Editor’s Note: an earlier version of this article suggested that Kenley Jansen will be the first relief pitcher to receive a qualifying offer when, in fact, he isn’t.
With news that the qualifying offer will be climbing nearly nine percent to $17.2 million, the free agent landscape is beginning to come into focus. Qualifying offers are determined by the average salary of the 125-highest paid players in baseball on an annual basis. This past offseason, Zack Greinke set the all-time record in annual salary by signing a six-year deal that is worth $34.42 million per year on average.
With salaries climbing in free agency then, qualifying offers are set to climb a directly proportional amount; and that makes sense. While many players don’t have the independent leverage to guarantee themselves more than $34 million per year over a term deal, the qualifying offer—set at half of that—is peace of mind for players right on the precipice of stardom. At best, it is a safety net to insure that a player at least gets fairly compensated for one season. At worst, it is a way for teams to be non-committal to players, robbing them of one of their more productive seasons when they should be able to chase a longer-term deal, while also directly impacting their value in free agency.
While players should probably be able to pursue longer-term deals without feeling like their value will be affected in free agency, $17.2 million is a competitive salary. To put that into perspective, Mike Trout didn’t make that last season—thought that is moreso a testament to the level of team-friendly deal he was willing to sign with the Angels. Pablo Sandoval will earn close to that next season, while being guaranteed another $42.2 million over the next three seasons. Brian McCann will earn roughly that in 2017 and 2018 as well, and that contract is considered to be a difficult one to move.
With all that considered, let’s take a look at three of the most compelling qualifying offer cases coming up this offseason:
Kenley Jansen - RP - Dodgers
The Dodgers will almost certainly extend Jansen a qualifying offer this winter. While Jansen may not be the most dominant reliever in baseball, his value to the Dodgers is unquestionable.
Over just 68.2 innings pitched this season, Jansen was worth 3.2 wins above replacement by FanGraphs’ estimations. That makes Jansen worth the same as Tanner Roark, Jeremy Hellickson, J.A. Happ, and Julio Teheran—all of whom threw nearly three times the amount of innings. It should come as little surprise then that Jansen led all of baseball in FIP among pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched. With a FIP of 1.44, Jansen’s closest competitor—the similarly dominant Andrew Miller—was at 1.68. While variance in FIP with that few innings can get a little noisy, that is still a wide margin.
There’s little doubt that Jansen will be worth $17.2 million next season. In 2016, Jansen was worth $25.3 million by FanGraphs’ dollar per WAR estimations. Of course, the cost of acquiring high leverage relief has become inflated over the past couple seasons. Whether that is warranted or not doesn’t really matter. It is somewhat exceptional then, that Jansen will likely turn down a qualifying offer, and still be worth substantially more despite pitching fewer than 70 innings a year.
Ian Desmond - SS/OF/?? - Rangers
Poor Desmond. Three seasons ago, while still with the Nationals, Desmond turned down a contract extension that would have been worth more than $100 million.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, heading into free agency last offseason, the Nationals offered Desmond a qualifying offer—then set at $15.8 million. While certainly not the nine-figure deal he was valued at just a short time ago, Desmond was coming off of a bad 2015 campaign. Some worried if Desmond was even worth the one-year, qualifying offer commitment.
Not Desmond though, betting on himself once more, he elected to turn down the qualifying offer and hit the free market—albeit attached to draft pick compensation. After a long offseason, Desmond found a suitor in the Rangers, who signed the natural shortstop as an outfielder for half of the qualifying offer price.
To his credit, Desmond’s performance bounced back despite being relegated to left field. In fact, he handled the tasks of the corner outfield so admirably that he became the full-time center fielder for the Rangers. While he was slightly below replacement value defensively in the center of the outfield, Desmond recuperated a substantial amount of his offensive value, and showed positional flexibility in yet another contract year.
Where does that leave us though? While it’s unclear whether or not Desmond will actually receive a qualifying offer, there’s little doubt he was worth it this season. By FanGraphs’ dollar per WAR estimations, Desmond provided the Rangers with $26.8 million of value—a $18.8 million surplus.
Will Desmond tempt fate once again if he does receive a qualifying offer? This time, he has certainly earned a longer-term contract. Is this the offseason that Desmond’s luck turns around?
Jose Bautista - OF - Blue Jays
It’s been a strange couple of months for Bautista. Back in February, a report surfaced that the Blue Jays and Bautista were exploring the idea of a contract extension, with the star outfielder looking for a five-year deal worth $150 million.
That report was quickly falsified though, but in the exact opposite way anyone expected: apparently Bautista was looking for more than that. Of course, how much more never surfaced, but the belief was the average annual price would dip below $30 million for a longer term—that would take Bautista into his age-42 season or perhaps beyond.
The negotiations became somewhat public, with Bautista leveraging what he could with the media. Among other things, Bautista hinted that he wasn’t really willing to negotiate at all and that he had named his price. He also hinted that he knew his value to the Blue Jays franchise, and that he took a steep paycut over his previous seasons to play there—presumably implying that it was ‘catch up’ time.
There’s really no doubt that Bautista will receive a qualifying offer. However, what’s interesting is that, of the three players on this list, he wasn’t worth the requisite amount this postseason. By FanGraphs’ dollar per WAR estimations, Bautista was worth just $10.9 million. In fact, it was his worst season by WAR since his first full season with the Blue Jays in 2009.
That being said, Bautista’s value at the plate faltered only slightly, as he still hit 22 percent better than the league average by wRC+. Instead though, the 35-year-olds defense completely got away from him, costing him 12.4 runs of value. As a designated hitter then, Bautista would nearly double his value by just not appearing in the field.
Regardless of what happens, it makes economic sense for the Blue Jays to offer Bautista the qualifying amount. There are three possibilities that will follow. One: Bautista accepts it and the Blue Jays have a DH lined up for next season—albeit one that may be ever-so-slightly overpaid. Two: Bautista turns it down and signs elsewhere because he is still viewed as a franchise-altering piece, and the Blue Jays receive draft pick compensation. Or, third and perhaps most likely: Bautista turns it down, and the Blue Jays agree on a contract with one of their franchise players that more closely aligns with the free market expectations of a soon-to-be 36-year-old slugger.
Did we miss an interesting qualifying offer narrative? Feel free to Well, Actually us in the comments or write your own FanPost explaining a more captivating offseason storyline.