At the start of the recently deceased 2015 season of Major League Baseball, the world considered the state of the game for a moment. After careful consideration of a crystal ball and goat entrails, the baseball community determined that Colby Rasmus would somehow make baseball history in some shape or form this year. Many thought his sasquatchian photo from a clubhouse celebration was the fulfillment of that prophecy, but they would be proven wrong. Rasmus became the first player ever to accept a qualifying offer and return to his team rather than enter free agency saddled with draft pick compensation. Matt Wieters and Brett Anderson shortly followed, leaving the Astros, Orioles, and Dodgers with shiny new $15.8 million dollar salaries to pay.
The addition of another $16 million to the payroll is of little concern to the Dodgers, whose operating budget is roughly the GDP of the entire world. Yet for the Astros and Orioles, the figure is a substantial blow. Rasmus is now the highest-paid Astro, and only Adam Jones makes more money than Wieters on the Orioles. While the Astros are on the upswing and have their coffers flush with money from a rejuvenated fanbase and a postseason run, Orioles owner Peter Angelos has been reluctant to spend on big free agents. There's also the matter of the basic cost of doing business. Salary arbitration raises payroll, and even major league minimum salaries pile up rather quickly.
Prior to Wieters accepting his qualifying offer, Baltimore had just over $75.7 million committed to the 2016 payroll (without factoring in pre-arbitration salaries). That figure is derived from the $41.8 million in guaranteed dollars and the $34.9 million projected by MLB Trade Rumors' Matt Swartz to be doled out in salary arbitration. That figure will come down when Baltimore non-tenders some extraneous players such as Paul Janish or perhaps even trades the salaries of Zach Britton or Chris Tillman. Dan Duquette and the Orioles have moved cash off their ledger in this way in the past, such as when they dumped Jim Johnson and his $10 million on the unsuspecting laps of the Oakland A's.
With Wieters back at Camden Yards for another year, their payroll stands at $91.5 million. They still need to address the holes opened by the departures of Chris Davis, Darren O'Day, and Wei-Yin Chen, and given the fact that the Birds opened 2015 with a $119 million payroll, they'll need to get creative. This is a free agent class with millions of options and none, and the Orioles have precious few elite prospects to deal for big leaguers. Indeed their two most talented prospects, Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey, are both recovering from major injuries. Things are dire in Birdland.
Then there are the Astros. With Rasmus back on board, they're looking at an Opening Day payroll in the neighborhood of $89.7 million before factoring in free agents, major league minimums or any trades that would add further spending. They opened 2015 with a payroll of $72.5 million. It's hard to imagine that Jeff Luhnow and his friends in Ground Control will have a quiet offseason after making the playoffs for the first time in what felt like a lifetime. They could offset some of the cost of their additions (they could be in the market for a starter) by moving Chris Carter and his $5.6 million but the fact remains that Rasmus' $15.8 million is a high total for a mid-tier financial team like Houston.
While the financial woes of Baltimore and the latest monkey wrench thrown the Astros' way are surely interesting, what this all means for future offseasons is far more fascinating. In a vacuum, it wasn't particularly surprising that any of these three players accepted their qualifying offers. Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales rejected qualifying offers and languished because of it. Michael Cuddyer was given a qualifying offer after a season in which he played in only 49 Coors Field-enhanced games. He still managed to secure a two-year deal (albeit an insane one). Front offices have had little incentive not to hand out qualifying offers to any free agents that seemed like good bets to land multi-year AAVs. Not a single player had taken the deal before this year, and the values of the qualifying offers are only going up. Between Rasmus' inconsistencies, Wieters' injuries and, well, both for Anderson, this was a perfect storm of factors that swirled together to bring you the little bite of obscure sports financial history that Darren Rovell will likely break out at a cocktail party in ten years.
Barring midseason trades, there are in next year's class quite a few free agents likely to be tagged with qualifying offers. Players such as Stephen Strasburg and Jose Bautista are virtual locks. Neil Walker and Aroldis Chapman will likely receive them.
What about Josh Reddick? Reddick has been inconsistent over the course of his tenure in Oakland. His 4.5 fWAR season in 2012 hasn't been matched since, and his 3.0 from 2015 was his highest mark since then. It's hardly inconceivable that Reddick would slip back under and be a 2.5 fWAR player in 2016. When the time comes, will Oakland make Reddick a qualifying offer? He'll be 29 when he hits the open market and has historically brought a fair amount of power to compliment solid defense in right field. Is that a player for whom a team would be willing to sacrifice a draft pick? The answer is probably yes, but if Reddick has a poor 2016, the question gets even more complicated.
Another inconsistent yet powerful outfielder that hit the open market at a fairly young age was Colby Rasmus. We all saw what happened there. After Rasmus took his qualifying offer, should the A's risk paying Reddick something closer to $20 million than $10 million? That figure would destroy a hefty chunk of their financial flexibility for the season. It's a question that many teams will have to answer in the future. Accepting a qualifying offer is no longer taboo. Taking the money is fair game now, and these three won't be the last to do it (though the upcoming CBA negotiation puts the future of the qualifying offer in jeopardy). Planning an offseason just got a whole lot harder.