MLB Free Agency: Breaking Down the Qualifying Offer Decisions

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It’s come and gone. The deadline for MLB teams to give qualifying offers to their impending free agents has passed us by and left the baseball world to ponder some of those interesting decisions.

One of the bigger dates on the MLB free agency calendar is the deadline for teams to give qualifying offers to their players who will be hitting the free agent market this winter. That deadline passed yesterday at 5 p.m. with 10 players in total getting slapped with the $17.2 million contract for one season.

Now just because a player gets this offer doesn’t mean that they have to decline it. In fact, Colby Rasmus, Matt Wieters and Brett Anderson were the first players to ever accept the offer last offseason since the system was put into place in the most recent collective bargaining agreement. This year, it remains to be seen whether any player will do the same. However, in total, there were 10 fewer offers given than in 2015, possibly because teams were a little more wary that lower level free agents would accept it with what happened last winter.

The reason that these offers are so crucial is because if a team extends a qualifying offer and that player declines, the club that gave it will get draft pick compensation for losing that player to another team in the offseason. However, the organization does run the risk of a player possibly accepting the large sum of money, if the team only extended the contract thinking that they would get draft pick compensation in return. The balance between trying to get as much value as possible while keeping these players’ intentions in mind is one of the more intriguing storylines to follow throughout the entire offseason.

In this article, we will take a look at some of the more difficult decisions that teams had to make regarding their impending free agents. So players like Yoenis Cespedes, Mark Trumbo, Edwin Encarnacion, Ian Desmond, Dexter Fowler, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner will not be looked at because it is common knowledge that they should have and did receive the qualifying offer.

On the other hand, we will not be looking into situations where players clearly didn’t deserve the money and in turn didn’t receive the offer. This list includes: Edinson Volquez, Jason Hammel, Jason Castro, Mitch Moreland, Chris Carter, Brandon Moss and any other lower tier free agent that didn’t see a $17.2 million check cross their agent’s desk.

With that being said, let’s get into the hardest decisions of yesterday’s deadline day case-by-case.

SP Jeremy Hellickson (Philadelphia Phillies)

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Did he receive a QO: YES

Should he have received a QO: YES

Much as been made out of the apparent lack of starting pitching on the free agent market this offseason. Outside of 36-year-old former journeyman Rich Hill, you don’t look at any guy available and say, “this is a pitcher who can lead my rotation”. However, what you do have is a bunch of mediocre starters that will be overpaid because the need for starting pitching is always so widespread across the league.

Hellickson could be the second best starting pitcher of the bunch available in free agency. The other options that are close to him are Jason Hammel, whom the Cubs decided to reject his $12 million option, and Ivan Nova, who benefited from a very good second half after having a rough go of things with the New York Yankees. This is the main reason why he should have received the offer.

The 29-year-old right hander had a very nice bounce-back season for the Philadelphia Phillies after he struggled with the Diamondbacks and Rays in the three seasons prior. What made Hellickson much more effective this go around was was that he was able to limit his walks while maintaining a solid strikeout rate of 7.3/9 IP. Overall, he finished with an ERA of 3.71 and always seemed to give the Phillies a quality start when he was on the mound. He doesn’t wow you with explosive stuff and really doesn’t have the ability to consistently put up spectacular outings. But he is a quality innings eater who slots in nicely in the middle of any rotation.

Usually, I am not for giving mediocre pitchers this much money, but this offseason changes my mindset a bit. Being that there are so few solid starting pitchers available, Hellickson and his agent are probably under the assumption that he will do better than this one-year deal on the open market (which he probably will). With this being the case, the Phillies will be able to get a high draft pick for a guy that they acquired last offseason as a flier. That would be a big win for the new Phillies management as they look to continue building the core of young talent.

Will he accept the QO: NO

2B Neil Walker (New York Mets)

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Did he receive a QO: YES

Should he have received a QO: YES

Once a golden boy and hometown hero of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the 31-year-old second baseman was dealt to the New York Mets in exchange for starting pitcher Jon Niese… Yeah, that was a clear win for the team from Queens.

Jon Niese jokes aside, Walker had a real nice season for the 2015 National League champs. Known for his above average power for his position, Walker produced as well as the Mets could have hoped for when they acquired him last offseason.

in 113 games with the team, the veteran infielder hit for an impressive .282 average while getting on-base at a .347 clip. Walker also added 23 home runs, which tied his career-high for a season in only just about three-quarters of the regular season.

Not everything went well for the second baseman in 2016 as he season was cut short after he had to undergo season-ending back surgery. His recovery is reportedly going well and he does expect to be back for Opening Day in 2017.

Just based on the numbers alone, it would be obvious for the Mets to extend Walker a qualifying offer, however the injury complicates things. The question remains to what degree? Being that there is a noticeable lack of offensive talent in the infield in free agency, one could assume that his market would be pretty robust. But the injury still clouds over the 31-year-old, which could force teams to steer clear of giving him any big money this go around.

There is no doubt that Walker is an offensive talent and represents one of the better offensive options at second base in the entire MLB. But the injury will force him and his agent to think long and hard about his free agency prospects given that his market will also assuredly strink because he has draft pick compensation attached. This leads me to conclude that in the end he will accept the offer and try to repeat his 2016 numbers next season.

Will he accept the QO: YES

OF Jose Bautista (Toronto Blue Jays)

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Did he receive the QO: YES

Should he have received the QO: YES

Toronto may be the center of the baseball world in free agency. The AL Wild Card winners have three key players that are set to hit the open market. First baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion leads the group and the surprising outfielder Michael Saunders will have a chance to make some good money as well. Bautista rounds out the trio and may in fact be the toughest decision that the Blue Jays have to face this offseason.

At 36 years old, Bautista has been the face and the leader for the Toronto Blue Jays for the past several seasons. After flaming out as a younger player in other organizations, Toronto took a chance on the power hitting outfielder and he has delivered by hitting 35 homers or more in four separate seasons. Outside of this he has been great protection to other talented hitters the team has such as Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki and of course Encarnacion.

Bautista did have a down year in 2016, though. The outfielder only played in 116 games as he dealt with some injuries throughout the year. While we have seen some sluggers such as Nelson Cruz and David Ortiz maintain their hitting prowess well into their late 30s, it’s certainly not a good thing for him to have injuries being on the wrong side of 35 years old.

Offensively he just wasn’t the player that we have grown accustomed to when he was in the batter’s box. Bautista’s average decreased over 15 points to .234 and he obviously had less home runs with just 22, his lowest output since 2009. Now he was injured so that has to be taken into account, but it is still somewhat troubling. Bautista also almost matched his strikeout total from 2015, striking out nearly one time time in every game that he appeared in.

On the bright side, the veteran slugger was still able to draw a ton of walks to keep his on-base percentage high, over 100 points higher than his batting average (.366), and he showed up big time during the postseason too.

Ultimately, I believe that Bautista is still a premium power hitter in free agency and he will be paid by some team accordingly. He definitely brings some baggage, but his power potential will keep enough teams interested to give him a sizable amount of money for the Blue Jays to bring back a draft pick if they decide to move on from their longtime star.

Will he accept the QO: NO

OF Michael Saunders (Toronto Blue Jays)

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Did he receive a QO: NO

Should he have recieved a QO: NO

Now moving onto some guys that didn’t get the qualifying offer, and the one we are looking at now is another Blue Jays outfielder that will be hitting free agency this winter. Saunders had somewhat of a breakout season in 2016, although it was really more of a breakout first half. The 29-year-old left fielder locked down the job early the season thanks to his all-star numbers that he was putting up at the plate.

Through the first three months of the regular season, Saunders was hitting for an impressive .289 batting average, while doing his part to consistently get on-base as well, with his OBP being solid .364 on June 30. The Canadian also hit 14 dingers up to that point, too, which put him well above pace to break his 19 home run season-high. However, things went downhill fast as we got into the dog days of summer.

Saunders saw his offensive numbers and his grip on the starting left field position vanish as pitchers seemingly figured out how to attack the first half breakout star. In the end, he hit for an unspectacular .253 average and only finished the season with 24 long balls. Now this isn’t to say these aren’t solid offensive stats, they are, but he could have really made some dough in free agency if he kept up his first half pace. Now it’s looking like he’ll settle for middle-end starting position player money.

Now this is not to say that Saunders isn’t a good player. In fact, he may be one of the better values out there because of his poor second half. I tend to think that the 29-year-old is more of the player he was from April-June than he was towards the end of the season. Still, he doesn’t have the track record to warrant the kind of contract that let’s say Joey Bats will get.

If the Blue Jays would have extended him an offer, there was a great chance he would have taken it because Saunders was not getting anywhere close to $17 million in free agency. This would’ve been a poor decision for the Blue Jays front office because they have to keep flexibility with the current offseason situation that they are in. Overall, Saunders is a solid player, but with the number of good outfielders available, The Blue Jays were probably right to not take the risk of him making way more money than the outfielder should.

Would he have accepted a QO: YES

1B Mike Napoli (Cleveland Indians)

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Did he receive a QO: NO

Should he have received a QO: NO

Baseball fans should know the name Mike Napoli. He’s been on countless successful teams and has been one of the more consistent power hitters of the past few years. The veteran catcher/first base has proved himself to be a great veteran leader on any ballclub. However, his poor 2015 season put him in a tough spot last winter when he hit the open market.

Hitting just .224 with 18 home runs combined between Boston and Texas two years ago certainly did a number to his free agent stock. Prior to that, he was considered by many to still be a capable middle of the order hitter, but now with the former World Series champion getting up there in age, it seemed that many teams were wary of giving the veteran anything more than a one year deal.

This was certainly good news for the bargain hunting Cleveland Indians who were able to bring the first baseman in for a one year commitment at just $7 million, which is quite low when looking at what power hitters are getting in free agency nowadays.

Napoli responded to this challenge by carving out a place as the cleanup hitter on Terry Francona‘s scorecard and producing the best power numbers of his career at the ripe age of 35. Napoli hit a surprising 34 home runs in 2016, which was a career-high for him. He did only manage to hit for a .239 batting average, but that still was an improvement over his numbers from last year. He did draw his fair amount of walks too as his on-base percentage was nearly 100 points higher than his batting average.

However, these power numbers still didn’t warrant a qualifying offer, at least that’s what the Indians surmised. Being that he is already in his mid-30s, Napoli may have been content to accept the $17.2 million check and move on. This would not be good for the Indians who struggle taking a big payroll. This is why Cleveland could not take the chance of extending a qualifying offer to their free agent slugger. Napoli may get a two-year deal in free agency, but he will not come close to matching the salary he would have gotten if the Indians went in that direction.

Would he have accepted a QO: YES

DH Kendrys Morales (Kansas City Royals)

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Did he receive a QO: NO

Should he have received a QO: NO

Many are already looking to the Royals’ 2018 free agency situation when the likes of Danny Duffy, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Wade Davis will all hit the open market. All of these players represent the core of their ballclub, but Kansas City still has some tough decisions to make because whatever they decide to do this offseason will certainly affect their plans a year from now.

Kendrys Morales was the biggest impending free agent on the Royals list. At 33 years old, Morales has been a steady hitter over the course of his major league career. However, he doensn’t bring anything to the fielding department, so whatever team signs him will most assuredly have to come from the American League.

All things considered, Morales had put up a very solid offensive campaign this season. He finished 2016 with a commendable .263 average and hit 30 balls out of the ballpark in the 154 games that he appeared in. This will was solid building block off of his extremely successful 2015 season where he slashed .290/.362/.485.

The only problem is that it’s tough to give a one dimensional player that much money being that his market is already severely limited because of his defensive incapabilities. This means that if the Royals front office were to decide to spend $17.2 million on him, he would have a tough time matching that from any other club on the open market, especially because most would have to surrender a first round draft pick.

This puts Royals general manager Dayton Moore in a tough spot because he himself said that they wants to lower payroll this offseason. This makes it more clear why Morales will hit free agency without any restrictions. He’s a nice luxury for Kansas City to have, but giving him that much money when they had some other needs to address is something that Royals management cannot seemingly do this offseason.

Would he have accepted a QO: YES

C Wilson Ramos (Washington Nationals)

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Did he receive a QO: NO

Should he have received a QO: YES

This was probably the most surprising decision of yesterday’s deadline. It goes without saying that the only reason why the Nationals 29-year-old catcher is on this list has nothing to do with his performance this past season. His placement here has more to do with his outlook for 2017.

In a contract season, Ramos delivered in every possible way that he could. He was an all-star for the first time in his career as he hit for career-high’s in batting average (.307), on-base percentage (.354), slugging percentage (.496) and OPS (.850). He also hit for a career-high in home runs, pumping out 22 of them in the 131 games he appeared in.

These offensive numbers, especially for a catcher, seem to make one think that Ramos would have been a lock to receive the $17.2 million qualifying offer. But unfortunately for the impending free agent, his stock severely dropped when he tore his ACL late in the 2016 regular season. According to reports, Ramos will be out for 6-8 months, which will surely keep him out for at least a little bit of next season. This drastically effects the outlook for Ramos’ market in free agency.

Teams should be cautious signing an injury plagued catcher who will turn 30 next season long-term, but I don’t believe that his injury does much to affect how he should be seen as a player. He still represents the top option on a weak free agent catching market, and if there was one catcher that a team should still give money to it would be him. Actually, this injury may provide teams with more bang for their buck as his market value is sure to shrink because of his injury.

Mike Rizzo and the Nationals front office did make a mistake by not extending him the offer sheet. Worst case scenario, Ramos accepts the qualifying offer and the team gets an above average backstop back to form by mid-summer at the latest. If he decides to spur the $17.2 million than Ramos signs elsewhere for a long-term deal and the Nationals get a draft pick for losing their all-star backstop. Now, Ramos will be unrestricted in his pursuit for a long-term deal and he will probably get one even with his injury concerns because of his offensive capabilities and the lack of starting catchers available this winter.

Would he have accepted a QO: NO

C Matt Wieters (Baltimore Orioles)

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Onto the next big-time free agent catcher, we turn to a former number one overall prospect Matt Wieters. However, while he was expected to be somewhat of a “Mauer with power”, the 30-year-old backstop has been nothing close to that. Wieters’ best season came in 2011 when he hit for a line of .262/.328/.450 with 22 dingers. The former first round pick has been named to the American League all-star team on four different occasions, but that seemingly has more to do with his name brand in conjunction with the overall lack of catching talent in the American League.

Still, Wieters is a solid catcher that has done well to be a consistent offensive force in the Orioles lineup when he is on the field. Unlike most catchers, Wieters has frequently hit the 20 home run mark or been on pace for that number of long balls when injuries slowed him down. But it does need to be said that injuries have played a big role in his career as he’s missed time in two of the past three seasons because of his inability to stay healthy.

This should make prospective teams wary of committing big money to him long-term because he will turn 31 years old at the start of the 2017 regular season, and we know that catchers already have a hard time being durable long-term.

For all of these reasons, this is why unlike last season, the Orioles organization has decided to not extend a qualifying offer to their long-time catcher. He just didn’t produce well enough offensively to warrant risking whether Wieters would accept the offer just because the team wants an extra draft choice. The all-star catcher would have not been able to land a yearly value even close to the $17.2 million and shouldn’t because of the average track record he’s accumulated thus far.

It was a wise decision for the Orioles organization to probably move on from their expensive backstop as they have many other needs to fill this offseason and have the extensions of Manny Machado and Chris Tillman potentially on the horizon.

Would he have accepted a QO: YES

What qualifying offer decisions stick out to you? Let us know in the comment section below.

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