Of the 10 players extended a qualifying offer, José Abreu and Jake Odorizzi were the two who accepted it. Odorizzi and Abreu will remain with the Twins and White Sox respectively for 2020 and unless either player renegotiates a longer deal, they will earn $17.8 million for the season.
Since the qualifying offer was introduced to baseball in 2012, six of 80 players have accepted it. No player accepted the offer in the first three seasons of its existence. If Will Smith had not been offered a three-year, $40 million contract by the Atlanta Braves, then Smith would have made for three players to accept the qualifying offer.
Everyone’s reason for accepting the qualifying offer is different, but the common denominator here isn’t that the offer is a large sum of money. While it’s true that the qualifying offer often exceeds what a player would expect to get annually from the open market, the qualifying offer actually fell for the first time this year. The money isn’t what attracts players to the qualifying offer, it’s the promise of avoiding the open market with a draft pick attached.
Accepting the qualifying offer specifically works for Abreu. It seemed like no matter what, he would stay in Chicago because of the mutual interest. The qualifying offer just affected how much money he would make. Abreu can either negotiate a longer term deal with the White Sox or head into 2020 with a one-year $17.8 million contract. The qualifying offer may have actually boosted his earnings.
Abreu, however, is precisely the sort of player that would struggle mightily to get the sort of contract he deserved on the market with a draft pick attached to him. He turns 33 in January, he’s defensively limited, and his bat isn’t what it once was. Abreu, though, still crushes lefties, and he’s a decent hitter overall. He might have been able to beat the one-year $17.8 million without, but the draft pick penalty makes that impossible. If Abreu didn’t want to remain in Chicago, the qualifying offer would have made it nearly impossible for him to leave without taking a pay cut. Free agents should have autonomy in choosing where and for whom they want to work, and the current QO rules infringe upon that autonomy.
Odorizzi’s decision more clearly highlights the problems inherent in the qualifying offer system. Now, Odorizzi may wind up renegotiating a multi-year deal with the Twins, but Odorizzi didn’t have the clear desire to remain with his organization in the way that Abreu did. Odorizzi is coming off an All-Star season in which he saw a spike in his strikeout rate with a velocity jump that followed suit. Odorizzi was the tenth-best free agent on the market according to MLB Trade Rumors. They estimated that he would earn $51 million over three years, but Odorizzi and his agent presumably thought the risk of getting Keuchel’d was too great. Dallas Keuchel had to wait until after the draft to sign a contract despite coming off a 200+ inning season with a 3.87 DRA.
Odorizzi’s decision is a reminder that the qualifying offer penalizes the player more than the signing team. A generous view is that this penalty is an unintended consequence of a rule drafted in the spirit of parity. The rule was designed to curb big market teams so they couldn’t outspend the small market teams while also maintaining the same advantages in the draft. A less generous view is that the qualifying offer is another ploy to suppress player salaries by crippling their earning power upon entering free agency.
In either situation, the qualifying offer is an unnecessary wrinkle to the free agent market. There’s no need create penalize teams for spending on players. Every team could easily afford to run up against the competitive balance tax threshold. Even the Royals, who claim they can’t afford to add much more than Alex Gordon a couple bullpen arms, are valued at over $1 billion.
Even if we believe that certain teams absolutely cannot afford to match the Dodgers and Yankees, penalizing a team when it does sign a top free agent works against parity. The simplest solution would just be to do away with the qualifying offer entirely and allow free agents to freely negotiate deals without a burden artificially planted on their value. It’s a misguided attempt at balance at best and malfeasance at worst.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.