Last week, Dodgers starting pitcher Brett Anderson, Astros outfielder Colby Rasmus, and Orioles catcher Matt Wieters became the first players to accept the one-year qualifying offers extended by the teams they were potentially departing.
Introduced in 2012 as a result of the collective bargaining agreement, qualifying offers are made by teams to any departing free agents to whom they are willing to pay the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball. Whenever a player declines that offer, the offering team gains an additional pick between the first and second rounds of the following season's amateur draft, and the signing team loses their first unprotected pick.
More can be read about the qualifying offer system here, but prior to this off-season, no player had ever accepted the offer. This year, teams more liberally made use of the $15.8 million price tag (the 20 offers extended is a new high), and more players were willing to listen. Nicolas Stellini recently wrote about the increasingly complex decision this system constitutes, and for differing reasons, three players finally accepted.
Ostensibly, a player would accept this one-year offer for two reasons. The primary reason, as seen in these three cases, is that the player and his agent believe their value was suppressed in the walk year and would like to improve their stock over another year before reentering free agency. This comes with its own risks, as a player might perform poorly in that season, may get injured, or just not perform well enough to offset both an extra year of aging and the presumed cost of an attached draft pick the following year.
The secondary reason, also a factor in the Rasmus and Anderson cases, is that the depth of free agent classes varies from season to season. This offseason is relatively deep at many positions compared to both recent and future years. If an outfielder or starting pitcher could get paid a high one-year salary and avoid all of the competition in the 2016 free agent market, it is all the better for that player.
There are a lot of factors involved in ranking free agents at a position in any given year, including on-field performance, injury history, and age. Steamer's 2016 projections already available on FanGraphs factor in likely playing time and aging in addition to performance.
It's incredibly unlikely that free agent rankings a year from now will mirror a ranking of projected WAR, but it does provide an idea of which pending free agents are expected to have the best walk years. It is the kind of information a player and their agent could use to determine if they would see a benefit from entering the next season's free agent class. Let's look at the relative rankings for each of Rasmus, Anderson, and Wieters, using free agent information from Cots Baseball Contracts for 2016 and 2017.
|2016 FA||WAR||2017 FA||WAR|
|Jason Heyward||4.7||Jose Bautista||3.9|
|Alex Gordon||3.5||Carlos Gomez||3.6|
|Yoenis Cespedes||3.1||Josh Reddick||2.6|
|Justin Upton||3.0||Matt Holliday (Option)||2.0|
|Denard Span||2.2||Gregor Blanco||1.5|
|Dexter Fowler||1.7||Seth Smith||1.2|
|Austin Jackson||1.4||Mark Trumbo||1.1|
|Gerardo Parra||1.0||Colby Rasmus||0.9|
Steamer is surprisingly low on Rasmus for the coming season, despite being worth 7.8 fWAR over the last three seasons, and forecasts a decrease in power (.188 ISO) from recent years. That leaves Rasmus low in the 2016 rankings. Rasmus likely sees the 2016 season as an opportunity to distance his record from his relatively poor 2014 season and to remove himself further from the negativity surrounding his past makeup concerns.
There are roughly as many available outfielders ahead of him in 2017, but there is less of a high-end tier ahead of him. Additionally, his combination of power and athleticism likely makes him an attractive candidate over comparable, less balanced options. If Rasmus can boost his personal stock in 2016 while taking advantage of having less high-end competition, accepting Houston's qualifying offer is a smart decision.
|2016 FA||WAR||2017 FA||WAR|
|David Price||5.3||Stephen Strasburg||4.8|
|Zack Greinke||4.0||Andrew Cashner||3.0|
|Hisashi Iwakuma||3.3||Gio Gonzalez (Option)||2.8|
|Johnny Cueto||3.0||Jorge de la Rosa||2.7|
|Clay Buchholz||2.7||Jaime Garcia (Option)||2.5|
|Jeff Samardzija||2.7||Jason Hammel (Option)||2.2|
|Wei-Yin Chen||2.6||Derek Holland (Option)||2.2|
|John Lackey||2.6||Brett Anderson||2.0|
|2016 FA||RA9-WAR||2017 FA||RA9-WAR|
|David Price||5.7||Stephen Strasburg||4.4|
|Zack Greinke||4.3||Derek Holland (option)||2.6|
|Johnny Cueto||3.4||Jorge de la Rosa||2.5|
|Hisashi Iwakuma||3.3||Kris Medlen (option)||2.3|
|Clay Buchholz||3.2||Gio Gonzalez (option)||2.2|
|Wei-Yin Chen||3.1||R.A. Dickey||2.1|
|Jeff Samardzija||2.6||Jaime Garcia (option)||2.1|
|Scott Kazmir||2.4||Jason Hammel (option)||2.0|
|John Lackey||2.4||Andrew Cashner||1.9|
|Ian Kennedy||2.2||Edinson Volquez (option)||1.9|
|J.A. Happ||2.0||Brett Anderson||1.8|
Like Rasmus, Brett Anderson is also interested in distancing himself from prior problems - in his case, an extensive and well-dissected injury history. After pitching a total of 206.1 innings from 2011-2014, Anderson had a healthy 2015, pitching an effective 180.1 innings for the Dodgers. The desire to give potential suitors more confidence in his health, combined with the belief that his first normal offseason in years will translate to more velocity, explains his acceptance of the qualifying offer.
Looking at the free agent rankings, it is obvious that 2015 is one of the strongest free agent pitching classes in years. Not only is there a clear top-tier with Price and Greinke, but there is also a plethora of mid-range options like Anderson that might have diluted his value.
While there are many names on the 2017 list, almost all these players have affordable team options that will be picked up. His real competition consists of Stephen Strasburg, R.A. Dickey, Jorge De La Rosa, and Andrew Cashner. His health is still a large question mark, but this looks like a well-calculated risk for Brett Anderson.
|2016 FA||WAR||2017 FA||WAR|
|Matt Wieters||2.2||Salvador Perez (option)||3.1|
|Jonathan Lucroy (option)||2.7|
On its face, Matt Wieters has an obvious case for accepting the qualifying offer as a former mega prospect who missed most of a year and a half while recovering from Tommy John Surgery in 2014. Prior to 2014, he had four straight seasons worth at least 2.1 fWAR and was even worth 1.9 fWAR over his last 101 games in 2014-2015.
If he can demonstrate a full season of health, it should hypothetically improve his stock. However, his offensive performance (100 OPS+) was exactly on pace with his career rate, and a recurrence of Tommy John surgery is thought of as less of a concern for position players than pitchers.
Additionally, there is a far deeper catcher free agent class in 2017 than this offseason. Salvador Perez and Jonathan Lucroy have team-friendly options that are almost certain to be picked up, but there are three other league-average options in the same tier as Wieters. Francisco Cervelli, Wilson Ramos, and Jason Castro present three other potential regular options that don't exist in 2016.
By picking the qualifying offer over the free agent market, Matt Wieters and super agent Scott Boras are making a gamble that he can separate himself as a clear tier above these other players during the 2016 season.
Each of these three players is making a calculated gamble about his performance in 2016 and believes that he can improve his stock relative to a weaker free agent class in 2017. There may be some questions about the risk involved, but there is potential upside in each case that makes the decision a good one.
. . .
Spencer Bingol is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.