Which Pitchers are Getting a Qualifying Offer this Offseason?

Last week, we took a look at the upcoming free agent hitters that may or may not be tendered a qualifying offer by their current teams. I’m going to borrow the intro that I used in that post, so if you read that piece, just go ahead and skip down to the discussion of the pitchers.

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, and since we’ve already covered the hitters, let’s look at the arms this time.

Using the free agent leaderboards, there are three pitchers that I think are pretty obvious candidates to receive the qualifying offer: Hiroki Kuroda, A.J. Burnett, and Ervin Santana. Matt Garza and Ricky Nolasco would join them, but both were traded mid-season and so are not eligible for the qualifying offer. However, it’s the group of pitchers beyond the obvious ones that make for an interesting discussion.

Tim Lincecum, RHP, San Francisco

This is, basically, a referendum on how much stock one puts into ERA versus FIP and xFIP, or at least, the concepts that FIP and xFIP are based on. Over the last two years, Lincecum has thrown 356 innings and posted a 4.85 ERA, which is well below replacement level for an NL starter in a pitcher friendly ballpark. During that same time frame, though, he has a 3.98 FIP and a 3.66 xFIP, both of which are fairly decent marks and suggest that he hasn’t completely lost the skills that made him a two time Cy Young winner earlier in his career.

But he has lost some of them. There’s no arguing that he’s worse now than he was when he was The Freak, and even his peripherals support that idea. Even his 92 xFIP- is just a little bit better than average this year, so if you completely ignore his recent home run and runner stranding problems, he still doesn’t grade out as more than a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy. There’s upside here, but it’s probably not Cy Young upside anymore.

Given the decline in velocity and poor results over the last few years, Lincecum isn’t going to land any kind of mega contract, and he’s probably not going to get a better salary than the $14 million the QO would provide. However, given the shelf lives of pitchers, Lincecum will probably be motivated by years more than AAV, and might even prefer something like 3/30 over 1/14, and even with draft pick compensation attached, I don’t think 3/30 is out of reach for a guy who still has swing-and-miss stuff. There’s not a lot of risk in making Lincecum the offer, as he probably won’t take it, and even if he does, having him back on a one year deal to see if he can fix his problems in San Francisco isn’t a bad gamble.

Conclusion: Make the offer.

Josh Johnson, RHP, Toronto

Nearly everything written above about Lincecum is also true of Josh Johnson. His results in Toronto this year were terrible, but his 3.60 xFIP is actually better than the mark he posted last year in Miami, even though he switched from a pitcher’s park in the NL to a hitter’s park in the AL. And he was good in Miami last year, so his struggles cover just 80 innings pitched, a minimal sample with which to judge a pitcher harshly based on inflated HR/FB and BABIP rates.

But, with Johnson, there’s a significant health question. He hasn’t pitched since August 6th, and he won’t pitch again this season due to soreness in his forearm. This isn’t exactly a new thing for Johnson either, as he’s already had Tommy John surgery, and has missed significant time in his career due to back and shoulder problems, so this forearm soreness seems like part of a bigger trend. This was Johnson’s eighth season on a big league roster, and he’s made 30 starts in just two of those eight years. He’s thrown 200 innings once. Even in the best case scenario, Johnson is probably not worth counting on for a full season, and there’s significant risk that he just gives you nothing at all.

Teams have made big bets on similar health question marks before, and even last winter, there appeared to be some appetite for high base contracts for questionable health guys; Scott Baker got $6 million from the Cubs despite not even pitching last year, and Scott Baker doesn’t have Josh Johnson’s pedigree. However, it’s hard to see another team forfeiting a valuable draft pick for the right to hope that Josh Johnson stays healthy and his 2013 performance wasn’t a warning sign that a total breakdown is on the way.

If the Blue Jays make the qualifying offer, they have to plan on Johnson accepting it. He’s not going to do better than a $14 million guarantee in free agency, not with his health issues and coming off the season he just had. If the Blue Jays don’t believe his forearm soreness is a precursor to eventual surgery, making him the offer and bringing him back for a redemption year on a one year contract probably is a risk worth taking.

However, they know more about his current health than anyone else, and so it would be hard to take them to task for declining to make Johnson the offer. This one is about as close to a toss-up as it gets, and it’s basically impossible to know whether they should make the offer without the medical information, which we don’t have. If the medicals are okay, I’d say make the offer, but there’s a strong argument to just letting him walk and spending the $14 million on healthier pitchers instead.

Conclusion: Make the offer, unless they know that his arm is about to fall off.

Bronson Arroyo, RHP, Cincinnati

And now for something completely different. Bronson Arroyo is the opposite of the high upside/high risk duo that we just talked about, he’s about as much of a known quantity as any pitcher in baseball. He doesn’t walk anyone, he posts a moderate strikeout rate, he’ll give up some home runs, but at the end of the day, he’ll give you 200 league average innings year in and year out. Arroyo has thrown 200 innings in every since since 2004 except for 2011, when he threw 199. He is the perhaps the definition of an innings eater.

However, he’s also going to be 37 next year, $14 million for an aging innings eater is a hefty price tag. Arroyo has made it clear that he’s hunting for a multi-year contract this winter, but if the Reds want to go year to year, the QO is their best shot of getting him back on a one year deal, even if it comes with a bit of a premium in annual salary. It’s unlikely that any other team is going to punt a draft pick to sign a 37 year old with minimal long term value, so if the Reds make the qualifying offer, they’re going to have all the leverage in negotiations, and could potentially offer him something like 2/20 if he’s dead set on getting multiple years.

But, there’s also just the risk that he takes it, and then goes out and has another miserable season like he did in 2011. His good command of fringe stuff skillset isn’t going to work forever, and the Reds aren’t a big market franchise that can afford to pay market value salaries to everyone on their roster. They have enough rotation depth to let him leave, and they could then replace Arroyo internally in order to allocate that money to other positions of need. If we weren’t talking about the Reds, I’d probably lean towards making the offer. Given that they’re going to have some holes to fill and don’t have an endless budget, though, I think they can probably spend $14 million on more pressing needs.

Conclusion: Don’t make the offer.

Jason Vargas, LHP, Anaheim

Like Arroyo, Vargas gets his value mostly from being solid and reliable every five days, rather than dominating anyone with overpowering stuff. The Angels gave up Kendrys Morales to acquire him knowing he’d get $8-$9 million in arbitration (he signed for $8.5M), so they’ve already shown that they value his skillset on a short term deal at a price that isn’t too terribly dissimilar to the qualifying offer range. And their rotation was a disaster this year, so you can imagine they’ll be focusing heavily on trying to make sure they have enough depth to improve in 2014.

However, Vargas did spend two months on the DL this year with a blood clot in his arm pit, which makes it a little bit harder to sell him as a high durability guy. While he’s younger than Arroyo, he doesn’t have the consistent track record of solid average seasons, and his success has all come in pitcher friendly parks on the west coast. Any team that plays in a frequent home run environment would have to think twice about making him a significant offer, and so Vargas’ market as a free agent is likely to be somewhat limited.

However, if the Angels want Vargas back, they might very well be better off making the qualifying offer than trying to re-sign him in a market where draft pick compensation isn’t attached. If a league average innings eater is worth something like $10 million per year, paying a $4 million premium to avoid a multi-year commitment shouldn’t be a budget breaker for a team like Anaheim, and given the long term deals they’ve got on the books, limiting the length of future contracts looks like a pretty good idea.

The Angels have the financial resources to pay a premium to avoid long term risk, and one year of Vargas at $14 million isn’t such a drastic overpay that it’s not worth considering. In the end, though, I think they can probably get him for less than what the QO would tie them to, especially given his DL stint this year. He’s the kind of pitcher that gets something like 2/16 or 3/21, and making the QO takes those kinds of offers off the table. At those kinds of prices, there isn’t a ton of long term risk, and if they think there’s a chance he signs for something in that range, then they should pass on the QO.

Conclusion: Don’t make the offer.

Tim Hudson, RHP, Atlanta

Huddy was having his usual good season for the Braves, though his ERA was a bit inflated because of runner stranding problems, but a broken ankle cost him most of the second half of the season and basically nuked any chance he had of getting the qualifying offer. Now, he’ll head into the off-season as a 38 year old coming off a shortened season with his worst ERA since 2006, and that’s not the kind of player that teams are going to be fighting over, even though he’s still a quality hurler.

Hudson is also geographically tied to the Atlanta area, and so the Braves have more leverage than most free agents in a similar situation. I’d expect him to re-sign, but for a lot less than $14 million.

Conclusion: Don’t make the offer.

Bartolo Colon, RHP, Oakland

Colon has had a career resurgence, and is now on his third straight season of being quite good, so this doesn’t look like a total fluke. That said, he’s going to be 41 next year, he failed a PED test last year, and his strikeout rate is just 13.6%. There are way too many paths for a big contract to Colon to fail miserably, and I doubt the league believes in him enough for the QO to come into play. He’ll get a raise over the $3 million he got last winter, but $14 million is just too high.

Conclusion: Don’t make the offer.

Phil Hughes/Dan Haren/Paul Maholm, Team Disappointment

No. Don’t even think about it.

Conclusion: Don’t make the offer.

Last week, we said seven hitters should get the qualifying offer, so now we add five pitchers from this group, and our overall total is 12 players receiving the QO this year, up from nine last year. And there are definitely enough players on the bubble who could play their way into it over the final month of the season — Mike Napoli might be doing just that with his recent power spike — that we could end up closer to 15 offers this winter.

While this isn’t a great free agent class, it is full of the kind of players where one year deals are a worthwhile risk, so we could see some agents and players forced to make interesting decisions during the first week of the off-season. While no one took the offer last year, I’d expect at least one of the players we’ve forecast to receive the offering to not want to find themselves in Kyle Lohse’s position this winter, and taking the QO might just become a more viable strategy for free agents who want to know they have a job and a good salary for 2014 without having to play a game of musical chairs.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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