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 2013 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 pitching edition of the 2014 qualifying offers, so below is a look at the 5 pitchers who received offers, and what I suggest each player should do.
Francisco Liriano - SP - Pittsburgh Pirates
|2015 - Steamer||182.0||24.1%||9.8%||3.60||3.28||0.32||2.5|
In 2014, Liriano took a step back from his excellent 2013 season, although it was really a tale of two halves (first half 4.72 ERA-4.27 FIP; second half 2.20-2.98). The second-half-Liriano is a legitimate star, but it is just not clear that he is capable of sustaining that level of performance. His projection for the coming year suggests he will be a slightly above-average starter. You have to wonder how his outcomes will be affected by not having a top-level pitch framer catching him, although the battery of Liriano and Martin only gained 1.2 runs through pitch framing. So perhaps the impact of losing Martin will not be too large for Liriano, and he may be able to link up with a good framer elsewhere.
Liriano's case is probably the most interesting of the pitching group. He has had issues with inconsistency, and is hitting the market at a time when there is a lot of quality starting pitching available. But many of the other starting pitching options do not come with draft pick compensation attached. Without it, I suspect that Liriano could get at least a 3-year deal for around $30 million. With it, that number could drop to something like 2yrs/$20million, at which point taking the qualifying offer (and the higher annual value) might be better. He could take it, and with a good 2015 season hit the market again as an attractive option while still relatively young (it will be his age-32 season) and hopefully get a longer deal. Or, he could get hurt and struggle to find work in 2015. His case is difficult to make a confident decision. In the end, because Liriano is an effective starter, he has a good chance of obtaining more security/money on the market now and therefore he should reject the offer.
David Robertson - RP - New York Yankees
|2015 - Steamer||29.5%||7.4%||2.74||2.83||-0.09|
Robertson took over the role of closer for the Yankees after Mariano Rivera retired at the end of 2013. He handled the position admirably, posting an excellent strikeout rate and above-average SD/MD of 4.11. He had a bit of trouble with home runs, and his walk rate rose from previous seasons, but he was still a valuable asset in the Yankee bullpen.
Should Robertson accept the qualifying offer, he will become the highest-paid reliever in baseball (on an annual rate). He could test the market and try for a multi-year deal, but it seems unlikely that a team will forfeit a draft pick to sign a reliever (even one as good as Robertson), and I sincerely doubt anyone would match the $15 million annual value. The production a reliever can provide a team is limited given the way they are used in today's game, and that limits the amount teams are willing to pay for such players. For these reasons, Robertson should accept the offer and test the process again next winter.
Ervin Santana - SP - Atlanta Braves
It's the second time around these parts for Santana, who also received a qualifying offer after his excellent 2013 season with the Royals. He rejected it last offseason, and it did not really work to his benefit -- he went unsigned until most of the Braves' rotation had their elbows give out in Spring Training. Regardless, he has now posted back-to-back strong seasons (407.0 IP, 5.7 fWAR) without any health issues. His projection for the coming season, his age-32 season, suggests that he will again be a slightly above average starter.
His combined work over the last two seasons has likely convinced teams of his ability and erased any lingering doubts that came from his 2012 season (178 IP, 5.16 ERA, 5.63 FIP, -1.1 WAR) that likely influenced the decision to avoid him last offseason. The best course of action for Santana is to test the market again, and ideally get a 3-year deal worth around $40 million. He should reject the qualifying offer.
Max Scherzer - SP - Detroit Tigers
This situation is pretty obvious. Scherzer is a top-level starting pitcher, and has been for each of the last six seasons. He has already turned down a huge contract extension from the Tigers (reportedly $144 million) in the spring. So there is no chance he accepts a qualifying offer of 1yr/$15million; and that is certainly the right decision. He is entering his age-30 season, and somebody is going to pay to have him pitch for them until he is 36. I expect he gets something around $150million. Just to be clear, I think that he should reject the qualifying offer.
James Shields - SP - Kansas City Royals
James Shields presents another pretty clear case. He has been worth at least 3 fWAR each of his full seasons in the big leagues (other than 2010: 1.7). While there was a lot of joking on Twitter this postseason about the credibility of his nickname, he is still very valuable. His innings pitched totals since 2007 are: 215, 215, 219.2, 203.1, 249.1, 227.2, 228.2, and 227. "At least-200-innings-pitched James" does not have the same ring to it, but there are plenty of teams that will pay to see it happen. He is certain to get a multi-year big money deal. It won't be on the order of what Scherzer gets because he is older (entering his age 33 season), and quite frankly not as good, but it will still be up around $75-80 million over 4 or 5 years. Shields should reject the qualifying offer.
In the end, here are my suggestions:
Be sure to check out the 2014 Qualifying Offers: Batting Edition that was posted earlier today.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. 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.