Which Hitters are Getting a Qualifying Offer this Offseason?

A decent chunk of my chat yesterday involved questions about whether or not certain players should be expected to receive a qualifying offer from their teams this winter, thus ensuring draft pick compensation for their current teams if they end up changing teams via free agency. So, instead of talking about a few players here and there in various chats, I figure it’s worth investigating all the potential free agents who may or may not receive such an offer.

For some background, Jeff Sullivan wrote up an explanation of the Qualifying Offer process last year, but the nuts and bolts are pretty simple: for teams with free agents to be who have been on their roster all season, they can make them an offer for one year equal to the average salary of the Top 125 paid players in MLB, and then the player has one week to explore their market and decide whether to accept the offer from their current team or continue on in free agency with draft pick compensation attached.

Last year, the qualifying offer was equal to $13.3 million, and teams tendered it to nine players: David Ortiz, Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Hiroki Kuroda, Rafael Soriano, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse, and Adam LaRoche. All nine players declined the offer, and in each case, they ended up with better deals than accepting $13.3 million for just one season.

This year, the average is expected to go up slightly, reaching the $14 million mark or something close to it. So, let’s take a look at this free agent class and see who is worth that kind of offer. We’ll start with the position players, then do the pitchers later this afternoon.

Using the free agent leaderboards, I count five position players where the decision is fairly obvious to make the qualifying offer: Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Hunter Pence, and Brian McCann.

These guys are generally considered the jewels of the upcoming free agent class, and are all likely to receive multi-year offers for more than $14 million per year. So, for this exercise, those players aren’t very interesting, because there’s not really much to discuss. The more fun players to analyze are the guys on the bubble, where an argument could be made in both directions. Let’s look at those guys one by one.

Curtis Granderson, OF, Yankees

Granderson has spent most of the year on the DL, but he’s been productive since returning, and is one of the better left-handed bats available this winter. The fact that the Yankees moved him off center field probably won’t help his value, even though he’s still plenty productive for a corner outfielder. Both ZIPS and Steamer see him about a .350 wOBA guy, so when you factor in his defensive and baserunning value, he grades out as roughly a +3 WAR player over a full season.

At 33, he’s probably not going to be able to land a long term deal, but the Yankees had to have seen what the market did for Shane Victorino after he didn’t get a QO last winter, and so their best chance to retain Granderson on a one or two year offer is to make draft pick compensation attach. With Alex Rodriguez‘s looming suspension, they should have money to spend this winter, and retaining Granderson on a short term deal seems like a good use of funds.

From Granderson’s perspective, he might just have to take the deal. If last year’s market is any indication, there probably won’t be a line out the door to give up a first round pick to sign a 33-year-old coming off an injury plagued season. Granderson is probably the player whose market is most likely to be tanked by receiving the QO, as would be pretty highly sought after if draft pick compensation wasn’t attached. But it should be, and probably will.

Conclusion: Make the offer.

Carlos Beltran, OF/DH, Cardinals

You could make a case that Beltran is simply the hitting version of Hiroki Kuroda or A.J. Burnett, an aging yet still productive player who won’t get a multi-year deal but is still worth a top salary. Beltran’s .370 wOBA makes him productive even as UZR thinks he’s been the worst defensive outfielder in baseball this year. Heading into his age-37 season, he should probably move to an AL team where he can DH regularly in order to keep his bat in the line-up more often.

Unfortunately for Beltran, it is almost impossible to see any team parting with a high draft pick for the right to sign a 37-year-old DH to a short term deal. If the Cardinals made Beltran the qualifying offer, he’d basically have no choice but to take it. However, with Oscar Taveras on the way and Matt Adams potentially pushing Allen Craig back to the outfield, the Cardinals might not have room for Beltran next season. They could simply do him the favor of not extending the QO if they don’t see him in their plans for 2014, but having him under contract at $14 million for one year wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either.

Perhaps the best resolution for both parties would be to just avoid the entire process and come to a mutually beneficial arrangement involving a trade to an AL team, but MLB made it pretty clear last year that they wouldn’t allow sign-and-trades that circumvented the QO process. So, if we assume that a re-sign-and-trade is off the table, then the Cardinals should probably just let Beltran hit free agency unchained. Their money is likely better spent pursuing a shortstop and some additional pitching depth, and Beltran is probably best served moving to the league where he doesn’t have to play in the field every day. So, while he’s probably worth $14 million in isolation, it might be in both parties best interests to move on without the QO.

Conclusion: Don’t make the offer.

Mike Napoli, 1B/DH, Red Sox

Napoli nearly landed a three year, $39 million contract as an unencumbered free agent last winter, but the diagnosis of a degenerative hip disease caused the deal to be reworked into a one year, $5 million contract with incentives. Napoli has played well enough to dispel the notion that his hips will prematurely end his career, but that red flag is going to hang over him in every contract negotiation he ever has again.

And, just beyond the hip issue, there’s a question of whether Napoli is a $14 million player anymore. He’s racked up +2.5 WAR so far this year, but that’s with a .348 BABIP and a very friendly UZR rating at first base, which seems odd for an unathletic former catcher with hip problems. Napoli projects as something close to an average player going forward, and there’s no way anyone’s giving up a first round pick to sign an average player with degenerative hip issues. The Red Sox would probably love to get a pick if he signed elsewhere, but their options are more likely to either retain him for $14 million or let him hit the market again. Given their roster, they don’t need to spend $14 million on an average first baseman.

Conclusion: Don’t make the offer.

Stephen Drew, SS, Red Sox

Drew has turned out to be one of the best signings of the winter after they got him for $9.5 million on a one year deal over the off-season, as he’s provided quality production from a position where it isn’t so easy to find anymore. There’s a good chance Drew’s going to end the year with +3 WAR, and despite the fact that it seems like he’s been around forever, he’s only headed into his age-31 season.

However, he’s never been the healthiest guy in the world, and his replacement level 2012 performance still has to be a factor in deciding how much he gets paid going forward. He’s earned a raise over what he got as a free agent last winter, but is there really a mutli-year deal out there for Drew that is more attractive than $14 million for 2014? I doubt it, especially once you factor in the draft pick compensation. Like with Napoli, the Red Sox will essentially have to decide whether or not they’re willing to deal with the player accepting the offer if its made, which seems like a likely outcome in this situation.

With Xander Bogaerts around, my guess is probably not. The Sox aren’t going to want to pay $14 million to a guy who may very well end up as a backup to Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks, so Drew should be allowed to hit the market without draft pick compensation attached. With that stipulation removed, he’ll likely land a multi-year deal as a free agent, so Drew is an example of how this new system actually works to the benefit of the players at times, at least in opposition to the old Type A/Type B system.

Conclusion: Don’t make the offer.

Omar Infante, 2B, Tigers

Infante has had a monster season at the plate, posting a .348 wOBA that is easily the best mark of his career. Even while missing a couple of months due to injury, he’s still going to put up a +3 WAR season, and is one of the unsung heroes of the Tigers 2014 season. With Chase Utley off the market, he’s likely to be the most attractive second base option for teams that don’t want to pony up $200 million for Robinson Cano.

But, Infante is also going to be 32 next year, and he’s a second baseman who has traditionally been a below average hitter. He doesn’t have the profile of a guy who generally gets paid big money in free agency. However, as Victorino showed last winter, there is a market for this kind of player, especially when draft pick compensation isn’t attached. If the Tigers don’t make the qualifying offer to Infante, he’ll probably land a three year deal for north of $30 million. Martin Prado, a similar player with similar skills, got 4/40 from the Diamondbacks before he even reached free agency, so that might even be a low estimate.

The Tigers are going to have to eventually start making some tough decisions, with extensions for Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera looming, but Infante is too good to lose without getting something back. Even if he takes the offer, $14 million for an above average second baseman with no long term risk is a good deal for Detroit.

Conclusion: Make the offer.

Kendrys Morales, DH, Mariners

The Mariners have already tipped their hand; they are definitely planning on making him the qualifying offer at the end of the season. They had chances to trade him to contenders both in July and August, and declined both times, despite the fact that their playoff chances have been dead since not long after Opening Day. When asked about keeping a bad roster in tact rather than using free agents to be to acquire younger help for the future, Zduriencik noted that not trading the players gave them a better chance to retain them for 2014, a clear nod to the leverage that the qualifying offer gives them with Morales.

Now, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that Morales simply isn’t worth $14 million, even on a one year contract. It’s almost impossible to argue that he’s more valuable than Napoli or Beltran, and we’ve already declared that neither of those two should get the offer from their current teams. For comparison, Morales is basically the equal of the current version Adam Dunn, who is under contract for $15 million next season and was one of the first players to clear waivers in August. Teams don’t want to pay this kind of money for good-not-great hitters who can’t run or field.

On his own merits, Morales doesn’t deserve the offer. Unless they change GMs, however, the Mariners will almost certainly make him one, and then Morales will no choice but to accept, as there won’t be any market for his services once draft pick compensation attaches. Morales has some value, but he should realistically be shopping in the market that paid guys like Mark Reynolds, Luke Scott, Carlos Pena, and Lance Berkman $6-$10 million on one year deals over the last few years.

Conclusion: Don’t make the offer, but the Mariners will.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C, Red Sox

We’re already 2,000 words into this thing, so let’s be a little bit more brief. Salty’s a quality catcher, but this is his first season with a wRC+ over 100 and he can’t hit left-handed pitching. There’s value in having him behind the plate, but not $14 million worth of value. If the Red Sox want him back, they should be able to get him for less, even without the QO driving down his value.

Don’t make the offer.

Jhonny Peralta/Nelson Cruz, Team BioGenesis

Before they got suspended, both would have been interesting discussions. There’s no way either gets $14 million this winter, though, not coming off a PED violation. Easy declines.

Don’t make the offer.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Choo
Member

Dave: have you ever seen a baserunner run slog blindly into as many outs as Morales has this season? How can his 2013 performance on the bases only be worth -5.0 runs when he posted a mind-blowing -14.0 in 2009?

Westside guy
Member
Member
Westside guy

Man, I am already depressed about the Mariners off-season… and it’s barely September!

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