Qualifying offers add new wrinkle to free agency
One of the bigger changes in the Collective Bargaining Agreement players and owners agreed on last winter was a change in the structure of free agent compensation. Out went the much-despised Elias Type A and Type B rankings and offers of arbitration, which determined the level of draft pick compensation a team was entitled if it lost a free agent, and acted as a drag on player mobility. In came a new, simplified structure involving a one-year qualifying offer which teams had to make to free agents in order to net a draft pick if they departed, the value of which is determined via the average annual value of the top 125 contracts; this year, it’s $13.3 million. Last Friday was the deadline for teams to make such offers, and this Friday at 5 p.m. ET was the deadline for players to accept them. No players accepted the qualifying offer, though they’ll still be permitted to re-sign with their old teams.
Under the old system, the top 20 percent of free agents as determined by Elias’ formula were designated Type A free agents. Teams who signed them would lose a first-round draft pick in the next summer’s amateur draft unless it was in the top 15; then it would cost their second-round pick. The team losing the player would receive that pick as well as an extra “sandwich pick” between the first and second rounds of the draft. Teams who signed Type B free agents, the next 20 percent of the class, wouldn’t lose a draft pick, but teams who lost those players would receive a sandwich pick. The catch was that teams had to offer a player arbitration in order to qualify for the pick, locking them into a commitment whose salary would be determined by the same process to which pre-free agency players are subject. Particularly as teams began to gain fuller appreciation of the cost of losing a first-round pick, the process worked against Type A non-closer relievers. Teams would sometimes agree not to offer arbitration to certain players in order to ease their departures.
The new process eliminates the distinction between Type As and Bs and the rest of the pool, and the qualifying offers aren’t even binding. While there’s risk involved in offering some players a one-year, $13.3 million deal — which would have constituted a significant raise for an Angel Pagan or a Mike Napoli very likely to receive a longer-term deal — a player turning it down can still negotiate with his old team if he rejects it, as can a player to whom a team didn’t make a qualifying offer, quizzically enough. In the end, just nine players received qualifying offers, one of whom (David Ortiz) has since agreed to terms with his team on a two-year deal. Here’s a closer look at the remaining eight:
Michael Bourn, Braves
2012: .274/.348/.391, 9 HR, 42 SB in 703 PA, $6.85 million
2013 age: 30
The speedy center fielder has his limitations as a leadoff hitter (career .339 OBP), but his value is increased by above-average defense, with both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating crediting with being at least 19 runs above average in two of the last three seasons. The Braves will consider bringing him back, but will look at other free agent and trade options with Minnesota’s Denard Span among the latter. The Nationals are said to be interested in Bourn, and the Giants and Phillies — who drafted and developed him before trading him to the Astros in November 2007 — are also in the market for a center fielder.
Josh Hamilton, Rangers
2012: .285/.354/.577, 43 HR in 636 PA, $13.75 million
2013 age: 32
Despite monster production, Hamilton’s age, past personal problems, his difficulties staying on the field, and his need for a special level of handling in the form of an “accountability partner” all work against him as a free agent, and he’s likely to have a hard time coming anywhere close to the seven-year, $175 million deal he’s said to be seeking. The Rangers are interested in retaining him, but on no more than a three-year deal. The Orioles and Mariners are said to be interested, and there’s a logical matchup with the Brewers — whose hitting coach, Johnny Narron, was Hamilton’s accountability partner in both Cincinnati and Texas — but not necessarily the money. “We have the connection with Johnny Narron but not with U.S. Bank,” said Brewers GM Doug Melvin recently.
Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees
2012: 3.32 ERA, 6.8 K/9 in 219 2/3 IP, $10 million
2013 age: 38
Kuroda has been taking things year-to-year since the end of the 2010 season, deciding each winter whether he wants to remains stateside or return to Japan for a final season. He’s given the Dodgers and Yankees good value over his one-year deals, and he sounds inclined to continue that route; he may be the player most likely to accept the qualifying offer. While initial reports suggested his decision was Bronx or bust, some as-yet-unidentified teams have offered two-year deals, with the Red Sox presumably one of them, and the Dodgers (for whom he pitched from 2008-2011) showing interest in a reunion. Losing a first-round pick for one year of a pitcher in his late thirties is a gamble that could limit his movement.
Adam LaRoche, Nationals
2012: .271/.343/.510, 33 HR in 647 PA, $8 million
2013 age: 33
LaRoche rebounded from shoulder surgery and had an impressive walk year, setting career highs in homers and WARP (3.7) and tying a career high in RBI (100) while winning his first Gold Glove. The Nationals and LaRoche are both open to a return to Washington, but interest from the Red Sox, Rangers and perhaps others will push his market beyond a one-year deal, even with a substantial raise.
Kyle Lohse, Cardinals
2012: 2.86 ERA, 6.1 SO/9 in 211 innings, $11.875 million
2013 age: 34
Like LaRoche, Lohse is coming off a career year in which he ranked fourth in the league in walk rate (1.6 per nine), fifth in ERA and seventh in innings; his modest strikeout rate was his best since 2006. It’s his 16-3 won-loss record — complied despite just 4.3 runs per game of offensive support — that will cause him to be overvalued beyond even the four-year, $41 million deal which he’s just completed. The Cardinals aren’t expected to keep him, while the Blue Jays and Royals have expressed interest. Lohse, who’s been to the postseason in five of the past 11 seasons with the Twins, Phillies and Cardinals, is said to be eying contenders.
Rafael Soriano, Yankees
2012: 2.26 ERA, 9.2 SO/9, 47 saves in 67.2 IP, $11 million
2013 age: 33
Soriano’s three-year, $35 million deal included opt-outs after the first two seasons, enabling the righty to seek an even bigger windfall if he wound up filling in for an injured Mariano Rivera. He did so after the Yankee legend went down with a torn ACL in May, rebounding from a down 2011 caused by elbow problems and difficulties adapting to the pinstripes’ culture of accountability. After mulling retirement, the going-on-43-year-old, all-time saves leader is coming back, and while the Yankees could use some insurance in case his performance declines sharply, Soriano is likely too rich for their blood. Said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman recently, “I don’t think Soriano would sign here if he’s not going to be the closer. And I don’t think we would do again what we did before. He’s going to want closer money and I doubt he would want to come back here as a set-up man.”
Nick Swisher, Yankees
2012: .272/.364/.473, 24 HR in 624 PA, $10.25 million
2013 age: 32
The switch-hitting Swisher has been exceptionally consistent during his four years in pinstripes, averaging 3.6 WARP, 26 homers, and a .268/.367/.483 line in 150 games; his 2012 showing was basically a carbon copy of his other years. Despite his production and his popularity with fans, his postseason struggles (.162/.252/.308 in 148 PA) have dented his standing in the eyes of some, as has his stated goal to seek a Jayson Werth-level contract in well excess of $100 million. He won’t get that money, but his ability to play first base adds to his value by granting his signing team some flexibility if they have openings at multiple positions; Cashman’s trade for him four years ago enabled the team’s stealth pursuit of Mark Teixeira. The Rangers, Mariners and at least three other teams are said to have interest, with the Red Sox, who have openings at both outfield corners and first base, presumably among them.
B.J. Upton, Rays
2012: .246/.298/.454, 28 HR, 31 SB in 633 PA, $7 million
2013 age: 28
Once considered among the top prospects in the game, Upton has yet to fully deliver on that promise, with his batting lines depressed by the pitcher-friendly environment in Tampa, and his value additionally dinged by the perceptions of inconsistent effort. Nonetheless, he’s coming off a career high in home runs to offset the career low in OBP, and his combination of skills and his young age will make him a very popular player this winter, with the Phillies making him a top priority and the Nationals, who have long coveted him as a trade target, potentially renewing their interest as well.