The qualifying offers are out, and we have our first winners and losers of the offseason.
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Well, everyone who did not receive a qualifying offer would fit this description — they are truly free, unencumbered by draft-pick compensation.
Some of those players, though, will benefit more than others. And two teams, in particular, worked the system to their advantage.
First, the players:
• Bronson Arroyo: The Reds can’t cry middle-market poverty when they’re paying first baseman Joey Votto $225 million, but clearly they were concerned that Arroyo would accept the one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer and absorb too much of their offseason budget.
So, the Reds declined to extend the offer, leaving both sides free of worry. The problem is, the Reds now figure to lose one of the game’s most durable and effective starting pitchers to another club.
True, Arroyo will be 37 next season. But since 2006, he has led all major leaguers in starts and all National Leaguers in wins and innings pitched. He has never been on the disabled list. And in four of the past five seasons, his ERA has been below 3.90.
Consistent. As in, ka-ching.
• Jarrod Saltalamacchia: He wanted to stay with the Red Sox, and the chances of that happening diminished when the team declined to make him the one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer.
The Red Sox instead seem likely to pursue Brian McCann, the catcher who years ago blocked Saltalamacchia in Atlanta. “Salty,” though, likely will get over his disappointment.
He’s 28, he’s a switch-hitter and he produced a career-best .804 OPS in the regular season. Yes, he slumped in the postseason, both offensively and defensively, but the scarcity of catchers in the game should make him a fairly hot commodity.
• Joe Nathan: The Rangers picked up their end of his mutual option for $9 million, but the closer became a free agent when he declined to return for that amount.
Well, Mariano Rivera’s highest salary was $15 million. The Rangers weren’t about to offer $14.1 million to Nathan, who will turn 39 on Nov. 22.
Nathan converted 43 of 46 save chances last season with a 1.39 ERA. If he’s not in Detroit already, reuniting with former Twins teammate Torii Hunter, he could be soon.
• Bartolo Colon: He has been one of the biggest bargains in baseball the past two years, even though he served a 50-game suspension for violating the sport’s drug policy in 2012.
Colon, 40, produced a 2.99 ERA and 127 ERA-plus for the Athletics over 342-2/3 innings in 2012-13, all while earning $5 million. Not each season. Combined.
The A’s weren’t about to offer Colon $14.1 million for his age 41 season, but he could do well on the open market; he was sixth in the majors in ERA and seventh in ERA-plus last season.
Now, the teams:
• Yankees, Red Sox: The rich get richer.
Both the Yankees and Red Sox made qualifying offers to three players — the Yankees to Robinson Cano, Hiroki Kuroda and Curtis Granderson, the Red Sox to Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli and Stephen Drew.
Both clubs possess large enough payrolls to absorb one-year, $14.1 million hits; Granderson and Drew are perhaps the most likely of the six to accept — and Drew, like most Scott Boras clients, still would probably prefer to determine his value on the open market.
The Yankees wound up with the Nos. 32 and 33 picks last season as compensation for Nick Swisher and Rafael Soriano (they re-signed Kuroda). This year, they might re-sign all three of the players to whom they made offers. But they also could wind up with extra picks between the first and second rounds – and the accompanying pool money.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, could hit the compensatory-pick/pool-money jackpot – they are almost certain to get one for Ellsbury, and it’s not out of the question that they could get two more for Drew and Napoli.
Not quite how the system is supposed to work.
Or, to put it another way, which of the 13 players who received qualifying offers will be this year’s Kyle Lohse?
The answer, believe it or not, might not be anyone — in part because the game is perhaps more flush with cash than ever before.
• Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez: They are perhaps the most obvious Lohse-a-likes, pitchers with inconsistent track records whom teams might balk at giving tens of millions while losing a high draft pick.
Lohse lingered on the market last offseason before finally signing a three-year, $33 million contract with the Brewers on March 25.
Santana and Jimenez, however, figure to be in better positions.
For one thing, they’re younger — Lohse was a free agent at 34, while Santana is 31 and Jimenez turns 30 on Jan. 22. Santana and Jimenez also are coming off strong seasons in the more hitter-friendly American League, while Lohse had pitched in the NL. And some of the teams with “protected” first-round picks — that is, those drafting in the top 10 — should be in the market for starting pitching.
The Mariners, Blue Jays, Phillies, Twins, Cubs and Mets are among the clubs that would lose only a second rounder for signing a qualified free agent. Such teams still might be more interested in pitchers who did not receive qualifying offers — Matt Garza, Jason Vargas, et al. But they figure to at least look at Santana and Jimenez, too.
• Carlos Beltran, Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales, Mike Napoli: All have drawbacks. Beltran will be 37 next season. Cruz will be 33 and coming off a drug suspension. Napoli will be 32 and battling the perception of avascular necrosis in both hips, even after appearing in 139 games last season. And Morales, while a mere 30, is essentially a DH.
Sure, teams will be reluctant to give up a high draft pick for such players. Here’s the thing, though: All four are power hitters. Offense is down. And the upcoming free-agent classes are weak.
Hanley Ramirez is probably the top hitter in the 2015 free-agent class; the rest of the eligible players are either older or flawed. Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton, Chris Davis and Yoenis Cespedes all could be free in 2016. But Cabrera, like Ramirez, seems likely to stay with his present club. And some of the others might never hit the market, either.
So, while teams value draft picks more than ever before, where are they going to find power bats? Trades certainly are a possibility. But considering the shortage of offense, losing a draft pick for a slugger such as Beltran or Cruz might not sound like such a bad idea.
• Stephen Drew: Like Morales — and Lohse a year ago — Drew could suffer from Boras’ aversion to accepting a one-year deal before fully exploring the open market. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com already has reported that Morales would reject his qualifying offer. It stands to reason that Drew will, too, especially after playing on a one-year deal with the Red Sox last season.
Trouble? Perhaps. But good shortstops are hard to find. And while Drew was horrid offensively in the postseason, his .778 OPS at short during the regular season was the fifth-highest among players at his position (minimum 400 plate appearances). His defense at the position, meanwhile, was a revelation.
Let’s not operate under any illusions — Lohse, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher all had their markets damaged by qualifying offers last season, and the same could happen to some of the above players, as well.
Still, it’s the first day of free agency. Hunter Pence got $90 million and Tim Lincecum $35 million without ever hitting the open market.
It’s a good time to be a free agent, qualifying offer or not.