MLB Free Agency: The disappearing qualifying offer

Jed Lowrie: Oakland's second baseman had a strong 2018 season, but was among prospective free agents not receiving a qualifying offer. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Jed Lowrie: Oakland's second baseman had a strong 2018 season, but was among prospective free agents not receiving a qualifying offer. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /

As MLB free agency is set to open, teams are more cautious than ever before about extending qualifying offers to potential free agents

Only seven potential free agents received qualifying offers from their old teams last week as MLB free agency begins.

In the above sentence, the word “only” is used advisedly. Nine qualifying offers were extended during the 2017-18 winter, 10 the winter before that and 20 the winter before that. In fact, this year’s seven is a low for offers since the process was established following the 2012 season.

With the passing of Friday’s deadline, qualifying offers were only extended to Bryce Harper, Pat Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Craig Kimbrel, Yasmani Grandal and A.J. Pollack.

Among those failing to receive offers were enough talent to populate a contender: C.C. Sabathia, Adam Jones, Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, Joe Mauer, Charlie Morton, Marwin Gonzalez, Jed Lowrie, Nick Markakis, Jordy Mercer, D.J. LeMahieu and Hunter Pence.

The paucity of actual offers is especially surprising in light of two facts:

1. This was supposed to be the winter of the mega free agent class. If these players are so great, why don’t any of their old teams want to keep them.

2. The $17.9 million price of a qualifying offer only applies if the player accepts it. If the player turns it down – and historically they almost always do – then making a qualifying offer costs a team nothing and gets it a compensation-round draft pick.

In the context of those two facts, why wouldn’t the Cleveland Indians extend a qualifying offer to Brantley or Miller? What’s the downside of the A’s doing the same for Lowrie? Why would the Astros position themselves for a clean break from Morton and Gonzalez?  Why would the Orioles risk getting nothing in return for the loss of Jones?

Logically, there are only a couple of plausible answers to these questions, and they essentially run together. For whatever reason – It might be money, fear of declining production or the imminent emergence of a replacement – the declining teams literally feared the player might actually accept the offer.

Historically, this second consideration has been an empty one. Prior to this season, 73 qualifying offers have been extended – that’s about a dozen per season . But only five – that’s less than one per season – have been accepted. None of the nine who got offers last winter accepted those offers.

Yet the experience of that 2017-18 free agent class provides a cautionary tale which may be indirectly driving the teams’ increased reticence to even extend such offers.

Those nine included a few stars who made out very well by declining what at the time was a $17.4 million guarantee.  Among them is Lorenzo Cain, who signed in January with the Brewers for five seasons basically at  $25 million per season. Eric Hosmer signed an eight-season, $149 million deal with San Diego, Wade Davis got four years and $66 million from Colorado, and Carlos Santana signed a four-year, $75 million contract with the Phillies.

But the nine also include good players who made out only following a substantial period of angst. Jake Arrieta did get a five-year, $115 million contract from the Phillies … but not until March 12. Alex Cobb remained unemployed until March 21, when the Orioles gave him a four-year, $57 million offer. And even then, Cobb made about $3.4 million less in 2018 than he would have made by accepting Tampa Bay’s qualifying offer.

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The final three qualifying offer rejectees turned out to be big losers. Mike Moustakas sat unwanted until March 11 when the team that had extended the $17.4 million qualifying offer on him – the Royals – finally agreed to have him back for one-third their previous guarantee. Lance Lynn waited until March 12 before accepting a one-year, $12 million offer from the Twins. And Greg Holland found no suitors until March 31, when the Cardinals allowed him to play for them for $14 million, $3.4 million than he rejected the previous November.

In sum, one-third of the players who rejected qualifying offers last winter paid dearly for doing so. It’s not at all unreasonable to speculate that prospective 2018-19 free agents learned something from the experience of the 2017-18 class

That, in turn, leads to the answer to why so few qualifying offers were extended this past weekend to open MLB free agency. Teams are afraid that players who learned last winter that they reject the offers at their peril – may actually accept them. Rather than taking a chance on that happening, the Orioles will run the risk of getting nothing in return for Jones, the Astros will make the same decision with respect to Morton and Gonzalez, and the Braves will risk receiving no recompense for the loss of Markakis.

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Indeed, some of those teams certainly will continue negotiations with the newly freed players in MLB free agency in the hope of bringing them back next season … at a reduced rate.

It’s not that they don’t want the player; it’s that they want the player less than they want the $17.9 million.