The Mariners are reportedly not offering Teoscar Hernández the Qualifying Offer, instead allowing the 31-year-old slugger to hit free agency. As a refresher, the Qualifying Offer (QO) is a competitive balance measure implemented and refined in the last two CBAs where teams can extend a one-year offer worth the mean salary of MLB’s 125 highest-paid players (this year, $20.325M) to a player who: a) was on their roster the entirety of the previous season; and b) has never received a QO before. If the player does not accept the QO, and the vast majority do not, the offering team receives a compensatory draft pick when the player signs elsewhere, and the signing team forfeits a draft pick. For a team in the revenue-sharing recipient category, which the Mariners have recently sunk into, the pick would range between the end of the 1st round and 2nd round, depending on if the contract the free agent signed came in at or over $50 million guaranteed or not.
Barring an unlikely reunion in free agency, Hernández, the biggest acquisition of the 2023 off-season, will end his time in Seattle with the worst wRC+ mark of his career as a full-time big-leaguer, scraping just above league-average. Not only did Hernández suffer a power outage, posting a slugging percentage almost 100 points lower than his 2021 campaign, but he struggled to get on base, striking out often; his 5.6% walk rate was the lowest of his career.
A reunion of any sorts started looking unlikely when Rafa Nieves, Hernández’s agent, tweeted about Hernández’s home-road splits this October, pointing out how much more successful Teo was away from T-Mobile Park. Jerry Dipoto also seemed to presage this move at the end-of-year press conference by saying a decision had been reached internally about whether or not to extend the QO to Hernández, but the team was waiting to apprise Hernández’s camp first before announcing anything publicly. Both Dipoto and Justin Hollander also spoke at length during that press conference about the importance of solving the team’s contact issues, in which Hernández and his near-career-high strikeout rate of over 30% were a major factor.
However, this doesn’t explain the extreme risk mitigation of not extending a QO to Hernández in the first place. In a very thin free agent market, Hernández sits near the top of a small group of attractive available hitters. A conservative estimate drawn up by the LL staff suggests a floor of around 3 years/$55M with escalators and options, a deal that would provide the 31-year-old with more long-term security than one larger payday and running the risk of re-entering the market a year older and perhaps two bad seasons, instead of one outlier, behind him. But as a ceiling, it’s possible that Hernández’s deal blows past that mark and falls closer to the deals signed by Brandon Nimmo or Nick Castellanos, each of whom were around Teo’s age with roughly similar production (and roughly similar defense), each valued at over $100M for five years. A deal that splits these two down the middle—something like four years/$65-75M with escalators and options, as proposed by our John Trupin—feels like a more likely scenario.
No matter what the deal structure looks like, it seems obvious Hernández would be better-served by rejecting a QO and taking advantage of a thin market and the fact that his age currently ends with a “1.” By not making the offer, the Mariners are eliminating the slightest risk that Hernández would have gambled on a bounceback year in a park that doesn’t appear to play well to his strengths and tested his luck in a different market. They are also, intentionally or not, doing Hernández a solid, by ensuring whatever team signs him won’t have to give up a draft pick. But at the same time, they are eliminating any opportunity to receive a compensatory draft pick for themselves. For a team that’s staked its future and fortunes on “draft - develop - trade,” it’s a perplexing move.
Perhaps Hernández’s market won’t be the bumper crop of offers outlined above, and teams see his 2023 production as a cliff rather than a blip. But with such limited opportunities for teams to improve offensively simply by spending money this off-season, it feels far likelier that Hernández’s services will be well in demand for clubs looking to get better. Meanwhile, the Mariners have opted for the safer route, eliminating any chance of financial risk this time around, something that hopefully won’t become a recurring theme in a potentially franchise-defining off-season.