Ranking baseball's top free agents with qualifying offers
As quickly as the baseball season officially ended with seven games of an unforgettable World Series is as quickly as the next stage began -- the offseason.
Kicking off one of the most active offseasons in professional sports is the start of MLB free agency. For the past few years, before a player on an expiring contract has hit the open market, the team that currently owns his services is able to provide a qualifying offer. This offer -- $15.3 million for one year -- is somewhat comparable to the National Football League's franchise tag. The caveat, in baseball, is that if the offer is declined -- in the previous two seasons, no player has accepted the offer -- the new team that signs the player must provide a draft pick to the former franchise as compensation.
The mindset behind this theory is that teams should be somewhat protected by free agency, and that losing a player to a team with a bigger budget is not entirely without some benefits. In concept, the theory is sound. In practice, it is flawed.
Many players actually remain unsigned because of this system. For example, Kendrys Morales did not sign with a team until June 9th, when his acquisition would not cost the Mariners a draft pick. Stephen Drew saw his value plummet as his high contract demands and first or second round pick - depending on the team that signed him - was too steep a price.
In all likelihood, even with the recent memory of seeing players like Morales and Drew have their stock plummet because of the association with a lost draft pick, every player will likely decline his qualifying offer. When they do, they will be free to negotiate with any team as a free agent.
Here are the top free agents who received a qualifying offer, assuming they all decline their offers:
1. Max Scherzer
At 30 years old, the former Cy Young winner not only tops the class of free agents with qualifying offers, but is probably the best player available across the board. His draft-pick compensation will be nothing compared to the money teams will shell out to sign him, and he instantly bolsters any rotation.
In his five years in the American League, Scherzer touts a 3.52 ERA -- as low as 2.90 in his Cy Young season of 2013 -- three seasons with at least 230 strikeouts, and, at a position where durability is an issue, he has started 30 games each of his last six seasons. Scherzer likely wins the offseason bidding war with a deal that takes him into his late 30's.
2. Hanley Ramirez
What was possibly the best power hitting shortstop prospect since Alex Rodriguez will likely be playing for his fourth team by the time he turns 31 -- a clear indication of how extenuating circumstances have largely prohibited the long-term commitments from any team. Some of this is due to a clear lack of focus -- at least, in his younger days with the Marlins -- and some is due to injury -- only one time in the past four seasons has he played at least 130 games.
Ramirez will still be highly coveted when he hits the open market, representing rare power from the shortstop position -- he averages 25 home runs per 162 games -- while still being able to slide over to play third base if needed. Ramirez is the perfect candidate for a front-loaded, shorter term contract, but one team will likely bite and go into the range of six years.
3. James Shields
"Big Game" James finds himself hitting the open market for the first time in his career at the perfect moment. Despite his actual postseason numbers calling his moniker into question -- 3-6 lifetime with a 5.46 era in 11 postseason starts -- Shields has the benefit of recent memory rewriting history. As one of the key faces to the Kansas City Royals' improbable World Series run -- ultimately, they ended up falling just short of capturing the title -- Shields was the starting pitcher for five of his team's sixteen postseason games.
Like Scherzer, Shields is a consistent machine, starting at least 30 games in eight straight seasons and compiling a lifetime ERA of 3.72 despite pitching most of his career in the American League East. Shields is clearly the third-best pitcher on the market this year -- Scherzer and Lester, who does not have a draft pick compensation tied to him, lead the class -- and he will certainly receive a contract comparable to his ranking behind the top two.
4. Pablo Sandoval
The 28-year old three-time World Series Champion is one of the most interesting players on the free agent market. He is wildly inconsistent during the regular season -- two seasons with at least 100 games and a .315 batting average and four seasons with at least 100 games and a .283 batting average or lower, and never in-between -- but is an absolute monster in the postseason -- a .344 career average, six home runs, and one World Series MVP Award in 39 games.
Finding the average season for Sandoval isn't easy considering he rarely actually produces those numbers, but the .294 lifetime hitter tends to produce approximately 20 home runs and 86 runs batted in. Keep in mind that he hasn't come close to any of those averages since 2011. Sandoval's age and postseason heroics -- especially the ones we just witnessed this past October-- probably boost his value a little higher than it should be, and he will likely be overpaid.
5. Nelson Cruz
For Nelson Cruz, it's deja vu all over again. Last season, the slugger turned down Texas' qualifying offer, only to sign for significantly less money. This year, he will decline, yet again, but likely with some hesitation after being traumatized by his miscalculation of the market. Cruz, now 34, did everything he could possibly do to keep his stock high.
Crushing an American League leading 40 home runs, Cruz was a key piece to the Baltimore Orioles American League East division title. He averages over 30 home runs per 162 games and has been able to maintain his power numbers as his age creeps higher. He will probably end up with a two or three-year deal for a rather high annual salary. After all, teams pay for power. They just may not commit to it.
Other Players of Note
Nothing devalues free agents more than their age. At 36 -- by the time the season begins -- Victor Martinez, a former catcher, will aim to extend his career beyond the one-year qualifying offer and test the waters of free agency. Martinez has surprisingly defied the odds and fought off Father Time for quite a while -- since turning 30, Martinez has batted over .300 in all five seasons.
Entering 2014, Martinez's lasting power was certainly in question, but he exploded in every offensive category, improving his average from .301 to a robust .335, his home runs from 14 to an astonishing 32, and leading the American League with a .974 OPS. This outburst was likely thanks to his body being spared the rigors of catching on a regular basis, but his restrictions to first base and designated hitter further bring down the value of the aging slugger.
Martinez will probably receive a two-year deal somewhere, but it is unlikely that he will ever come close to his 2014 campaign again.
The Yankees closer is in the unique position of turning down what would make him the highest paid closer in baseball only to shop his services for a longer-term deal. Turning 30 when the season starts, Robertson should have many solid years in front of him -- he boasts a 2.81 ERA and averages 12 strikeouts per nine innings, all in relief -- but teams certainly have grown wise before shelling out huge contracts to relief pitchers. Robertson probably serves as the exception to this rule, and will likely get a four or five-year deal, but the average salary should not come close to his qualifying offer.
Of all the players most likely to accept a qualifying offer, Cuddyer is the textbook example. An aging power hitter who likely only has one more year, at best, of quality play, received a qualifying offer that would pay him almost 50 percent more than the $10.5 million he made last season. His past two years have been extremely solid -- a .331 batting average, 30 home runs, and 115 RBIs in 179 games -- but the clock is certainly about to run out on the outfielder.
There is no legitimate reason for Cuddyer to believe he could make more money on the open market and, with a draft pick now tied to his signing, he becomes one of the least desirable free agents. Michael Cuddyer would be crazy to decline the Rockies' offer of $15.3 million next year.
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