With the trade deadline in the rearview mirror and a little more than six weeks remaining in the regular season, plenty of front offices are turning their attention towards the upcoming offseason. The first notable decision for many clubs will be to decide whether to tag one or more of their top impending free agents with a qualifying offer.
As a reminder, the qualifying offer is a one-year contract offer teams can make to certain impending free agents. The precise value of the QO has yet to be calculated, but it’s determined as the average salary of the game’s 125 highest-paid players. Last season, the QO value was set at $18.9MM. If the player accepts the offer, he returns to his current team on that one-year deal. If he rejects, his previous team would receive draft pick compensation should he sign elsewhere.
Last season, six players (George Springer, Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, DJ LeMahieu, Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman) received qualifying offers. Gausman and Stroman accepted the QO, while Realmuto and LeMahieu re-signed with their current clubs as free agents. The Reds and Astros received compensatory picks (used on Jay Allen and Chayce McDermott, respectively) when Bauer and Springer departed.
The collective bargaining agreement prohibits a player from being tagged with a qualifying offer multiple times in his career. (A list of every active big leaguer who has previously received a QO is available here). Similarly, in order to be eligible, the player must have spent the entire preceding season on the same team. Players traded midseason cannot be tagged with a QO.
With the majority of the 2021 season in the books, we can take a look at the upcoming free agent class to predict which players might wind up receiving qualifying offer this winter.
- Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, Clayton Kershaw, Robbie Ray, Carlos Rodón, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story
This group is fairly straightforward, as there’s very little chance any of these players would accept a qualifying offer. Correa, Seager and Freeman all have MVP-caliber upside and are locks to pull in long-term deals this winter. Semien didn’t receive a QO from the A’s after a down year in 2020, took a pillow contract with the Jays for almost the value of the QO ($18MM), and has essentially replicated his 2019 form that earned him a third place finish in AL MVP voting. He should find a big multi-year deal this time around.
Story is having a bit of a down year, but there’s no doubt the Rockies will make him a qualifying offer after not trading him at the deadline. Nick Groke of the Athletic wrote this week that Colorado hasn’t given up hope of convincing him to sign a long-term extension, but that seems unlikely given Story’s own bewilderment he wasn’t moved to a contender this summer. Whether Story is willing to return to Denver or not, he’ll receive a QO.
Kershaw, Ray and Rodón will be among the top pitchers on the market. Kershaw has spent the past couple months on the injured list due to forearm soreness, but he’s expected back in September and is in the midst of another fantastic season. So long as he’s healthy, he’s a lock for a QO. Ray and Rodón both had to settle for one-year deals after poor 2020 seasons, but they’ve each been among the best pitchers in the American League this year.
- Michael Conforto, Jon Gray, Yusei Kikuchi, Eduardo Rodríguez, Noah Syndergaard, Chris Taylor, Justin Verlander
Over the past two seasons, Taylor has somewhat quietly been one of the game’s top 25 qualified hitters by measure of wRC+ and he’s versatile enough to cover any non-catcher position on the diamond. He’s not a true everyday player at any one spot and he’s making contact at a career-worst rate this season, so he falls just short of being an absolute lock for a QO. But the Dodgers would be as willing as any team to shoulder a significant one-year salary were Taylor to accept, and his body of work should be sufficient to warrant a multi-year deal regardless.
The Mets’ players in this group are two of the more interesting free agents in the class. Conforto entered the season looking like a lock for a QO and seemingly having a chance at landing nine figures with a strong platform year. He missed a month with injury, though, and hasn’t made anywhere near his typical level of impact at the plate. He’s shown some life over the past few weeks, and between his track record and age (28), Conforto still seems a good bet to land a long-term deal.
Syndergaard was a top-of-the-rotation starter at his peak, but he hasn’t pitched since 2019 because of Tommy John surgery. He’s eyeing a September return — likely in relief, given his dwindling time to build up arm strength — and his late-season form will obviously be critical to his market. The Mets should run one of the higher payrolls in the league, and Syndergaard has the upside to be an ace if healthy, so New York still seems more likely than not to make the offer.
Similarly, Verlander has essentially missed two full seasons because of his own Tommy John procedure. That’s a scary development for a pitcher who’ll be 39 on Opening Day 2022, but he was still every bit an ace when we last saw him in 2018-19. The Astros are a win-now club that runs high payrolls, so Verlander accepting a QO wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. If he declines and signs elsewhere, Houston would recoup some much-needed draft compensation after losing their past two first-round picks as punishment for the sign-stealing scandal.
Colorado reportedly showed even less interest in trading Gray than they did with Story at the deadline. There’s apparently mutual interest about working out a multi-year extension, and the QO could serve as a temporary measure to keep Gray in Denver while the Rockies and Gray’s representatives work on a long-term deal.
Rodríguez has bounced back to take the ball every fifth day this year after a scary bout with myocarditis cost him all of 2020. His ERA’s pushing 5.00, but his peripherals are far better than that bottom line run prevention and the southpaw has an established track record of mid-rotation production.
The Mariners are facing a difficult decision regarding Kikuchi, as MLBTR’s Steve Adams explored last month. Seattle must decide whether to exercise a package deal of four successive club options at $16.5MM apiece (essentially a four-year, $66MM extension) this winter. If the Mariners don’t exercise their four-year option, Kikuchi has a $13MM player option to return to Seattle for 2022. If both parties decline their ends, the 30-year-old would hit free agency this offseason, although the M’s could then tag Kikuchi with a qualifying offer.
Given that Kikuchi will only be a free agent if he passes on a $13MM player option, the Mariners would likely make him a QO worth a few million dollars more if it comes to that — either with the expectation he’ll decline in search of a longer-term deal, or with the hope he accepts and Seattle can keep him in the fold next season without committing themselves to the additional three years of guaranteed money.
The Giants have plenty of payroll space this offseason and seem likely to try to keep most of this season’s core together. Belt has been one of the sport’s most productive offensive players on a rate basis over the past two years. But he’s also 33 years old, has a long injury history and is striking out at the highest rate of his career.
San Francisco bought low on DeSclafani over the winter after he had a tough 2020 season with the Reds. He’s bounced back to post a very strong 3.26 ERA, although his peripherals are closer to average and he’s benefitted from opponents’ .257 batting average on balls in play. The Giants will likely see 4/5 of their starting rotation hit free agency this winter, so they could be eager to bring DeSclafani back, even if that comes via a lofty 2022 salary.
Morton has had another productive season in his first year as a Brave, but his previous two teams (the Astros in 2018 and the Rays in 2020) let him reach free agency without making a qualifying offer despite his consistently strong track record. That’s presumably due to concerns about his past injury history and age. He’ll turn 38 this winter and might check his potential earning power by limiting himself to teams in the Southeastern part of the country — as he reportedly did last offseason. That could inspire the Braves to pass on a QO, but Morton continually reels off above-average performances, and this is an Atlanta front office that has been eager to dole out hefty single-year salaries for key veteran upgrades in recent years.
Iglesias looks like the top impending free agent reliever (assuming the White Sox exercise their option over Craig Kimbrel). He’s sporting an ERA under 3.00 for the fifth time in his six seasons since moving to the bullpen, and he’s never had a single-season SIERA above 3.55. Home runs have been an issue, but Iglesias gets above-average results year in and year out and has some of the best strikeout and walk numbers in the game in 2021.
The Giants hold a $22MM club option (with a $3MM buyout) over Posey’s services for next season. If the front office is willing to commit him a significant salary, they’ll just exercise the option rather than going the QO route. Indeed, they’re reportedly planning to do exactly that (or to potentially pursue a multi-year extension with the franchise icon). Either way, there’s no real reason to involve the qualifying offer here.
Canha would be a very plausible qualifying offer candidate on many teams. He’s been a well above-average hitter and overall performer three years running and is generally one of the game’s more underrated players. The A’s, though, didn’t make a QO to either of Semien or Liam Hendriks last season. Canha’s a Bay Area native, and his age (33 in February) will cap the length of offers he receives from other clubs. Given that, it’s not hard to envision him accepting a QO if offered. The A’s, who perennially run low payrolls and will have a loaded class of arbitration-eligible players this winter, don’t seem likely to take that risk.
Wainwright has had a fantastic 2021 season, and the Cardinals figure to be motivated to keep the franchise icon in St. Louis in some capacity. But that also looked to be true after his strong 2020 campaign, and Wainwright only wound up landing a one-year, $8MM deal. He’d be well-deserved in demanding a raise over that sum to return next season, but it remains to be seen if the Cardinals would be willing to chance more than doubling his salary — particularly if they feel Wainwright’s motivated to remain in St. Louis rather than pursue the highest possible offers in free agency.
Kluber signed an $11MM deal with the Yankees last offseason after back-to-back seasons wrecked by injury. He pitched well through ten starts but has been out since late May with a shoulder strain. Kluber’s nearing a return to action, but his missing nearly three months only adds to prior concerns about his ability to handle a significant workload at this stage of his career.
Kim, García and Wood are all having strong 2021 seasons and could plausibly land solid multi-year deals this winter. Each has enough question marks that their teams don’t seem especially likely to offer a salary in the range of the qualifying offer, though. Kim doesn’t miss many bats; García has had extreme highs and lows throughout his career; Wood has a checkered injury history. García’s contract contains a $12MM club option that vests into a mutual option if he reaches 550 plate appearances this season. If that option doesn’t vest, the Brewers would obviously have no incentive to decline the option only to make a qualifying offer at a higher price point.
Each of Arenado (six years, $179MM), Castellanos (two years, $34MM) and Martinez (one year, $19.35MM) has significant guaranteed money remaining on their contracts but can opt out of those deals this winter. Arenado and Castellanos would be locks to reject qualifying offers if they trigger their opt-out provisions, since they’d be foregoing bigger guarantees to test the market.
Martinez’s player option is of similar enough value to the projected value of the qualifying offer that he could plausibly trigger the opt-out but then accept a QO. Even if that proved to be the case, the Red Sox would probably be happy to keep him in the middle of the lineup for another season.
- Javier Báez (midseason trade), Kris Bryant (midseason trade), Alex Cobb (previous QO), Nelson Cruz (previous QO/midseason trade), Danny Duffy (midseason trade), Eduardo Escobar (midseason trade), Kevin Gausman (previous QO), Kendall Graveman (midseason trade), Zack Greinke (previous QO), Kenley Jansen (previous QO), Starling Marte (midseason trade), Anthony Rizzo (midseason trade), Max Scherzer (previous QO/midseason trade), Kyle Schwarber (midseason trade), Marcus Stroman (previous QO)