There's been baseball going on daily for more than eight months, ever since pitchers and catchers reported back in February, and so you might think the end of the World Series would represent something of a breather. Not so, not really, not when there's still immediate business to be done, and little is more immediate than making decisions about the qualifying offer.
A reminder on what the qualifying offer is, and what it does: When an eligible player reaches free agency, his former team has the option to extend a one-year offer worth the average salary of the highest-paid 125 players in baseball, which this year is $18.4 million. Players have 10 days to accept or decline; if they accept, they return for 2022 for that $18.4 million; if they decline, they head off into the market as a free agent, with his former team receiving compensation in the form of a Draft pick if they sign elsewhere. Offers are due at 5 p.m. ET, and players then have 10 days to decide whether or not to accept
Don’t hold your breath waiting on players to accept, though. The qualifying offer was introduced back in 2012, and it’s been extended to 96 players since. Only 10 of them chose to accept it -- although we did see pitchers Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman do so last winter, betting (correctly) that they'd post strong 2021 seasons and head into free agency in better position.
Gausman and Stroman, though, won’t be receiving the offer again. That’s because there’s two groups of players who cannot be extended an offer; first, those who have previously received one; second, those who did not spend the entire season with the same team.
So, let’s look at this winter’s top free agents, clarifying who is eligible to receive one, who is not and whether we think A) their team will do it and B) the player would accept it, if it happens.
1) INELIGIBLE TO RECEIVE AN OFFER
Let’s get these names out of the way; some would have received an offer, others wouldn’t, but it doesn’t matter, because they simply aren’t eligible to be given one. They’ll go off into free agency, and their former teams will not receive compensation.
Traded within the 2021 season
Kyle Schwarber, OF, Red Sox // Kris Bryant, 3B/OF, Giants // Javier Báez, 2B/SS, Mets // Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Yankees // Starling Marte, OF, A's // Joc Pederson, OF, Braves // Jorge Soler, OF, Braves // Eddie Rosario, OF, Braves // Nelson Cruz, DH, Rays // Eduardo Escobar, IF, Brewers // Josh Harrison, IF, A's // Yan Gomes, C, A's // Max Scherzer, P, Dodgers // Kendall Graveman, P, Astros
Previously received a qualifying offer
Marcus Stroman, P, Mets // Kevin Gausman, P, Giants // Kenley Jansen, P, Dodgers // Zack Greinke, P, Astros // Alex Cobb, P, Angels // Craig Kimbrel, P, White Sox // Nelson Cruz, DH, Rays
2) ALL BUT CERTAIN TO RECEIVE AND DECLINE
Like George Springer and J.T. Realmuto last winter, every free-agent class has a handful of truly top-level stars who expect to land large, long-term contracts, and so teams will clearly extend them an offer knowing very well there is no chance the player will accept it. That doesn’t mean the player can’t return -- DJ LeMahieu rejected a Yankees qualifying offer last year before later returning to New York anyway -- but if they do, it won’t be on a one-year, $18.4 million deal.
Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves
Nick Castellanos, OF, Reds
Carlos Correa, SS, Astros
Trevor Story, SS, Rockies
Marcus Semien, 2B/SS, Blue Jays
Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers
Chris Taylor, IF/OF, Dodgers
Clayton Kershaw, P, Dodgers
Robbie Ray, P, Blue Jays
Justin Verlander, P, Astros
Jon Gray, P, Rockies
We don’t actually think all 10 of these players will make it to free agency, for what it’s worth. It remains more than a little surprising to see Freeman still unsigned, but a return to Atlanta remains likely. It’s hard to imagine Kershaw in a different uniform. Gray has expressed interest in remaining in Denver. Somebody signs a contract extension from this group, most likely.
Prediction: Received and declined for each
3) WILL RECEIVE & DECLINE -- IF THEY OPT OUT FIRST
Both of these players have an opt-out in their contract, and if they choose to exercise it, their team will then quickly extend a qualifying offer, which the player will of course not take, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have opted out in the first place.
J.D. Martinez, OF/DH, Red Sox
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Cardinals
Martinez had an opt-out after 2020 as well, though of course he wasn’t going to do it coming off a miserable .213/.291/.389 campaign. He bounced back with 73 extra-base hits, a 126 OPS+ and a fourth All-Star appearance, and he can choose to take the $19.4 million he’s owed for 2022 or look elsewhere. He might have to take less per year, but having just turned 34, now is the best time for another multiyear deal if he chooses to seek one -- especially if the National League suddenly adds 15 new DH spots.
Arenado had a successful first year in St. Louis, and he’s said he has no plans to opt out, though we include him here just because he technically still has the ability to do so if he chooses.
4) LIKELY TO RECEIVE AN OFFER
This second group of very good players has had plenty of success, but we’re splitting them apart here because while it’s more likely than not they do receive one, it’s not quite so clear that they’d instantly reject it like the first group above. (The Mets extended Michael Conforto and Noah Syndergaard qualifying offers on Saturday. Both players were originally in this group.)
Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants
Michael Conforto, OF, Mets
Noah Syndergaard, P, Mets
Carlos Rodón, P, White Sox
Eduardo Rodriguez, P, Red Sox
Note: The Mets extended both Syndergaard and Conforto offers on Saturday, but their decisions had not been made heading into Sunday.
Belt, 34 in April, had his second consecutive fantastic season -- he’s hit .285/.393/.595 over the past two seasons, making him very legitimately one of the best hitters in baseball -- though he played in just 97 games this year due to injuries to his oblique, knee and thumb. There appears to be mutual interest in a reunion, and really, this sounds a lot like the similarly aged Brandon Crawford signing a two-year deal to avoid his own free agency.
Prediction: Receives offer, but signs short-term extension instead
Conforto hit free agency one year too late, unfortunately; after posting a spectacular 154 OPS+ in the shortened 2020, he managed only a league-average 101 OPS+ in '21, and ask any Mets fan, it sure felt like less than “league average.” The ongoing uncertainty in the Mets' front office isn’t helping matters, though they would reportedly extend him an offer anyway, understandable given his track record of success. But would he accept? The $18.4 million qualifying offer would be a sizable raise over the $12.3 million he made this year, and he'd be stepping into an extremely uncertain market given the year he just had. At 29, he might well prefer to head into free agency next year coming off a better season than the mediocre one he just completed.
Prediction: Accepts received offer
Syndergaard, Conforto’s Mets teammate, pitched two innings this year, his first game action since 2019 after Tommy John surgery. Still, his upside is so great -- and the New York rotation is so thin, since Stroman is a free agent, Taijuan Walker had a 7.13 second-half ERA and Jacob deGrom’s arm health is more than a little uncertain -- the Mets would likely offer one to him, as well. Syndergaard said he would be "grateful" to receive an offer, calling it "definitely something I'm hopeful for," which is not usually what players who are anticipating hitting the open market say. He might also be thinking of the Stroman path of proving himself on a one-year deal after a lost season.
Prediction: Accepts received offer
Rodón’s path has been wild. A year ago, the oft-injured lefty was non-tendered by the White Sox, who months later signed him to a mere one-year, $3 million deal without a promise of a rotation spot. They were rewarded with a stunning season, as Rodón threw a no-hitter, made the All-Star team and will probably get some Cy Young votes. The problem, given his history, is that he had repeated issues with shoulder soreness down the stretch; he pitched just 28 innings in the final two months. This is a tricky one, but because Rodón was so good this year (and managed to hit 99.4 mph in his brief ALDS appearance) that we think he’ll try his luck on the market.
Prediction: Receives offer, declines it
Rodriguez, too, has had an up-and-down track record. He was fantastic in 2019, finishing sixth in the AL Cy Young; he didn’t pitch in 2020, dealing with an inflammatory heart condition brought on by COVID-19; he was either unimpressive in 2021 (4.74 ERA) or quite good (3.32 FIP, 3.55 xERA), depending on how you look at it. Not 29 until April, Rodriguez would do well to get away from Boston’s porous infield defense.
Prediction: Receives offer, declines it
5) COULD GO EITHER WAY
For these four, you can see the argument both for and against. Each had some pretty good moments in 2021 that might have them hoping for longer-term deals; on the other hand, we're also looking at some inconsistent track records, or in some cases having higher-priority teammates also in the qualifying-offer mix.
Anthony DeSclafani, P, Giants
Alex Wood, P, Giants
Raisel Iglesias, P, Angels
Steven Matz, P, Blue Jays
Let's take DeSclafani and Wood together here, because right now the only clear member of the 2022 Giants rotation is breakout star Logan Webb. Teammates on the 2019 Reds, each pitcher made their way to San Francisco and stayed healthy enough to combine for 57 starts. Our guess is that with four open rotation spots, they'll want to issue an offer to at least one of these pitchers, and DeSclafani has the better health track record, in addition to making some clear changes in his pitch mix.
Prediction: DeSclafani receives and accepts; Wood does not receive
Iglesias was on that 2019 Reds team, too, and in one of last winter's most regrettable moves, Cincinnati sent him to Anaheim for little return. He was outstanding for the Angels, striking out nearly nine times as many as he walked -- that's 103 whiffs and 12 walks -- and if there's any team that desperately needs as much pitching as it can get to support the stars in their lineup, it's the Angels. They probably won't want to more than triple his salary, especially with so many other needs to fill on the roster, but Iglesias has been open about how much he enjoyed his time with the Angels and that he'd like to stay, so, since they get a head start on speaking with him before anyone else does, a three- or four-year deal at less annually than the $18.4 million qualifying offer seems right.
Prediction: Receives offer, but signs extension instead
For Matz, the biggest issue might be the pecking order. Semien and Ray are the bigger deals in Toronto, in addition to some questions about his underlying metrics. He had a wretched final season in New York (9.68 ERA in 2020) before being traded to the Blue Jays, and as late as the first week of August, it wasn't clear if he'd hang onto his rotation spot. To his credit, he was very good down the stretch, making 11 starts in the final two months, and allowing two earned runs or fewer in 10 of them. But he somehow managed to do that while dropping his strikeout rate from 25% in the first half to 20% in the second, and in a strong market for starters, he won't come close to $18.4 million per year.
Prediction: Does not receive offer
6) NOT GOING TO HAPPEN
The players in this group (and many other free agents like them, not all listed here) all fall into the category of answering “yes” to the following two questions.
Would they jump to take an offer if they received one? Yes, absolutely, of course.
Could you likely sign them for less than $18.4 million per season? Without question, yes.
Therefore, they’re probably not getting a qualifying offer.
*Mark Canha, OF, A’s
Tommy Pham, OF, Padres
Andrelton Simmons, SS, Twins
Leury García, UTIL, White Sox
Michael Pineda, P, Twins
Corey Kluber, P, Yankees
Christian Vázquez, C, Red Sox
*Kyle Seager, 3B, Mariners
*Andrew McCutchen, OF, Phillies
*Tucker Barnhart, C, Reds
*Kole Calhoun, OF, D-backs
*Matt Carpenter, IF, Cardinals
*César Hernández, 2B, White Sox
*Odúbel Herrera, OF, Phillies
*Johnny Cueto, P, Giants
*Joe Kelly, P, Dodgers
*Yusei Kikuchi, P, Mariners
*Martín Pérez, P, Red Sox
*Carlos Martínez, P, Cardinals
(*These players have various 2022 club options, some of which may get picked up, keeping them off the free-agent market. If they don’t get picked up, though, none of them will be receiving the qualifying offer anyway.)