Predicting toughest qualifying offer decisions

November 1st, 2019

Congrats to the Nationals, winners of the 2019 World Series. Your reward is ... almost no time to celebrate. Teams that didn't make the playoffs have been full speed ahead on 2020 planning for weeks, and the first order of business tends to be deciding on qualifying offer decisions.

What that means, if you're not familiar, is that for eligible free agents, teams have five days after the end of the World Series to extend a one-year, $17.8 million contract offer. Players who get one then have 10 days to choose to accept or decline. If it's accepted (which it rarely is, just six times in 80 opportunities since 2012), then the player is signed for the next season. If it's not, any team signing that player will have to forfeit a Draft pick, and the quality of that pick can vary.

Last winter, seven players received a qualifying offer -- Patrick Corbin, A.J. Pollock, Bryce Harper, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Yasmani Grandal and Hyun-Jin Ryu -- and only one, Ryu, accepted it. So as we've done in the past, it's worth a preview of this year's decisions, looking ahead to who might receive one, and who might accept one.

First, let's clear out some of the names who aren't in the conversation.

Not eligible due to trades

OF , Cubs // C , Rays // C , Braves // 2B , Rays // P , A's // P , A's // OF , Phillies // OF , Indians // C , Astros

Most of these players wouldn't have been receiving an offer either way, but it doesn't matter because they're not eligible in the first place due to not spending the entire year with the same team. This is likely going to be a nice boost for Castellanos, because he's a good-not-great player, similar to Keuchel last year, and that's exactly the type who tends to get affected by the offer the most.

Not eligible due to receiving previous qualifying offers

P , Braves // P , Dodgers // C , Brewers // 1B/2B , Nationals // 3B , Brewers // DH , Yankees // C , Cardinals // OF , Royals // C , Dodgers // P , A's

Not everyone on this list would be under consideration to receive one this winter, obviously; a top free agent like Grandal would certainly get one if the Brewers could do it, but lower-end guys like Wieters and Martin definitely wouldn't. Either way, it's irrelevant, since players can only receive the offer once, and everyone listed here has received it in the past. That's good news for players like Keuchel and Moustakas, who have struggled in the market with previous offers.

Likely non-offers

P , Cubs // P , Red Sox // 1B , White Sox // P , Cardinals // P , Dodgers // 1B , Blue Jays // OF , Braves // P , Braves (if his club option isn't picked up) // P , Astros // P , Yankees // P , Twins // 2B , Nationals // SS , Reds // 3B , Mets // OF , Yankees // OF , Pirates // OF , Rays // 2B , Cubs // P , Reds // P , Twins // P , Astros // P , White Sox // P , Cardinals

Solid players here, and several who will play big roles on 2020 contenders, but for various reasons -- some age, some health, but mostly that none is going to come near $17.8 million on their own in the market anyway -- it's very difficult to see these free agents receiving an offer.

That's the question, really: If the answer to "will this player accept the qualifying offer?" is "in a heartbeat, yes," then they're probably not getting one in the first place.

Obvious offers, obviously getting declined

3B , Nationals
P , Astros
P , Nationals (if he opts out of 4 years, $100 million)
DH , Red Sox (if he opts out of 3 years, $62.5 million)

Rendon and Cole are going to be by far the two most highly sought-after free agents this year, each likely to receive a contract north of $200 million. That being the case, there's no chance whatsoever they're accepting an offer of a single year and $17.8 million, so the Nationals and Astros will extend an offer they know won't be accepted just so they can recoup a Draft pick.

The other three here may or may not opt out -- Strasburg definitely should, Martinez probably shouldn't -- but if they do, they'll get qualifying offers, and they'll decline them.

This has all been chalk so far, laying out who can't get one, who won't get one and who would obviously decline one. What about the most interesting choices? Which players might get one and might take it?

On the bubble

3B , Braves

Donaldson's offer should be a no-brainer, and it probably will be, but we'll at least spend a second on it anyway, since he'll be 34 in December and the Braves had to shift third-base prospect Austin Riley to the outfield because of Donaldson this season. None of it matters; after two injury-plagued seasons, Donaldson stayed healthy (155 games) and productive (.259/.379/.521, 37 homers), while Riley struggled to make contact after a hot start. The Braves would be thrilled to get one more year of Donaldson, but after the season he just had, he's certainly not looking for a pay cut from the $23 million he just earned.

Prediction: Receives offer / declines offer

There's little doubt that Bumgarner will receive an offer; that much seemed clear from the moment the Giants chose not to trade him in July, and after he threw 207 2/3 productive innings. He probably won't accept it, though don't rule out the possibility entirely. Bumgarner could easily get multiple years as a free agent, but teams worried about his high hard-hit rate and relatively low velocity may not give him more than $18 million annually for those multiple years. So don't count this out, but he's probably declining it.

Prediction: Receives offer / declines offer

P , Giants

Relief pitchers generally don't get qualifying offers, at least not those who haven't been top-tier closers in the past like Kimbrel or Kenley Jansen, and this would represent a pretty massive raise from the $4.3 million Smith made this year. But Smith was really good this year, striking out 96 in 65 1/3 innings and making the All-Star team, and the Giants may want to get something more out of him after declining to trade him in July.

This is more than the Giants would probably want to pay him, but they can afford it, and then they'd still have him available to trade next summer. That's because if Smith received the offer, he'd definitely accept it.

Prediction: Receives offer / accepts offer

SS , Yankees

In Gregorius' first four years as a Yankee, he was one of the most productive shortstops in the game, but Tommy John surgery last year limited his 2019 season to just 82 games, without a terribly impressive amount of production (.238/.276/.441 and negative defensive ratings).

With the Yankees having other options in the infield -- Gleyber Torres could play shortstop with DJ LeMahieu at second base, and don't forget a recovering Miguel Andújar is in the mix with Gio Urshela at third as well -- the guess here is that he'd happily take a nice raise from the $11.8 million he made this year, and so the Yankees won't offer it, preferring to target an ace like Cole or Strasburg.

Prediction: Does not receive offer

P , Yankees (if he opts out)

Speaking of the Yankees, could Chapman opt out of the remaining two years and $32 million he's due? There was a report over the summer that said he would almost certainly do so, though Chapman was quick to shoot that down. It seems likely he might opt out, and if he does, then it also seems likely the Yankees would extend him a qualifying offer. That all sounds messy, though, so the best outcome here might be that the two sides just agree to tack on another year or two rather than go through all of this.

Prediction: The Yankees avoid all of this by extending his contract

OF , Cardinals's Anthony Castrovince recently dug into the ins and outs of Ozuna's free-agent case, so let's let him take it away:

"There has long been room for the Cards to stretch that payroll without venturing into luxury tax territory, and one-year commitments obviously aren’t as painful or punitive as multiyear deals that don’t work out," wrote Castrovince. "Ozuna -- who says he would love to stay in St. Louis -- might be the rare candidate to take the qualifying offer (for reasons we’ll get to in a second), but that shouldn’t scare the Cardinals off from extending it."

That sounds right. If we learned anything about the St. Louis offense this year, it's that its offense isn't good enough, and losing one of its best hitters wouldn't help with that.

Prediction: Receives offer / accepts offer or signs extension with Cardinals

P , Mets

Over the last two years, Wheeler has proven he's one of the better starting pitchers in baseball, not exactly on the Cole / Jacob deGrom tier, but someone you could comfortably call a Top 20 or so starter. That's incredibly valuable, and after years of injuries, he's been durable too, throwing 377 2/3 innings in 2018 and '19. The Mets already need to add pitching depth, not subtract it, and so there's no good reason for them to not extend the offer. He'd consider accepting it, but as he turns 30 next summer, he'd probably rather look for that long-term deal while the looking is good.

Prediction: Receives offer / declines offer

P , Twins

Here's why the Twins would consider this: Because their 2020 rotation currently consists of José Berríos and not much else. That undersells Odorizzi somewhat, of course, because he did have a solid 2019 season for Minnesota, throwing 159 innings with a 3.51 ERA, but this is about strategy as much as anything else. An Odorizzi unencumbered by the offer could probably get a nice multiyear deal, but he's exactly the kind of mid-level player who struggles to find a new home after being given an offer, so he would almost certainly accept rather than face a long winter. Would the Twins really gamble on doubling his salary to prevent him from leaving? There's a good argument that they should -- and potentially compromise on a multiyear deal in the process -- but we'll bet it doesn't actually happen.

Prediction: Does not receive offer