than $15.3m annually, and so this would seem to be a situation where the player would consider accepting.

Even so, it’s not certain either that the Braves will offer or that he’d accept. Atlanta obviously has some rotation holes, with Aaron Harang & Gavin Floyd also free agents, Medlen & Brandon Beachy unable to be relied upon, and Mike Minor having much to prove after a lousy season that ended with shoulder soreness. Julio Teheran will be in the 2015 rotation, certainly, and Alex Wood will probably be a starter as well, but beyond them, there’s more questions than answers. (David Hale? Cody Martin?)

They’d probably like Santana back, and with only $80m committed to 2015 after a $112m Opening Day payroll this year, they’d seem to have the room to do it. (The Braves don’t have any notable arbitration increases coming, and Medlen, arbitration-eligible after making $5.8m in 2014, could be non-tendered.) However, Santana’s late-September public frustration with the ineffective Atlanta offense may not indicate a player dying to return, either:

“It’s tough because we haven’t been playing very good lately,” said Santana. “As a pitcher, we have our confidence up, but at the same time you have to either throw a complete-game shutout or anything like that to get a win. It’s tough, very tough.”

Another complicating factor, of course, is that the Braves don’t actually have an official GM yet, though John Hart is standing in for now and may actually end up hanging onto the job for a while.

I really don’t have a good feel on this one, to be honest. It’s probably worth the risk for Atlanta to offer it. Santana may see this as his last chance to get a multi-year deal, and may not want to remain with an uncertain Braves team, but really, any combination of decisions here wouldn’t surprise me.

Hiroki Kuroda, RH SP, Yankees

Gets offer / declines offer, but either signs with Yankees or leaves MLB

Think the Braves have rotation questions? The Yankees have to pray that CC Sabathia‘s knee holds up and Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow holds up, and hope that 2015 is finally the year Michael Pineda stays healthy for more than 10 consecutive minutes. Ivan Nova won’t be healthy, McCarthy could walk, and so can Kuroda, who turns 40 in December.

As usual, the question is whether Kuroda even wants to return to New York, possibly retiring or returning to Japan to play. If this all sounds familiar, it’s because we went through the exact same dance last year, and as noted above, Kuroda turned down the qualifying offer before returning to the Yankees for slightly more money in early December.

Could the same thing happen again? $15.3m for a 40-year-old pitcher certainly sounds exorbitant, but Kuroda just keeps on ticking, putting up a 3.60 FIP in 2014 that matches his 3.61 career mark almost exactly. (Seriously. His K%-BB% marks since 2009: 13.0, 13.7, 13.4, 13.0, 13.0, 13.5. Unbelievable.) After fading badly late in 2013, he actually had a better second half than first half in 2014.

Really, the only reason for the Yankees not to make an offer is if they’re convinced that he wouldn’t be a useful pitcher in 2015, and we’ve seen little that indicates he’s going to fall off a cliff. The QO would actually be slightly less than what he made this year, and so making the offer makes sense. No one’s going to give up a top pick to sign him, so the end result would be that he either returns (probably on another negotiated one-year deal rather than accepting) or calls it a day and heads back home.

Francisco Liriano, LH SP, Pirates

Gets offer / declines offer

While Russell Martin is certain to turn down a qualifying offer, making it a no-risk proposition, Liriano’s decision would be more complicated, since he wasn’t able to reproduce his stellar 2013. That said, first-half Liriano (.329 wOBA against / 4.27 FIP) and second-half Liriano (.257/2.98) looked absolutely nothing alike, particularly when he allowed only six earned runs in his final seven starts.

With Edinson Volquez also a free agent and Charlie Morton‘s health uncertain, the current 2015 Pirates rotation consists of Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke, and Vance Worley. That’s not enough, obviously. The good news is that the team has only $23.7m committed to four players — Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Morton, and Jose Tabata — but 13 arbitration cases will inflate that, to say nothing of replacing Martin and reinforcing the rotation.

Pittsburgh probably has no interest in having two players both making $15.3m, but Martin is certain to turn it down, so that’s not an issue. The ever-inconsistent Liriano seems like exactly the type of player who you don’t want to commit to for more than a year at a time, and while the qualifying figure would be a considerable raise from Liriano’s $6m 2014 salary, it’s easy to argue that he has been pitching for far below market value with the Pirates, thanks to a lousy 2011-12 and a reduced contract thanks to a broken non-throwing arm suffered in the winter of 2012-13.

So there’s far more reason to believe that the Pirates will give Liriano the offer than not, but will he accept? Though he’s slightly older than Ubaldo Jimenez, he’s had a better run-up to free agency than Jimenez did, and that still got a $50m deal out of the Orioles. Liriano will probably decline, but his free agency could be fascinating.

David Robertson, RH RP, Yankees

Gets offer / accepts offer

In theory, it should be crazy for any relief pitcher to receive a qualifying offer, simply because for the limited amount of innings they pitch, it’s so, so difficult for that pitcher to actually return value on that investment. Of course, the one time it’s been done, with Soriano two years ago, it was by the Yankees, so we can’t rule it out. (You might have considered Koji Uehara in this conversation, though that seems unlikely after the awful end to his season.)

It’s easy to think that the Yankees have a ready-made replacement for Robertson in Dellin Betances, but this isn’t only about the ninth inning, because other than Adam Warren, there’s a lot of holes in the New York bullpen. Shifting Betances into the ninth simply opens up another one; clearly, the Yankees are better off with Robertson than without him.

The Yankees potentially could negate all this by working out an extension with Robertson before free agency, but if not, this is a rare situation where overpaying a reliever makes sense. The Yankees have the money, obviously, and having to pay Robertson for only one year than many negates a huge part of the risk. They did so with Soriano, and they’ll likely do so again with Robertson.

Now, think about what happens if Robertson goes into the market saddled with an offer. Teams have increasingly shied away from giving huge free-agent deals to one-inning relievers, particularly with how badly that all worked out this season. It’s nearly impossible to think anyone would give Robertson — who is very good, but not exactly Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel — more per year than the $15.3m the qualifying offer would provide. It’s completely impossible to see that happening and a team giving up a pick to do so.

Maybe the two sides come to terms first. But if not? This is it, friends. This is the one that ends with an accepted qualifying offer, finally.



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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.


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