Yesterday was the deadline for MLB teams to extend Qualifying Offers (QOs) to players. (If you’re not up to speed on what QOs are and how they work, click here to read more.) Last year ten QOs were extended to players; this year, only six players received them: the obvious candidates, in DJ LeMahieu, George Springer, and J.T. Realmuto, as well as three pitchers: Trevor Bauer, Marcus Stroman, and Kevin Gausman. QOs are usually declined by the player, who opts instead to search for a multi-year deal on the free-agent market, while the team who offered the QO gets to pick up draft pick compensation.
However, with the overall chill on the free agent market as clubs claim financial losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a thornier question as to whether any or all of these players would be able to significantly beat $19 million (the QO offer amount) for one year on the free agent market. Realmuto, as a relative MLB unicorn as a Good Catcher Who Can Hit who is still under 30, seems like an easy bet to get a deal that will easily outstrip a $19M head start on a later deal [pause for wailing and gnashing of teeth from Phillies fans]. The outlook for the others, however, isn’t so clear.
It must be emphasized how rare it was for players to accept a QO prior to (sigh) these unprecedented times. Remember, in the Olden Times, the Rockies—admittedly not the poster children for how to Spend Money Responsibly—gave relievers Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee $27M each for three years. And also remember, Dipoto wanted Shaw and because the Rockies signed him, had to settle for Juan Nicasio for two years at $17M. And maybe that’s enough remembering for now.
Anyway, players not signing a QO might not be the slam-dunk of yesteryear, especially as teams are declining options on players left and right. The Cardinals declined to pick up a $12.5M option on Kolten Wong, a 3.7-fWAR player in 2019 who also won a Gold Glove, while the Nationals failed to pick up Adam Eaton’s $10.5M option. Cleveland put reliever Brad Hand, who had a K-BB% of almost 30% this season, on waivers, hoping to get something rather than buying him out for a million as the famously impecunious Tribe telegraphed they wouldn’t be picking up his $10M option. The Rangers, maybe finally admitting that they are on the train to Rebuild Town, declined to pick up Corey Kluber’s $18M club option, and the pitching-rich Rays declined Charlie Morton’s $15M option, both of which are significant dollar amounts, although maybe not for starting pitchers. In perhaps the clearest sign that teams are pinching pennies, the Braves didn’t pick up a very reasonable $3.5M option for reliever Darren O’Day.
The writing on the wall is clear: unless it’s an extremely clear-cut situation, like the Cubs picking up Anthony Rizzo’s $16.5M option, clubs just aren’t willing to play fast and loose with their dollars this year. Mid-tier players expected to make $10M+ have it the worst, but as O’Day’s case shows, even relative bargains are getting squeezed.
This impending free agent bonanza opens an opportunity for the Mariners, who have relatively low payroll commitments, especially compared to team revenue and market share. While the team is still “pre-competitive,” a stronger-than-expected performance in 2020 suggests the rebuild might be coming along more quickly than hoped, making now a prime time to salt away away a free agent who could help the team win over the next three years. If the Mariners act now, they could capture a free agent by overpaying in a depressed market, an investment that could pay dividends down the road. It’s not always easy to convince players to come play in Seattle, but being one of the few teams willing to open the purse strings while other clubs guard them jealously could make the Emerald City downright enchanting.
Teams are always searching for a competitive advantage; this year, it might be as simple as being one of the few clubs with an ownership group that’s willing to accept some red ink on the books (and in their personal pockets) in exchange for a winning club that’s well in the black when fans are able to pack out stadiums once again. The Mariners owe it to their long-suffering fanbase to do just that; to explore every possible opportunity to get ahead while other owners seal themselves up in their counting-houses.