Forecasting The Qualifying Offer Market: Pitchers

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edited October 17 in Sport

After examining which position players may or may not be in line to receive a one-year, $18.9MM qualifying offer this winter, let’s look at the pitching side of the free agent market.  For a refresher on how the qualifying offer system operates, MLBTR’s Anthony Franco recently published the key details, including draft pick compensation and how the QO cannot be applied to a player more than once.

The Easy Call: Trevor Bauer (Reds)

Bauer is the one slam-dunk candidate of the field, as the Reds will surely issue him a QO and Bauer will just as surely reject it as he looks for a richer contract.  Cincinnati would stand to recoup a compensatory draft pick if Bauer signed elsewhere, though the somewhat unique nature of Bauer’s free agent plans could impact that pick.  As a revenue-sharing team, the Reds’ compensatory pick would fall after the first round of the draft, but only if Bauer signs for more than $50MM.  If Bauer were to stick to his one-time plan of accepting a one-year contract with a very high average annual value, it’s possible such a deal might not crack the $50MM threshold — say, if Bauer took a one-year, $45MM pact.  In this scenario, the Reds’ pick would fall between Competitive Balance Round B and the third round, or roughly 35-40 picks under their placement if Bauer signed for more than $50MM.

Borderline Cases: Kevin Gausman (Giants), Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees), Marcus Stroman (Mets), Liam Hendriks (Athletics)

After a shaky 2019 season, Gausman was non-tendered by the Reds and ended up signing a one-year, $9MM with San Francisco.  The “pillow contract” strategy ended up working, as Gausman posted a strong year and is now positioned for a larger free agent payday.  On paper, it seems like Gausman a logical candidate to be issued a qualifying offer, though the situation may not quite be so clear cut — MLB.com’s Maria Guardado considers it “unlikely” that Gausman will get a QO.

Why would the Giants hesitate?  While the team would like to re-sign Gausman for 2021, the Giants may simply not value him at an $18.9MM price point, and could be concerned that Gausman would accept the qualifying offer.  There are some similarities between Gausman’s situation and the decision Jake Odorizzi faced last fall, as Odorizzi had also rebounded from an off-year in 2018 but chose to accept the Twins’ qualifying offer rather than test what he felt could be an unfriendly free agent market.  Given how the pandemic has lowered revenues all over baseball this year, it is quite possible Gausman has concerns about his own trip to free agency and might prefer to lock in $18.9MM right away.

To provide some sort of an idea about how much uncertainty surrounds the offseason player market, consider the range of contract predictions George A. King III of the New York Post collected from evaluators about what Tanaka could land this winter.  Tanaka has been solid-to-excellent over his seven years in the Bronx, is still relatively young (he turns 32 in November) and the Yankees certainly need pitching, so his QO case is another that would seem pretty straight-forward in a normal winter.

As much as the Yankees value Tanaka, if they think there’s a chance he could accept a qualifying offer, they could opt to not issue one if they feel they can re-sign him for less than an $18.9MM average annual value.  Every dollar may count for the Yankees, as there has been speculation that the Yankees could look to reset their luxury tax penalties by getting payroll under the $210MM tax threshold.

Stroman presents one of the strangest cases of any qualifying offer candidate ever, since he didn’t throw a pitch in 2020.  He began the season on the injured list due to a calf muscle tear, and then chose to opt out of playing altogether (after he had amassed enough service time to qualify for free agency).  Stroman has been vocal in the past about his desire for a long-term contract, but given the circumstances, such a deal could be hard to come by.

If Stroman is still adamant about landing a multi-year deal, it’s possible the Mets could issue a QO if they are pretty certain he’ll reject it.  If Stroman is now open to accepting a one-year deal to rebuild his value, the Mets probably won’t issue a qualifying offer…or would they?  In theory, Steve Cohen’s impending purchase of the franchise means more money could be available on payroll, so the Mets could be more open than most teams to an $18.9MM expenditure on a pitcher they were counting on as a staple of their rotation.  Further complicating the matter, however, is the fact that teams only have until five days after the World Series to issue qualifying offers, and Cohen might not be officially approved as the Mets’ new owner by that time.  That could leave current GM Brodie Van Wagenen in something of a holding pattern about big-picture decisions, particularly since Sandy Alderson has been tabbed to take over as the Mets’ chief decision-maker on baseball operations, and Van Wagenen could soon be out of a job.

As noted in our position player QO forecast, the Athletics also face a tough qualifying offer decision on shortstop Marcus Semien.  It isn’t likely that the A’s would be willing to pay any player $18.9MM per season, and if they did, they would surely be more comfortable giving that money to an everyday player like Semien rather than a reliever, even an ace reliever like Hendriks.

Hendriks posted good results from 2015-18 and has been flat-out dominant over the last two seasons.  Hendriks might be apt to reject a QO to see if he can translate his track record into a nice multi-year contract, but as a relief pitcher entering his age-32 season, Hendriks might be another player wary of what the market will bear.  Baseball Reference lists Hendriks’ career earnings as just under $12.5MM, so accepting the qualifying offer would itself count as a massive payday.

Probably Not: Alex Colome (White Sox)

The White Sox don’t have the same payroll limitations as Oakland, though they are also unlikely to risk paying a closer $18.9MM.  Colome has been tremendous over his two seasons in Chicago, even if advanced metrics aren’t quite as pleased with his grounder-heavy arsenal and relative lack of strikeouts (though Colome induces a lot of soft contact).  Colome is also turning 32 this winter and the White Sox have several potential closers in waiting, so they could prefer to spend their available payroll space on more pressing needs like starting pitching or another outfield bat.

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