Four years. That's the answer to one of baseball's recent riddles.
How long would teams have to dangle huge, one-year salaries before a player would put off a date with free agency to take one?
Instituted in the labor agreement that will be expiring after the 2016 season, the qualifying offer system had seen the first 34 players offered the chance to extend their stay with their current teams turn it down.
They did so even though the going rate was $13.3 million for 2013, $14.1 million for '14 and $15.3 million for last season, and more than a few of them ran into complications once they reached the market, as teams were reluctant to give up the Draft picks that attached themselves when they said no. But there will be no negotiating nightmares for Colby Rasmus, Matt Wieters and Brett Anderson, at least not this time around.
With a formal announcement by the Astros on Friday afternoon, Rasmus became the first player in history to accept a qualifying offer, binding himself for one season at $15.8 million. That's almost twice what he earned while delivering 29 home runs for Houston last season, including a barrage of four in six postseason games.
Video: Rasmus on accepting qualifying offer from Astros
Shortly after the Rasmus announcement, Wieters said yes to the Orioles. Then Anderson agreed to a return to the Dodgers just minutes before the 5 p.m. ET deadline. And somewhere in between, Marco Estrada accepted a two-year, $26 million deal from the Blue Jays, who had made him a qualifying offer.
That's four of a record 20 players offered QOs who are now under contract. The other 16 head boldly toward Nashville and the Winter Meetings in hopes of avoiding the excruciatingly long processes that followed QO rejections by Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse three years ago; Ervin Santana, Nelson Cruz, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales two years ago; and James Shields last year.
The guys at the top of the market -- elite players like David Price, Zack Greinke, Justin Upton, Chris Davis, Alex Gordon, Jason Heyward and Jordan Zimmermann -- will be widely pursued despite costing a first- or second-round Draft pick. But we'll be watching closely to see if some of the others -- say John Lackey, Hisashi Iwakuma, Dexter Fowler or Ian Desmond -- may have out-kicked their coverage.
More than ever, the qualifying offer decision proved to be an interesting game of poker.
Driven both by a strong free-agent class and three consecutive years when no one took a QO -- a trend that has had the process under study for possible revision in the upcoming labor talks -- teams were more aggressive than ever in extending offers.
Teams that finish at the bottom of the standings are always viewed as prime candidates to sign compensation free agents, as the first 10 picks of the Draft are protected. But next June, those picks will fall to the Phillies, Reds, Braves, Rockies, Brewers, A's, Marlins, Padres, Tigers and White Sox, and few of those teams are expected to be big spenders in free agency.
Maybe the Tigers, whose rotation had the highest ERA in the American League. Maybe the Padres or White Sox, but both those teams spent so heavily a year ago, you wonder if they'll do it again. Seattle seemed poised for another Robinson Cano /Cruz-type splash but rallied to beat the A's on the last day of the season. This didn't save Lloyd McClendon's job but did drop them from the 10th pick in the Draft to the 11th -- the highest pick a team could forfeit.
It would be a surprise if the Mariners sacrificed that pick, along with more than $3 million in Draft allocation, to sign one of the 16 compensation free agents. But the Hot Stove season is about the unexpected as much as the expected, so never rule anything out.
There's plenty of money in baseball and a lot of competitive owners willing to spend it to try to go where the Royals and Mets did in October. But Draft picks are finite commodities that will only become more highly valued as guys like Addison Russell, Corey Seager, Michael Wacha, George Springer, Jose Fernandez, Sonny Gray, Kolten Wong and Joe Panik climb the ladder quickly to contribute in the big leagues.
All of those guys were selected after the first 10 picks of the Draft in 2011 and '12 -- in other words, in the range of the picks that will be forfeited to sign a free agent who turned down a QO.
Sure, there will be busts in there, too, but you can see why the debate in front offices will be spirited as the process plays out.
Rasmus, Wieters and Anderson were smart to pull into the last inviting inlet before the choppy waters. You know it's scary out there when a Scott Boras client (Wieters) decides he's better off putting Tommy John surgery further into the rear-view mirror than tackling the market.
Houston's Jeff Luhnow became the first general manager to say how excited he is to have his guy back. He says they made the QO hoping to keep him, and now they have. But what will this do to the Astros' flexibility to pursue a starter to work in the front of the rotation alongside Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, or a closer like Aroldis Chapman to push Luke Gregerson back into a setup role.
With Rasmus back in left field, the Astros are looking at an outfield of Rasmus, Carlos Gomez and Springer, with Evan Gattis as the DH. That's so much firepower you wonder if there's room for the promising Jake Marisnick -- 24 years old and already traded twice -- or Preston Tucker, who homered 13 times as a rookie. The loaded Astros could be looking to move an outfielder along with first baseman Chris Carter, who somehow delivered -0.1 WAR while hitting 24 homers in 2015.
Video: Justice on Anderson's qualifying offer
Anderson, who hadn't worked 100 innings in a year since 2010, made 31 starts for the Dodgers last season, going 10-9 with a very solid 3.69 ERA. But he got pounded by the Mets in Game 3 of the National League Division Series, and it figured to be his last start in that classic uniform.
Wrong. With Greinke seemingly gone, Anderson joins Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood and, if he's healthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu in the 2016 mix. Anderson will await another crack at free agency next winter, when he's 28 and, he hopes, coming off consecutive productive seasons. As for the Dodgers, money's never a major issue, so expect Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi to pursue more starters as Julio Urias pushes for a spot and Brandon McCarthy works to recover from Tommy John surgery to pitch as early as June.
Will keeping Anderson impact the Dodgers' ability to add Price or work out a long-term deal with Greinke? Probably not, but Friedman/Zaidi won't get the bonus Draft pick they envisioned when they extended the QO to Anderson.
Video: Wieters accepts Orioles' qualifying offer
One more year of Wieters should work for Buck Showalter and the Orioles. But the lineup doesn't look great when you take Davis out of it. Then there's the question of replacing lefty Wei-Yin Chen, who led Baltimore in innings last year, so don't be surprised if the O's look to make a major trade with Wieters next summer. Chen is one of the 16 compensation free agents who turned down a QO.
The market awaits.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.