Do you think the end of the baseball season results in a nice vacation for front offices? Poppycock! Horsefeathers! Archaic 19th Century Declaration of Shock! Hundreds of players will be able to offer their services on the open market after the post-postseason quiet period ends in a few days. With those free agency entrants comes a significant decision for teams: whether to extend qualifying offers to their departing free agents. And unlike paying your water, electric, or taco bill, it’s an actual choice that has to be made.
For those who don’t have the qualifying offer rules committed to memory, a refresher is in order. If a free agent spent the entire season on one team’s roster and has never before received a qualifying offer, his team can choose to extend to him a qualifying offer in order to receive draft pick compensation should he elect to sign with another team.
If a team makes a free agent a qualifying offer and received revenue sharing, they get a pick after the first round of the draft if the player is guaranteed at least $50 million by his new team. If they did not receive revenue sharing, their comp picks comes after the second round. If the team did not receive revenue sharing and did not exceed the luxury tax, they get a post-round two pick no matter the free agent’s new contract. The increasingly rare number of teams that exceed the
soft salary cap luxury tax threshold pick after round four.
The qualifying offer is a one-year deal equivalent to the average of the salary of the top 125 highest-paid players in baseball. For the first time ever, the qualifying offer went down this year as owners realize that not paying for stuff is a lot more fun than paying for stuff, even if it doesn’t always result in winning baseball games.
The decision to make a free agent a qualifying offer has real consequences for players and teams, sometimes disastrous ones. The Cleveland Indians let Michael Brantley walk scot-free after the 2018 season, unwilling to risk “having to” sign a player coming off a 3.5 WAR season to a reasonably priced one-year contract. Brantley was worth 4.2 WAR in 2019; the Indians were patching holes in their outfield the entire season. Cleveland finished three games behind the Wild Card road team, the Tampa Bay Rays, so you can do the math there.
So, who will get a qualifying offer, who should, and who should accept?
The Duh Squadron
Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Madison Bumgarner, and Josh Donaldson should all receive qualifying offers, and all should (and will) decline them. The same goes for the stars with significant opt-out decisions looming: Stephen Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman, and J.D. Martinez.
A whole slew of players hitting free agency have either received qualifying offers before or were traded midseason. If they were eligible, I’d certainly make qualifying offers to Dallas Keuchel, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas, and Nicholas Castellanos. I could even be convinced on Tanner Roark — one year and $17.8 million ain’t bad for a solid innings-eater — and given their lack of offensive depth, the Indians would have had to consider extending an offer to Puig. But all these players are off the table.
So now we get to the tougher decisions. I’ll be throwing in some very preliminary 2020 ZiPS projections, because, well, I have a projection system so it would be silly not to.
Honestly, Zack Wheeler should be on the Duh Squadron, but the Mets have a tendency to make odd decisions. Even if he were projected for half the WAR he is below, the Mets still need to make him a qualifying offer. The Mets’ are thin at the top of their rotation and there’s almost nobody to fill out a staff, which is necessary even if the team doesn’t trade Noah Syndergaard any time soon. Jason Vargas was literally one of the five best choices for the rotation last season, and that was before he pitched surprisingly adequately. If the Mets want to be a contender instead of just cosplaying as one, they can’t afford to enter 2020 with Walker Lockett or David Peterson as their fifth starter (though the day may come). Wheeler won’t — and shouldn’t — accept, but the offer is easy.
Cole Hamels is no longer a serious Cy Young contender, but as with the Mets and Wheeler, I don’t think the Cubs can afford to pooh-pooh Hamels’ contributions. Chicago’s rotation isn’t the world-beater they’d hoped and though Hamels struggled at the end of the year, his early-season performances bailed out the team when the rest of its rotation was starting dumpster fires. A league-average pitcher is certainly worth $17.8 million, and I’m actually a bit surprised that this isn’t a slam-dunk QO from what I’ve heard inside baseball.
Marcell Ozuna has actually been a bit of a disappointment for the Cardinals, and his 2017 line of .312/.376/.548 is starting to take on the distinct aroma of a career season. Disappointing doesn’t mean terrible, however, and Ozuna’s been better than league-average in St. Louis thanks to solid defense in left. That’s enough to garner a qualifying offer and though I think he’ll end up falling well short of a nine-figure contract this offseason, he ought to get better bids than a one-year deal. The Cardinals should want to retain Ozuna if they can get him back this cheaply, but they have enough corner options that it’s no great loss if they can’t.
The Twins actually ended up with a lower payroll in 2019 than in 2018, thanks to the Joe Mauer contract coming off the books. With Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Michael Pineda, and possibly Martín Pérez all free agents, the rotation is looking like José Berríos and four Mad Libs blanks. Odorizzi’s step forward in 2019 was backed up in by his peripheral numbers, with his FIP improving even more than his 3.51 ERA to a sterling 3.36. Odorizzi will allow a few more home runs, but he’s Minnesota’s No. 2 and replacing him with a player of similar caliber would be more expensive.
Given the team’s stated desire to cut a lot from their payroll, it would be absolutely shocking if the Red Sox extended Rick Porcello a qualifying offer and I think on balance, I’m probably in the “no” column as well. But there’s a part of me that wonders if I’m overreacting to the impact of an ugly season. “2019” is a poor projection system for anything but the 2019 season, and I’d have been happy to sign Porcello for one-year, $17.8 million, at every point in his career up until now. You can even make the argument that Porcello was a bit unlucky in 2019, with his FIP a less nauseating 4.76 and an exit velocity right around his career norms. Again, I think I’m “no,” but I’m not sure.
I actually think there’s a chance the Yankees look at the depth in their infield and decide not to make this offer. I think they should, however. Didi Gregorius‘ .237 2019 BABIP is unlikely to be repeated next season, and he remains the team’s best defensive option at short. If there needs to be an odd man out in the infield, trading Miguel Andújar after he demonstrates he’s healthy is probably a better idea than letting a player who was worth 4.7 WAR as recently as 2018 simply walk away without getting any compensation in return. It seems to me that people have been too quick to write off Gregorius after an injury and a weak return in 2019.
It may seem odd to offer this much money, even on a one-year contract, for a player the Astros didn’t even trust on the playoff roster, but I think I would make Wade Miley an offer if I were in Houston’s shoes because of their very specific circumstance. Gerrit Cole’s possible departure is a very big deal for the rotation and while Miley obviously isn’t Cole, a one-year deal is useful insurance in case the Astros can’t land a decent replacement in the offseason or Lance McCullers Jr. has a setback in his recovery. And Miley really was quite excellent for four-and-a-half months, so it’s at least theoretically possible that his late-season collapse isn’t his new baseline. All that said, I don’t think Houston makes the offer. But maybe they should.
It’s hard not to like what Brett Gardner did in 2019, staying healthy unlike most of his teammate and taking advantage of the juicy ball to hit a new career-best for home runs (28). And it’s hard not to like what Brett Gardner has done for the Yankees over his career, giving them the same un-flashy three-to-four wins a year like clockwork. And it’s even harder not to like having additional insurance for Aaron Hicks after a 2019 ruined by injury. But in the end, the hardest thing of all is wanting to bring Gardner back in 2020 given his age and the emergence of other options such as Mike Tauchman and Clint Frazier. Gardner would probably accept a qualifying offer and with the Yankees claiming to no longer be a team with an unlimited checkbook, bringing Gardner back probably takes away money that could be better applied elsewhere.
It sounds like a lot of money for a reliever, but the Giants likely have about $60 million to play with before they hit the luxury tax threshold and if they’re going to insist they’re contending, you have to keep a guy like Will Smith around. They willingly paid $62 million over four years for Mark Melancon in a tighter payroll situation and the amount a team is willing to pay for a one-year deal ought to be significantly more than the yearly average for a four-year contract. Smith will likely accept the qualifying offer, especially given Kimbrel’s experience last winter, and the Giants should be fine with that. At the very least, they’ll get a second chance at trading Smith at the deadline next year if they’re in last place and he’s still productive.
I think this is an actual decision mainly because the Twins have so much of their rotation departing in free agency this winter. While I think they should extend an offer to Odorizzi and aggressively try to re-sign him, Gibson’s performance is below where I would prefer the “safe” signing compared to taking my chances in the market. I will be legitimately surprised if the Twins make Gibson a qualifying offer.
I love Dellin Betances and there may have been an argument to extend him an offer if he had just suffered one injury. But combine a shoulder impingement with a lat injury and then a final, unfortunate Achilles tear, and the risk is just too much for me. The Yankees are well-equipped to offer Betances an extension with a salary figure that reflects the additional risk and I suspect he’ll take it.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.