Predicting The 2014-15 Qualifying Offers: Hitters

We’re about to enter the third winter with the qualifying offer system in effect, and we’ve learned a few things so far. We know that of the 22 offers made in the first two years, exactly zero have been accepted. We’ve seen a few high-profile disasters, namely Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales, and a few others (Kyle Lohse, Ervin Santana, etc.) who had to wait until spring training had already started to find a new home. Now, we know something more specific about this year’s offer. It’ll be worth $15.3 million, 8.5% more than last year’s $14.1 million, which is set by finding the average of the sport’s 125 best-paid players.

With that in mind, and with 26 of the 30 teams already looking ahead to 2015, it’s time to take a look at potential qualifying offers. Is this the year someone finally accepts one? You know the rules, probably. A team must extend an offer by the fifth day following the World Series, and a player has a seven-day window in which to accept after that. This really does get done pretty quickly, and probably too quickly. In February, Dave Cameron put forth an idea to improve the system, suggesting that removing the deadline for players to accept would limit the amount of offers put forth to questionable players. A valid idea, one I liked, and one that has not been accepted by the game, so here we are.

Before you start asking about Jon Lester, Chase Headley, Brandon McCarthy, etc., do remember that players traded in-season cannot be hit with the qualifying offer. That in itself is another issue many have with this system, because simply having been traded takes a significant drag off their marketability. If you’re a team in the market for a third baseman, for example, you may prefer Headley, or you may prefer Sandoval. There’s arguments for each. But only one is (likely) to come with a draft pick penalty attached, and that will factor in for many teams.

So… how is this going to play out? I’ve identified 15 players who seem worth discussing, and I’ve made some judgement calls on not including players with likely-to-be-exercised options like Johnny CuetoWei-Yin Chen, Hisashi Iwakuma, Denard Span, Yovani Gallardo and Ben Zobrist. We’ll do hitters today, and pitchers on Monday.

Russell Martin, C, Pirates

Gets offer/declines offer

Have you looked at the free agent catchers? Have you? To say it’s desolate is an insult to desolation, really. You can find some use for David Ross or Geovany Soto, but if you want an actual good starting catcher option, it’s Martin and only Martin. Not only that, he goes into the market with a career-best hitting season (140 wRC+) under his belt, and endless accolades for what he brings behind the plate as far as managing and framing a pitching staff.

Even for the low-payroll Pirates, extending Martin a qualifying offer is an absolute no-brainer, because there’s really no scenario where he accepts it. The Tigers may need a catcher if Alex Avila’s concussion issues can’t be overcome. The Dodgers didn’t get much from A.J. Ellis & Drew Butera. The Cubs are making noises about contending in 2015, and could use someone to guide some young pitching. Maybe the Red Sox decide young Christian Vazquez needs some support. Repeat this exercise for a dozen other teams, probably, because a good catcher is extremely difficult to find.

There’s some pretty enormous risk that a 32-year-old catcher coming off a BABIP-fueled offensive year unlike anything he’s shown before isn’t someone to invest heavily in. That’s totally valid. It’s still not going to stop him from declining a one-year offer to find three or four years somewhere else. He should easily top Carlos Ruiz‘ 3/$26m from last year, though Yadier Molina’s 5/$75m seems perhaps a bit steep.

Hanley Ramirez, SS, Dodgers

Gets offer/declines offer

I really dislike the term “victim of their own success,” but, hey, Hanley Ramirez! Ramirez was so, so good in 2013 that he was a 5 WAR player despite only getting into 86 games, thanks to approximately 27 different nagging injuries. Obviously, he didn’t qualify for any leader boards, but his 191 wRC+ was basically the equivalent of what Miguel Cabrera had, and Ramirez threw in some surprisingly decent defense at shortstop, too. While all the attention for the crazy 42-8 run the Dodgers had last year was on Yasiel Puig, the streak didn’t actually start until Ramirez returned from injury.

So when Ramirez didn’t come close to matching any of that in 2014, as any reasonable person would have expected, it seemed like a step backwards. That’s true, but only in comparison to that ridiculous 2013, because 3.4 WAR and a 135 wRC+ is still outstanding, making him easily the best qualified hitter among shortstops. (Sorry, Troy Tulowitzki.)

Of course, that defense took a bigger step back, to the point that it’s hard to see him sticking at shortstop rather than moving to third, and the injuries continued to pile up. In 2014 alone, he missed time with minor injuries to his left hand, left calf, right shoulder, right calf, and left oblique, and those are just the ones we know about. In 2013, it was right thumb, left hamstring, right shoulder, lower back, and left ribs. Some of those were freak injuries — I certainly don’t envy anyone taking a Joe Kelly fastball to the ribs — but concerning nonetheless, and as Ramirez enters his age-31 season next year, health has to be at the forefront of any team’s evaluation.

The door still seems ajar for a return to the Dodgers, but it’s easy to think that if there were a deal to be made, it’d have been made by now. In the meantime, the qualifying offer seems to be a given, because Ramirez’ bat covers up his flaws easily for one year — and he won’t take it, anyway, likely getting an uncomfortably large deal elsewhere, hopefully not as a shortstop.

Victor Martinez, DH, Tigers

Gets offer/declines offer

Had you asked me at the start of the season, Martinez would have been my easy best bet for the first free agent to accept a qualifying offer. A 36-year-old (in 2015) without a position, with a recent severe leg injury in his past, and good-but-not-elite offensive production? That’s the kind of player you absolutely don’t want to invest multiple years in, but one that a big-payroll team could justify putting one year’s worth of qualifying salary in. This one seemed like a slam dunk.

…and then Martinez went off and had a crazy good offensive season, one that’s going to get him in the Top 5 (probably) of the AL MVP ballot, and all but certainly at least one first-place vote that’s going to infuriate us all. There’s really no denying how great Martinez was this year, hitting 32 homers with a 166 wRC+ that’s the third-best in baseball, just barely behind Andrew McCutchen and Mike Trout.

Obviously, Martinez is going to get an offer. Now that he’s in line for someone to give him a multiple-year deal, he’ll almost certainly reject it. Like Martin, though, there’s just a ton of risk here. Though he can play first base now and then, he’ll clearly stay in the American League, ideally on a team that has a protected pick. That won’t be a return to the Red Sox, who have David Ortiz, though he could easily stay with Detroit. Chicago, perhaps, to replace the Paul Konerko / Adam Dunn duo and add some support to a lineup that has a decent core with Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton?

Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Giants

Gets offer/declines offer

Of course, Sandoval is getting an offer. He only turned 28 in August, he’s long been a dangerous hitter and a capable defender, and though questions about his conditioning will follow him forever, he’s going to be a valued asset in the market.

Drew Fairservice wrote here about what to do with Sandoval back in August, noting how rare it’s been for a third baseman to sign a contract of at least three years, a group Sandoval will certainly join. Three years? Five years? You could give him seven and still be out by 35. Shin-Soo Choo got seven years last winter, and he was 31. Prince Fielder got nine headed into his age-28 season. There’s plenty of reasons why both of those were mistakes, of course, and Sandoval isn’t without risk. It’s just that when you’re talking about the possibility of that many years, yeah, the qualifying offer is happening.

Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Brewers

Signs before this is necessary, or accepts qualifying offer

Though I said above that I’d be excluding players with options, Ramirez is here because his situation is a bit more unique, as his option is a mutual $14m one, and that makes this interesting, and neither side has publicly stated what they plan to do. In theory, a still-productive 37-year-old player would be exactly the type to receive and accept a qualifying offer, because the team would be wary of a commitment longer than that, and the player would understand that being an older player with a qualifying offer tax around his neck would be a big drag in free agency, especially as Ramirez’ power has dipped in each of the last two seasons.

In this case, however, the option complicates things. If the Brewers want him back (which seems likely, because they don’t have an internal option, and aren’t likely to get into the Headley/Sandoval/Ramirez bidding), they’ll just exercise the player option. If Ramirez is willing to play for one year, he’ll exercise his half of it, too. But the only thing worse than being a 37-year-old free agent is being a 38-year-old free agent, and if Ramirez wants to play beyond 2015, punting a decision about his future a year down the road probably isn’t the best idea. If it’s likely that he wants to get multiple years right now, then he’d decline the player part of the option — then likely get slapped with the qualifying offer anyway, entering a market flush with third basemen and maybe making him the next Morales.

If that happens, he might accept it, though that seems like an overly complicated way to end a situation that already has a mutual option. This is probably the kind of situation that calls for avoiding the mess entirely, and just agreeing on a contract with Milwaukee for two years while you can.

J.J. Hardy, SS, Orioles

Gets offer/declines offer

As a stellar defensive shortstop who had hit 20 or more homers five times, Hardy has always had his fans, despite some serious OBP issues, because that combination has made him a consistent 3 WAR player. That held true this year despite the fact that his power disappeared, hitting only nine on the year, none until June. (Though he did hit five in August alone.)

The shortstop market this year is full of guys who probably shouldn’t be playing there anymore, like Ramirez, Jed Lowrie, and Asdrubal Cabrera, plus whatever Drew is. Hardy doesn’t have those defensive issues, but he did have some back concerns, and $15.3m is a big step up from the $7m he’s made the last three years. If he leaves, the O’s could shift Manny Machado to shortstop, though his knee injuries may make that less certain than it once seemed.

Hardy isn’t exactly young at 32, but he could probably get another three-year offer from a team looking to upgrade their defense at short, hoping that his power isn’t gone for good. That means he’d likely decline an offer. That might make Baltimore more likely to offer it. Let’s go with that.

Melky Cabrera, OF, Blue Jays

Gets offer/declines offer

It’s already been reported that the Jays plan to give Cabrera an offer, so that solves that. Another report indicates Colby Rasmus and Casey Janssen won’t, not that there was much danger of that happening. Cabrera reportedly likes playing in Toronto and would consider returning, but as I wrote a month ago when a broken finger ended his season, the combination of a solid season and lousy outfield alternatives makes a multiple-year deal all but a certainty:

So what are we left with? Olney suggested the 3/$39 million that Shane Victorino got, coming off a down 2012. The Toronto Star polled agents last month and came away with “a contract somewhere in the neighbourhood of three years and between $36 million and $45 million, or roughly $12 to $15 million per season.” The Score, last month, also said 3/$39 million. That’s all pretty consistent, and maybe it’s right.

It’s not impossible to see a four-year deal, either, though I wouldn’t put money on it. The only thing certain is that at 30 years old, Cabrera isn’t going to skip what may be his last chance to cash in so he can take a one-year qualifying offer.

Nick Markakis, OF, Orioles

Doesn’t receive offer

The Orioles hold a $17.5m option on their longtime right fielder, but it’s difficult to see them spending that much on a a player who has been worth 2.5 WAR i the last two seasons combined. Anecdotally, I’m not sure if there’s a player who causes as much disagreement between the eyes and the metrics on defense than Markakis, and while I’m aware that Alex Gordon exists, that argument is just about “pretty good” or “really good.” Markakis is beloved because he hasn’t made an error since 2012, but the advanced stats hate his range. It’s the Derek Jeter argument all over again!

Even if we’re just talking about offense, Markakis’ wRC+ the last two years have been only 88 and 106, so league-average at best. When they decline the option, he’ll be a free agent. Most of me wants to say that he’d jump to stay in Baltimore and make over $15m, especially knowing that he isn’t worth that and a draft pick tax would doom him, with teams staying away. There’s that small part of me that can’t quiet “but the Phillies,” though. Ultimately, Baltimore will make the right choice, but this is the one I feel the least confident about. If they do give him the offer, he is absolutely the first one to take it.

Nelson Cruz, DH, Orioles

Gets offer/declines offer

I can’t explain Cruz’ massive year, which has continued into the playoffs. Neither can you. It’s not some sudden love of Camden Yards, because 25 of his 40 (!) homers came on the road. Here’s what’s clear, though — he’s getting a qualifying offer, he’s turning down the qualifying offer, and his winter won’t go the same as it did last year.

Really, that’s terrifying. A player with negative defensive value who turns 35 next July 1 just had a huge homer surge that’s not really easily explainable by any of his peripherals, other than “baseball.” That won’t stop some team from giving him a three- or four-year deal, because everyone likes saying “right-handed power.” I just wonder if we’re still talking about Cruz again after the holidays, just like we were last year. Maybe, like A.Ramirez, this is a situation that’s best resolved with a medium-length deal to stay where he is, especially if Cruz’ last experience with free agency is something he wants to avoid repeating.





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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DBRuns
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DBRuns

I know this isn’t the purpose of the post, but you can’t remove the deadline for players to accept qualifying offers, plain and simple. Teams can’t wait 4+ months to know whether they’ll have a $15 million payroll liability. Plus it’s commonplace within the industry to have offers expire relatively quickly.