The official free agency period started yesterday, which meant that on Monday teams had to decide whether to give a qualifying offer to some of their free agents. The qualifying offer process, implemented in 2012, is a new procedure aimed at determining the value of free agents and giving teams an advantage in re-signing their players. This offseason marks its third year, and it seems as though teams are still trying to figure out how best to use it to their advantage.
For those unfamiliar with the qualifying offer process, it is a contract offer to a potential free agent from his most recent team. The player must have played the entire season with same club, so mid-season trades make players ineligible (e.g., Jon Lester). The duration of the offer is always for 1 year, but the dollar value is determined by taking the average of the top 125 salaries from the previous season; as player salaries rise, so too will the value of the qualifying offers. For this year, the value is set at $15.3 million.
Players have seven days to accept or reject the offer. If the player accepts the offer, he's back with his team on a 1-year, $15.3-million deal. Sounds pretty great, right? To the average citizen, yes it does, but these offers are typically only given to top-level players who can command more lucrative deals (in terms of years and money) through free agency. So, typically the players reject the offer -- 22 of 22 over the last two offseasons have done so -- and test free agency. The matter that somewhat complicates the process is that there is draft pick compensation involved in the process. If a player rejects the qualifying offer and signs elsewhere, the signing team forfeits its first round draft pick (unless it is a top-10 pick, in which case they forfeit their second round pick), and the former team gains a compensatory pick to be used at the end of the first round.
If a team is looking at signing a player who has received a qualifying offer, it means they will be investing in that player for a given contract and losing a draft pick, which has the potential to be very valuable. This aspect of the qualifying offer process played a role in Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales going unsigned until midway through the 2014 season, at which point the draft pick compensation issue had expired.
The Players Involved this Year
On Monday, 12 players were given qualifying offers from their most recent team. This is the batting edition of the 2014 qualifying offers, so below is a look at the 7 batting players who received offers, and what I suggest each player should do.
Melky Cabrera - OF - Toronto Blue Jays
|2015 - Steamer||368||9||6.7%||12.3%||.343||118||1.2|
Melky returned to form in 2014, after a miserable 2013 season that was derailed by leg and back injuries. 2015 will be Melky's age-30 season, so any team interested in giving him a multi-year deal is hoping he can perform like he did in 2014 through his early thirties, which is not entirely unrealistic. He hits for a solid average with some power, and provides mostly mediocre defense in left field. As you can see in the table, he struck out less often in 2014, relative to his career numbers, which seems to have been driven primarily by a reduction in swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone.
My suggestion for him would be to decline the offer. He should be able to at least get something in the neighborhood of 2yrs/$22-25 million, or maybe even a Victorino-like 3yrs/$39 million. However, his injury issues, past PED use, and the issue of draft pick compensation muddy the waters a bit.
Nelson Cruz - OF - Baltimore Orioles
|2015 - Steamer||594||29||7.8%||22.1%||.347||122||2.4|
Can the Orioles cash in on another 1-year for Cruz? In 2013 he was an incredible bargain at $8 million for the season, a price that was at least partially facilitated by the qualifying offer he received and declined last offseason. Then he went out and hit 40 home runs this year; currently, he looks to be set for a multi-year deal. However, the uptick in homeruns is really difficult to explain beyond it being random variation in outcomes. Plus, he's entering his age-35 season, so it seems unlikely that he will sustain this level of performance for many years (if at all). His defense is around average by DRS and UZR, but he is probably best suited as a DH, which means that National League teams should be careful or consider the possibility of turning him into a first baseman.
Despite those stated concerns, I suggest that Cruz reject the offer and test free agency. He will be able to get at least a 3-year deal at $15 million per year from somebody.
Michael Cuddyer - OF - Colorado Rockies
|2015 - Steamer||563||17||7.8%||18.3%||.329||109||0.9|
This offer came as a bit of a surprise. Giving Cuddyer $15million for a year is pretty steep. He has a limited skillset offensively (power) and negative value on defense, and some of that value on offense comes from playing in Coors Field. He is entering his age-36 season, and coming off leg and shoulder injuries. Rather than focus on his short 2014 campaign, the Rockies and other suitors may use his 2013 season in which he provided 2.4 fWAR as evidence for how he will perform. But that season involved an odd 57-point reverse-wOBA-split that is not typical for him, great fortune on balls-in-play (.382 BABIP), and sizeable home-road splits (58 points in wOBA). At least two of these three things are unlikely to repeat.
Before the qualifying offer, Cuddyer may have been able to get a 2yr/$20million deal on the open market. Now with draft pick compensation attached I suspect that will not be the case. Rejecting the offer to risk getting an extra $5 million seems foolhardy. He should accept the offer, bang the ball around Coors Field for another year and see how things line up for next offseason. Maybe he'll even get himself another qualifying offer!
Russell Martin - C - Pittsburgh Pirates
|2015 - Steamer||411||12||11.6%||19.7%||.328||109||3.2|
Martin is certainly the most attractive catching option available on the free agent market. I have presented Martin's batting numbers in the table above, but he really adds value on defense: Throughout his career, he has consistently ranked as a top-10 pitch framer. In 2014, his offense jumped up considerably from his typical line, largely a result of making more contact and his unsustainable .336 BABIP. As shown by the Steamer projection, it is not expected that he produces at his 2014 level going forward. The concerns about his age are well placed, as he is entering his age-32 season with 9580.2 innings caught on his legs. But with appropriate attention to his workload (i.e., ~115 games per season) he should still be a positive contributor for a few years.
There are a number of teams that need a catcher, so Martin should be able to get himself a 3- or 4-year deal in the neighborhood of $50million (total value). There have been rumours about Martin going to Toronto because the Jays need catching, and... Canada. But that is probably born out of overly simplistic thinking based on nationality. The Jays would need to outbid everyone, then move Dioner Navarro (with no leverage), or make him a DH, which does not sound particularly attractive. Regardless, Martin can get a strong deal on the free agent market and should therefore reject the offer.
Victor Martinez - 1B/DH - Detroit Tigers
|2015 - Steamer||9.2%||8.6%||.364||133|
VMart is a really strong hitter. As a Red Sox fan, I was terrified every time he came to the plate in the 2007 ALCS. That was seven years ago, and he is still a frightening hitter. As you can see from his strikeout and walk rates, he has a remarkable understanding of the strike zone. The 32 home runs in 2014 stick out as an outlier, but his discipline and line drive rate (career: 20.8%) will continue to make him a commodity. The difficulty with Martinez is that at this point in his career he is mostly limited to being a DH. This means he is really only suitable to American League teams. He can play a bit of first base, but entering his age-36 season, he is doubtful to provide value doing so everyday.
Nonetheless, he should be able to get himself a 2- or 3-year deal for $15million annually even with the draft pick compensation attached. For this reason I think he should reject the offer.
Hanley Ramirez - SS - Los Angeles Dodgers
|2015 - Steamer||603||19||9.7%||17.0%||.353||126||3.4|
Hanley might be the most interesting player on the list. He has had trouble with nagging injuries, could be due for a position change (which would increase his value to the signing team), and there is a perspective that his 3.4 fWAR was a disappointing season. The health part is a serious concern -- he is entering his age-31 season and has had all sorts of ailments cause him to miss time. At this point, he cannot really remain at shortstop, and should accept a move to third base. His defense at shortstop is well below average: He owns a career -8.8 UZR/150. Should he stay at short, there is a team in New York that just lost a shortstop (and surprisingly, without much fanfare). If the Yankees are willing to continue their history of having poor defense at the shortstop position, then perhaps Hanley could be the replacement.
Ramirez' bat will play just about anywhere and will land him a 4- or 5-year deal. The dollar figure is difficult to predict, but if he gets $100 million (or anything close) it will not surprise me. With that in mind, the suggestion is clear: Hanley should reject the qualifying offer.
Pablo Sandoval - 3B - San Francisco Giants
|2015 - Steamer||632||21||7.4%||13.6%||.344||120||3.8|
Pablo is the youngest of this group, entering his age-28 season. His issues with weight and conditioning have been well documented, and likely present a cautionary flag to some teams. Despite being considered a bit of a hacker at the plate, he does not strike out very much (career mark is well below average) and therefore makes a lot of contact, which is often good (career LD%: 19.8). To go along with his offense, he is also slightly above average defensively (career 2.2 UZR/150), even at his size.
Given his age and skillset, Sandoval should have no problem acquiring a big contract that takes him into his mid-thirties. Something like 5-years/$75million seems reasonable. So it should be a no-brainer that he reject the qualifying offer, which as we know he has.
In the end, here are my suggestions:
Be sure to check out the 2014 Qualifying Offers: Pitching Edition later today.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs. Any instance of missing data in the Steamer projections shown here is because the relevant data were not available on the player's FanGraphs page.
Chris Teeter is a featured writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.