Since its inception, the MLB qualifying offer has plummeted the value of a certain level of free agent. Last season we saw Stephen Drew reject the qualifying offer and go unsigned until re-signing with the team that qualified him, the Boston Red Sox, for $10.1 million. A full $4 million below the offer he rejected to hit “free agency.”
Who of this year’s 12 qualified free agents will be this year’s Stephen Drew? Here are a few candidates in no particular order.
The Agent is Worried Group
Even players among the best at their position are not immune to the dreaded qualifying offer. Robertson, the Yankees relief pitcher and former-heir-apparent to Mariano Rivera, has had a stellar professional career so far. He had an ERA of 3.08 and 13.4 K/9 in his final year before free agency. Any team would love to plug Robertson into the back of their bullpen.
The problem? The word bullpen. Robertson will be snagged by someone before spring begins to bloom, but I wouldn’t put my money on any team that doesn’t break their qualifying offer seal with someone else. No team wants to give up a first round pick for a closer and few teams that have a protected top-101 pick have a need for a big money closer. He’ll get signed, but his agent isn’t thrilled about the situation.
Liriano may be the epitome of the player that the qualifying offer hurts the most. If Liriano and his agent hope to break the curse, they’re going to point heavily to the likes of Kyle Lohse. A man that went unsigned for quite some time, despite impressive numbers.
But, with a 3.38 ERA and 9.7 K/9 as a starter, you’d think Liriano would be safe from the curse. Not so. Liriano has never approached the magic 200 innings in a season and will be looked at as a high upside, but almost certainly unreliable piece. Liriano has also seen his walk numbers go up in each of the past three years, reaching towards heights he showed when his ERA was 5.34.
Being a lefty will help Liriano, but being on the wrong side of the proverbial aging curve will not. He might luck out with a team that signs a qualified free agent or two and no longer worries about losing a second or third round pick, but he might be waiting for the phone to ring well into March, April, or even May.
Santana has played this game before. Last year actually, when he didn’t get much interest in the free agent market until the Atlanta Braves were decimated by pitching injuries in a year they were expecting to compete. They reached out to Santana and signed him for the magic number of 1-year, $14.1 million, the qualifying offer he received from the Kansas City Royals months earlier.
The Dominican starter pitched well in his season with the Braves, if unspectacular. He finished the season with a 3.95 ERA and got close enough to 200 innings (196) to make it worth counting. However, unless another team gets decimated again, things haven’t changed for Santana.
Santana knows that he will be waiting for a call once again. He didn’t improve in any category except for K/9 (6.9 to 8.2) and got worse in most categories. One year older, one year worse, and Santana won’t have any teams knocking down his door.
The Age is Only a Number Group
The three names above don’t need to be explained individually as they all have the same inherent risks. One led the AL in home runs with 40 (!), one had a .332/.376/.579 triple slash, and one led the AL in OBP and OPS with .409 and .974 respectively.
They’re coming off stellar offensive seasons and they’re all very close to the end of the aging curve. Teams will be terrified to lose a first round pick in order to sign someone that is 34 or 35 years old. I think all three of these guys will find work without too much trouble. But, don’t discount the chance that they will see their value plummet and their eventual deal fall below what they want.
Cruz and Cuddyer should have the most overall value as they have still shown the ability to play in the outfield while Martinez is limited to first base on occasion and designated hitter in most circumstances. Their offense prowess will find them work, but GMs around the league will think twice about giving them more than 3-year deals, which they’ll all want at their last true bite at the apple.
The younger qualified free agents have the ability to sign their offer and try again next season or wait until after the draft to sign so they can’t be tied down with an offer. But don’t expect a 34 or 35-year-old to be keen on that strategy.