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Predicting 2020-21 qualifying offer decisions

@mike_petriello
October 28, 2020

It's hard to believe we're saying this already, but somehow, it's true: It's time to get down to offseason business. It might seem like the baseball season only just began, a season we weren't even sure we'd have, because the limited 60-game run kicked off on July 23, which is

It's hard to believe we're saying this already, but somehow, it's true: It's time to get down to offseason business.

It might seem like the baseball season only just began, a season we weren't even sure we'd have, because the limited 60-game run kicked off on July 23, which is after when the All-Star Game would have been in most years. On the other hand, Max Scherzer vs. Gerrit Cole that day feels like decades ago, because time has lost all meaning. It was a fun season.

Now we look ahead to 2021, and the first order of business is that teams must decide whether to extend a qualifying offer to eligible players headed to free agency. As it is each year, that's a one-year contract offer worth the average salary of MLB's top 125 highest-paid players, which this year turns out to be $18.9 million. Teams have until Sunday at 5 p.m. ET to extend a qualifying offer, and players then have 10 days after that to accept.

If the player accepts, he returns to his team for $18.9 million for 2021; if he declines, he becomes a free agent, with his former team receiving Draft-pick compensation. Ninety players have received a qualifying offer, and only eight have ever taken it, including José Abreu and Jake Odorizzi last winter.

So, as we've done in the past, let's take a look at who is eligible, who's not, who's going to get one and who's going to take it. Baseball season might be over, but next season has already begun.

INELIGIBLE TO RECEIVE AN OFFER

Remember, importantly, that players can only receive the qualifying offer one time. Not that all of these players would have received one anyway -- several definitely would not have -- but it's not an option either way because they have already received it in previous years.

Marcell Ozuna, OF/DH, Braves // Nelson Cruz, DH, Twins // Edwin Encarnación, DH, White Sox // Justin Turner, Dodgers // Jake Arrieta, RHP, Phillies // Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Giants // Jordan Zimmermann, RHP, Tigers // Ian Kennedy, RHP, Royals // Carlos Santana, 1B, Indians // Daniel Murphy, 1B, Rockies // Howie Kendrick, IF, Nationals // Shin-Soo Choo, OF/DH, Rangers

(We're assuming that Encarnación, Murphy and Santana all have their 2021 team options declined, while we wait to see about Kendrick's mutual option with Washington.)

In addition, players who were traded during the season are ineligible as well, though this wasn't exactly the most active Trade Deadline, given that an Aug. 31 Deadline to acquire expiring contracts didn't leave a lot of time for a rental player to help.

Mike Minor, LHP, A's // Robbie Ray, LHP, Blue Jays // Taijuan Walker, RHP, Blue Jays // Jonathan Villar, IF, Blue Jays // Tommy La Stella, IF, Angels // Kevin Pillar, OF, Rockies // Jason Castro, C, Padres

So that's who can't get one. Who can ... or should?

SLAM DUNKS TO RECEIVE AND DECLINE

J.T. Realmuto, C, Phillies
DJ LeMahieu, IF, Yankees
George Springer, OF, Astros
Trevor Bauer, RHP, Reds

We're lumping these first four together because they're clearly the winter's four most prominent free agents, each expecting a large long-term deal or a shorter deal with a heftier annual value that will far exceed $18.9 million. So, each of these four fall under the category of "of course their team would love them back on a one-year deal, and of course the player expects he'll do better on the market." Therefore, they'll each get an offer, and they'll each turn it down.

Prediction: Received and declined for each

YES, IF THEY OPT OUT, WHICH THEY DEFINITELY WILL NOT

Nick Castellanos, OF/DH, Reds
Giancarlo Stanton, OF/DH, Yankees
J.D. Martinez, OF/DH, Red Sox

The four-year, $64 million deal Castellanos signed last winter included opt-outs after both the 2020 and '21 seasons, but after an unimpressive season both offensively (102 OPS+) and defensively (minus-5 Outs Above Average), it's difficult to see him passing up the remaining three years and $48 million he has, especially when that second opt-out gives him another crack at it next winter.

Stanton, meanwhile, dealt with a second consecutive injury-plagued season -- he's taken just 166 plate appearances the past two seasons -- and there's just no chance he opts out of the remaining $218 million still on his deal. Likewise, Martinez, who had a mere 81 OPS+ and is a very limited defender, is not going to bypass the two years and $38.7 million he still has.

COULD GO EITHER WAY

Marcus Stroman, RHP, Mets

Stroman is an interesting case, because he didn't throw a single pitch in 2020. After injuring his calf in Summer Camp, Stroman announced on Aug. 10 that he was choosing not to participate in the rest of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. So now this kicks off a fascinating decision tree, because the Mets might not want to give a big raise (Stroman was due $12 million originally in 2020) to a player who didn't pitch ... but they could certainly use the depth behind Jacob deGrom ... but also there's incoming new ownership and front-office changes ... but even if they do hand one out, does Stroman want to take it or try his luck on the market?

There's so much to consider here. Our best guess is that the Mets will extend the offer, considering it a win/win either way -- either they'll get a badly needed starter or the compensation pick -- and that Stroman won't be eager to be a free agent who hasn't pitched in a full year entering an uncertain pandemic market.

Prediction: Received and accepted

Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees

The Yankees need to add pitching, not lose it, because they have three starters (Tanaka, J.A. Happ and James Paxton) headed to free agency, and Luis Severino likely won't be available after elbow surgery until midsummer. Right now, their 2021 rotation depth chart is Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery and maybe Deivi García or Clarke Schmidt? Possibly Domingo Germán, if he's allowed back after his suspension?

That's not enough, and it's an argument to retain Tanaka, who has been a consistently solid starter for most of his seven years in the Bronx. After Bauer, the free-agent pitching class thins out quickly, so the Yankees may not want to issue two qualifying offers, but they may not have a choice, and LeMahieu won't accept his anyway.

Prediction: Received and accepted (or replaced by a two- or three-year contract)

Didi Gregorius, SS, Phillies

Gregorius had something of a confounding first season in Philadelphia, because the line looked good (.284/.339/.488, a 119 OPS+), and he struck out only 12% of the time, one of the lowest rates in baseball. That's all good, but teams are going to be at least a little concerned by the fact that his 27.9% hard-hit rate was worse than 92% of other qualified hitters. Hard hit isn't everything, but it's definitely something. Oh, and the Phillies don't have a permanent general manager right now, either.

Ultimately, Gregorius was a good fit for the Phillies, but they'll be concentrating on trying to retain Realmuto, so they aren't likely to want to give Gregorius a raise over his $14 million salary, and they could easily just play Jean Segura and/or Scott Kingery at shortstop anyway, now that Alec Bohm has taken over third base.

Prediction: Does not receive offer

Marcus Semien, SS, A's
Liam Hendriks, RHP, A's

We need to combine these two, because there's absolutely no chance the A's give them both offers -- Oakland has never had one player make $18.9 million in a season, much less two -- and so the choice on one will certainly impact the other.

For Semien, a year ago, this choice seemed obvious, given that he hit 33 homers while improving his defense and finishing third in the Most Valuable Player balloting. But 2020 was a huge step back, as his OPS+ dropped from 139 to 91, and given how out of character 2019 was for a player who'd never had even a 100 OPS+ before, it's fair to wonder who he is going forward, even if you want to hand-wave away anything weird from the shortened 2020 season.

Then again, he may prefer not to accept a one-year deal, knowing that after 2021, the free-agent shortstop market will be absolutely loaded with Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor and Javier Báez, so that's something the A's have to consider as well.

As for Hendriks, relievers rarely receive a qualifying offer. Relievers who were designated for assignment just two years ago definitely don't receive qualifying offers, and $18.9 million would be a massive jump from the $5.3 million Hendriks was originally set to make in 2020. But he's been so good the past two years (nearly seven times as many strikeouts as walks, a 1.78 ERA and the winner of the 2020 American League Reliever of the Year Award) that he's clearly deserving of such a salary bump.

Both players would probably accept the offer. The A's aren't going to want to risk that happening and tie up nearly $40 million in two players, and so neither will get one. Their 2021 roster will be worse off for it, unless they can figure out a way to negotiate an extension at a lower average annual value.

Prediction: Does not receive offer (Semien)
Prediction: Does not receive offer (Hendriks)

Andrelton Simmons, SS, Angels

Simmons played in only 30 games this year, missing several weeks with a left ankle injury and then electing not to participate in the final five games. That makes it somewhat pointless to even put any stock into his numbers on either side of the ball, other than to say his reputation as an elite defensive shortstop and somewhat below-average hitter is unchanged. That's not the type of profile that generally receives $18.9 million, especially since the Angels don't currently have a GM and could easily just keep playing David Fletcher at shortstop in 2021. Their focus, as always, needs to be on pitching again.

Prediction: Does not receive offer

Michael Brantley, OF/DH, Astros

Two winters ago, Cleveland was almost universally panned for not extending a qualifying offer to Brantley, since he'd rebounded from injury to post a strong 2018 (.309/.364/.468) for a team that desperately needed outfield offense. In two years as an Astro, Brantley has hit a strong .309/.370/.497. In two years without him, Cleveland has had the second-worst outfield offense in baseball. Houston might not want to make the same mistake, and given that its entire starting outfield of Springer, Brantley and Josh Reddick are free agents, it'll want to make sure it keeps at least one veteran bat.

Prediction: Received and accepted

PROBABLY NOT

James McCann, C, White Sox
Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals
Jackie Bradley Jr., OF, Red Sox
Joc Pederson, OF, Dodgers
Josh Reddick, OF, Astros
James Paxton, LHP, Yankees
José Quintana, LHP, Cubs
Blake Treinen, RHP, Dodgers
Alex Colomé, RHP, White Sox

These, and several other free-agents-to-be we didn't list here, are all quality players who can help a team win, but for a variety of reasons, they aren't going to receive qualifying offers. The White Sox already have big money committed to the catcher position in Yasmani Grandal, and as revered as Molina is in St. Louis, the Cardinals aren't likely to want to give a 38-year-old catcher nearly $19 million as his bat declines. Several of the others are coming off down or injury-plagued seasons, and most of them made far less than $18.9 million this year. Simply put, if any of them were to receive an offer, they'd absolutely take it. So, they won't receive it.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Ballpark Dimensions podcast.