MLB Off-Season Watch: Qualifying Offers

With the season officially over, and the Boston Red Sox crowned champs, baseball fans must now endure five painful, baseball-free months. Fortunately, the lack of on-field action means more is happening in front offices. At 5pm ET yesterday evening, free agency opened for the vast majority of players whose contracts expired this season. The top players in the free agency class will have received a ‘qualifying offer’ from their old team – in other words, an offer that exceeds one year and $14.1 million. They have until November 11th to either accept or decline this offer. If they decline the offer, they enter free agency with the players that did not receive qualifying offers. These qualifying offers, of course, exist for a reason. If the player signs for another team, then his old team will receive a ‘compensatory’ first round draft pick from the club that acquired the free agent. The top 10 picks in the draft are protected, but in all other cases, clubs will relinquish their big draft pick in order to acquire free agent talent.

In many cases, this may not have an effect on the market, especially for the cream of the crop like Robinson Cano. However, as we saw last season, some more fringy players may see their value decline due to the attached draft pick. Both Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse were forced to take drastic reductions in contract length and worth because teams weren’t willing to give up a first round pick for their services. It will be interesting to see if a similar picture unfolds this off-season. First of all, let’s take a look at the players that received these qualifying offers:

Stephen Drew, SS, Boston Red Sox

After playing just 86 games in 2011 and 79 games in 2012, it was little surprise that Drew struggled to stay healthy to start the 2013 season. Once he got himself on the field however, he was a consistent performer for the Red Sox. A .253/.333/.435 triple-slash isn’t all-star calibre by any means, but at a position plagued by offensive inability, Drew’s decent on-base ability and pop (13 homers) make him an everyday player. Along with this, Drew flashed plus defense at short, especially in the play-offs when he turned heads with his range and consistency for the World Champs. At age 30, Drew is probably looking at his final big contract, and something in the range of three years and $40m would seem likely.

Potential suitors: St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers

Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Boston Red Sox

After a monster, MVP calibre campaign in 2011, Ellsbury was a little disappointing in 2012, slashing just .271/.313/.370 in 74 games. Looking to put the injury plagued season behind him, Ellsbury bounced back in 2013 with a .298/.355/.426 triple-slash and league-leading 52 stolen bases along with his consistently strong defense in center field. The power is yet to return to 2011 levels, but Ellsbury will be an attractive prospect as a plus-performer at a scarce position. At age 30 and with some injury history, he isn’t risk-free, but he’ll likely be looking at a 5-6 year deal at around $20m per annum.

Potential suitors: Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, New York Yankees, New York Mets.

Mike Napoli, 1B, Boston Red Sox

After initially signing a multi-year deal with the Red Sox last winter, Napoli’s move snagged when a hip problem came up during his physical. The re-worked deal was just a one year, five million dollar agreement, which turned out to be a bargain for the Sox even when he fulfilled his incentives. Napoli stayed healthy all season, and slugged .482 with 23 homers and an excellent .360 on-base clip. Perhaps more surprisingly, he played plus defense at first base, proving himself more than an out-of-position DH. The .367 BABIP points to some luck, but Napoli should have secured himself a contract of two or three years at close to $15m a year.

Potential suitors: Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Rays.

Robinson Cano, 2B, New York Yankees

Over the past few seasons, Cano has established himself as the game’s premier second baseman, and he enters free agency as the clear biggest name. Remarkably, his average has stayed above .300 every year since 2009, and he has hit at least 25 home runs every season in that span. Yeah, he’s pretty consistent. He has played at least 159 games every year since 2007 and also plays plus defense at second base. In a market void of much top end talent, Cano is the clear star player. He should command a contract of up to seven or eight years, and a final figure that could top $200m. He interestingly dropped Scott Boras as his client earlier this year in favour of Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports, so what effect that has on his impending free agency will be fascinating to see.

Potential suitors: New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers.

Curtis Granderson, CF, New York Yankees

After mashing 40 homers in 2011 and 2012, Granderson appeared to have established himself as a power/speed machine, who wouldn’t post high averages but could provide pretty much everything else along with decent defense out in center field. However, the strikeouts leapt up in 2012, and in 2013 he struggled in limited playing time. Injuries may have been a factor, but Granderson is a risky proposition for any team, especially at age 33 when next season starts. He’ll likely get a three or four year deal worth up to $50m, but it’s going to be boom or bust. He could be an interesting option for a smaller-market team looking for the next Carlos Beltran.*

Potential suitors: New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners.

*Sorry for the lazy comparison, you see what I mean.

Hiroki Kuroda, SP, New York Yankees

In a free agency bereft of starting pitching talent, Kuroda’s will be an intriguing name. He will be 39 years old come opening day next season, but has proven remarkably consistent into his late thirties. In the past two years in New York, Kuroda has had an ERA around 3.30 as well as good-enough peripheral numbers. The qualifying offer muddies the water a little, as teams will likely not want to give up a draft pick for a one or two year deal. The Yankees may be interested in reacquiring his services, although a return to Japan to finish his career has been brought up as a likely option.

Potential suitors: New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Japan.

Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, Cleveland Indians

As Keith Law pointed out in his article for ESPN, ‘from his first start for Cleveland in 2011 through the 2013 all-star break, Ubaldo Jimenez was kind of terrible’. A 5.10 ERA in 340 innings will elicit that kind of damnation, but Jimenez looked like a different guy after June this season. He struck out 100 compared to 27 walks in 84 innings, allowing more than three runs in just five starts after April. The fastball is being thrown for strikes, and this allows him to throw his complementary pitches with confidence. Teams will be turned away by his ugly couple of season before these past few months, but his upside as a potential ace makes him worth at least $50m in a four year deal.

Potential suitors: Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels, New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Seattle Mariners.

Ervin Santana, SP, Kansas City Royals

The Royals one year gambit with Santana paid off, as he gave them 211 quality innings behind James Shields, and was a big reason they stayed in the play-off race well into September. The 3.24 ERA represented a career best, and that was away from pitcher-friendly Anaheim. At age 31, he seems likely to command the kind of deal Edwin Jackson signed last year, up to four years and around 60 million dollars. Like Jimenez, Santana doesn’t come without his risks though, as he is one season removed from a 5.16 ERA.

Potential suitors: Kansas City Royals, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, Washington Nationals.

Nelson Cruz, OF, Texas Rangers

Nelson Cruz appeared to be having the bounceback campaign he was looking for in 2013, hitting .277/.334/.517 before the all-star break with 22 home runs. Unfortunately, his second half was cut short when he was handed a 50 game suspension for PED use. Not only did this ruin a big season, but it drastically cut into his value as he heads into free agency. At age 33, Cruz’s best years may be behind him, although he could offer some nice buy-low value for a team needing a source of power. His value may be affected by the qualifying offer, as teams are unlikely to want to give Cruz more than two years or so in a contract.

Potential suitors: Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, Kansas City Royals, New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates.

Kendrys Morales, OF/DH, Seattle Mariners

The Mariners choice to extend a qualifying offer to Morales is a puzzling one, as it almost completely removes his market in free agency. Few teams are likely to want to pay $14.1m to a declining DH, never mind give up a draft pick in order to do so. At age 30, Morales is still sneakily young, although he has no value in the field and the .277/.336/.449 triple-slash from last season does not inspire confidence. In all likelihood, he’ll be back in a Mariners uniform come next season.

Potential suitors: Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians.

Brian McCann, C, Atlanta Braves

Brian McCann did nothing to hurt his value in 2013, playing over 100 games and hitting well for an everyday catcher. He didn’t put together the kind of season that elevates him towards Posey, Mauer or Molina territory however, making it likely he signs a contract around four or five years in length as he enters his age-30 season. He has decent on-base ability, good power for a catcher and above-average defense. Even taking decline into account, he’s easily the best back-stop in the market. Oh, and he plays the game the right way.

Potential suitors: Texas Rangers,  New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers.

Carlos Beltran, OF, St. Louis Cardinals

The ageless Beltran put together another strong season in 2013, hitting .296 with 24 homers and missing little time. In the post-season, he further consolidated his reputation as one of the best post-season performers of our generation, guiding the Cardinals into the World Series (his first), but ultimately no further. At age 36, there is obvious risk, but Beltran remains an extremely attractive option on a short term deal.

Potential suitors: New York Yankees, Kansas City Royals, New York Mets, Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles.

Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Cincinnati Reds

Choo was forced to play center field full time for the first time in his career in 2013, and it showed as his defense was markedly poor at the tougher position. However, he remains a good defender in right, and teams will be drooling at the potential his bat, eye and body have to offer. Choo posted an incredible .423 OBP in 2013, with 21 homers and 20 steals to boot. He draws walks like a maniac, and was also hit an incredible 26 times by pitches. He can’t hit lefties well, but stick him at the top of the line-up against righties and you’re looking at one of the premier on-base monsters in the Majors. Hunter Pence’s extension likely serves as the floor in negotiations, so Choo could be looking at a $100m deal.

Potential suitors: Detroit Tigers, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners.

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