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What happened to players who accepted a qualifying offer?

Since MLB’s qualifying offer system was instituted in 2012, just five players have taken the qualifying offer.

Baltimore Orioles v Washington Nationals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Qualifying offers (QO) were handed out to seven impending free agents on Friday. For most, like Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper or Red Sox reliever Craig Kimbrel, declining their offers is nothing more than a clerical move. In fact, none of the seven players really have a great case to take the offer. They’re all expected to become free agents as scheduled.

In short, the goal of the qualifying offer is to compensate teams which have lost their marquee players in free agency. The full definition and rules can be found here. Generally speaking, if a player who was extended a qualifying offer signs elsewhere, his former team is awarded a compensation pick in the following MLB Draft. His new team also loses a pick; the round of the pick is determined by the size of the contract signed.

The qualifying offer system has been part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement since 2012, and, with the inclusion of the 2018 QOs, an even 80 players have been extended the agreement over the past seven seasons. Of the 73 players who were offered a QO before 2018, 67 — or 91.8 percent — have declined their respective offers. Just five players — Jeremy Hellickson, Neil Walker, Colby Rasmus, Matt Wieters and Brett Anderson — have ever accepted the qualifying offer. (Marco Estrada is the lone outlier; he was offered a qualifying offer in 2015, but he signed an extension with the Blue Jays before having to make a decision in either direction.)

It shouldn’t be surprising that the majority of free agents decline their qualifying offers. Bryce Harper is going to get a lot more than $17.9 million this offseason, even if he only decides to sign a one-year deal. (He won’t, but that’s not the point.) Harper is going to decline the QO in his sleep.

It’s only the non-superstar players (i.e. Jeremy Hellickson) who have a real decision to make when it comes to the qualifying offer. And, considering that these players are less likely to be receiving a qualifying offer in the first place, the rate of rejection skyrockets upwards of 90 percent.

But, it’s not like nobody has ever taken the qualifying offer. It has happened. Players can be wary of the potential harm a qualifying offer may have to their free agent stocks. Teams are clearly more likely to lose a draft pick for Bryce Harper than for Jeremy Hellickson, and that ultimately affects each of their own individual markets. So, for those five players, taking the qualifying offer possible wasn’t as much a bet on themselves as it is their only plausible option considering the circumstances.

For someone like Matt Wieters, on the other hand, taking the qualifying offer was a bet on his future production. The Orioles offered Wieters a QO after a season in which he was limited to just 79 games due to injuries. Despite being the clear top catcher on the free agent market, Wieters wanted to prove his health for a season before signing a longer-term deal. With this in mind — coupled with the fact that teams may also be reluctant to give up a pick to sign someone coming off an injury-riddled season — Wieters took the qualifying offer in 2015. Wieters followed up with a better season of health but worse overall numbers. The volume of play, though, led to a 63% increase on his 2015 fWAR and a two-year deal worth $21 million. So, in three years, Wieters ended up with $36.8 million. Since 2013, only two catchers have earned more money through free agency than Wieters did over those three seasons. For him, taking the QO worked out relatively well.

That wasn’t the case for the other four players who accepted their offers, though.

Qualifying Offer Acceptances

Player Offseason Team QO value Previous Season fWAR fWAR Under QO Next Guarantee
Player Offseason Team QO value Previous Season fWAR fWAR Under QO Next Guarantee
Jeremy Hellickson 2016-17 Phillies $17,200,000 3.2 0.1 Minor league deal
Neil Walker 2016-17 Mets $17,200,000 3.6 2.2 $4,000,000
Colby Rasmus 2015-16 Astros $15,800,000 2.9 1.1 $5,000,000
Matt Wieters 2015-16 Orioles $15,800,000 1.1 1.8 $21,000,000
Brett Anderson 2015-16 Dodgers $15,800,000 1.6 -0.3 $3,500,000
AVERAGE - - $16,360,000 2.5 1.0 $6,700,000

As you can see in the table, only Wieters earned more with his next guarantee than he did on the qualifying offer. Hellickson fell the furthest of all qualifying offer acceptors, only earning a minor-league deal in the offseason following his qualifying offer. The average fWAR for these five players fell from 2.5 wins to just 1.0, and the average guarantee for them dropped from $16.4 million to just $6.7 million.

What you can’t do, though, is automatically conclude that these players cost themselves millions of dollars by taking the QO. Being paid, on average, $16.4 million is a lot of money, money that is hard to pass up. And, for all we know, players like Colby Rasmus, Brett Anderson and Jeremy Hellickson were never destined to earn large contracts in free agency anyway, especially not with the forfeit of a draft pick attached to signing them. No team expected Hellickson to repeat his 2016 performance again in 2017, and many might have been worried about giving him a long-term contract anyway, depleting his overall value.

(I should mention that the rules for the qualifying offer were changed during the 2017-18 offseason. Prior to this, all teams which signed a QO’d player would have had to give up their first round pick. But, now, that is no longer the case, so the decisions of the five players might be different with that in mind.)

Nonetheless, this brings us to the larger lesson regarding the qualifying offer system. For the top-of-the-line, Lamborigini-like free agent, it’s no worry. Bryce Harper will still be paid, especially because he’s Bryce Harper. But when teams hand out QOs to middling free agents, that’s when it becomes a handcuff for those who have no real choice but to take it.

And, yes, $16 or $17 million is still a lot of money. But Colby Rasmus, Brett Anderson, Jeremy Hellickson and Neil Walker might have missed out on more lucrative long-term contracts just because of baseball’s rules.

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.