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Forecasting The Qualifying Offer Market: Position Players

We know that this year’s qualifying offer will be worth a hefty $18.9MM, though that is one of the few points of certainty we have heading into the most unpredictable offseason in baseball history.  The revenue losses brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted every corner of the sport, and since there’s so much up in air about how the 2021 season will operate, it is widely expected that many free agents in this year’s market will feel a crunch.

Will that squeeze extend to the very top of the market?  We did see Mookie Betts and the Dodgers agree to a massive extension, so there’s evidence teams are still willing to break the bank for superstar-level talent.  Betts was rather a unique case, of course, and negotiating an extension is different than negotiating a free agent deal.  Even the old mantra of “there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal” might not necessarily apply this winter, as while there are certainly some players teams would love to have back for $18.9MM, a lot of clubs might hesitate at even making that kind of potential investment on anything less than a surefire star.

From a player’s perspective, a guaranteed $18.9MM might be preferable to testing an uncertain open market.  This has been the reasoning for many free agents who chose to accept qualifying offers in the past, and that was during more normal offseasons.  It makes for a tough decision for many players, who have worked their whole careers to get a chance at free agency only to see their opportunity come in the wake of a pandemic.

MLBTR’s Anthony Franco recently published a refresher on how the qualifying offer system works, including the key details about draft pick compensation and how the QO is a one-time application.  For the latter, this is why major free agents like Marcell Ozuna and Nelson Cruz aren’t included in this list, as both players have been tagged with the QO in past trips through the free agent market.

This post will focus on the position players who could be plausible candidates to receive qualifying offers…

Easy Calls: J.T. Realmuto (Phillies), George Springer (Astros), DJ LeMahieu (Yankees)

Along with Reds ace Trevor Bauer, these are the clear-cut stars of the 2020-21 free agent class.  All will receive qualifying offers from their respective teams, and all will reject the offers since lucrative long-term contracts surely await on the open market.

Of the players who could become free agents if their teams decline their 2021 club options, Anthony Rizzo seems like the only reasonable QO candidate, but the Cubs are almost a lock to exercise their $16.5MM option on his services.

Leaning Towards Yes: Didi Gregorius (Phillies)

There was speculation last winter that Gregorius might get issued a qualifying offer from the Yankees, but New York let him cleanly walk away into free agency and the shortstop inked a one-year, $14MM deal with Philadelphia.  Gregorius was coming off an injury-shortened 2019 season and, though he and his representatives had some multi-year offers on the table, chose the one-year deal so he could rebuild his value and quickly re-enter free agency in search of a richer multi-year contract.  The bounce-back did happen, as Gregorius hit .284/.339/.488 with 10 home runs over 237 PA and played in all 60 of the Phillies’ game.

The only thing that makes Gregorius less than a QO lock is the question about how much the Phillies are willing or able to spend next season.  With so many roster needs to address, and the possible need to save as much money as possible to bid on Realmuto, the Phillies might not want to risk a qualifying offer for Gregorius if they think he will accept.  Going by Gregorius’ strategy last winter, however, it would seem unusual to see him take the short-term pillow contract for 2020, have his desired comeback year, and then take another one-year contract in the form of a qualifying offer.  If Gregorius only signs for one year, he would then face heavy competition next winter when so many star shortstops will hit free agency after the 2021 season.

All this to be said, Gregorius seems less likely to accept a qualifying offer, so the Phils can probably feel safe in issuing the QO and lining themselves up for draft pick compensation if Gregorius leaves.  There’s enough uncertainty here that I couldn’t make Gregorius an “easy call,” though there’s more evidence he might get a qualifying offer than the likes of…

Borderline Cases: Marcus Semien (Athletics), Michael Brantley (Astros)

For an Athletics team that has long relied on refreshing its system with young talent, it would be a tough blow to let Semien sign elsewhere and not even receive a draft pick in return.  Yet, the A’s find themselves in a difficult decision given that Semien’s production dropped off significantly in 2020.  He hit .223/.305/.374 with seven homers over 236 plate appearances, a far cry from his MVP-esque numbers in 2019.

That 2019 campaign remains the only true superstar-caliber year of Semien’s career, as he has otherwise been a steady player who provides solid pop for a shortstop and has worked hard to go from being a defensive question mark to a good defender.  If Semien had been a free agent last winter, he certainly would have been looking at a nine-figure contract.  This winter, however, there’s certainly a case to be made that he might accept a qualifying offer in the hopes of better numbers in 2021.

Even under non-pandemic circumstances, the A’s have never extended their payroll to spend $18.9MM on a single player.  Given the possibility that Semien could accept a QO, it’s tough seeing Oakland taking that risk, especially when they have a similar qualifying offer choice to make with another notable free agent in Liam Hendriks.

Brantley has continued to mash through his age-33 season (.300/.364/.476 in 187 PA) and throughout Houston’s playoff run.  This was despite battling quad problems for much of the season, and while there are questions about how much longer Brantley can hold up as a regular outfielder, he is still a very solid defensive left fielder when he plays on the grass.  There’s a lot to like about Brantley’s chances of being a future contributor, so why is he a borderline QO case?

In short, Brantley might be the kind of veteran player who gets squeezed in an offseason where every free agent dollar will be heavily scrutinized.  Teams will focus on Brantley’s age (he turns 34 in February), injury history, and lackluster hard-hit ball data as reasons to avoid paying him big money, while secretly hoping his price tag drops low enough to be signed at a bargain rate.  It’s possible the Astros could use these marks in Brantley’s “cons” column as a reason to extend a qualifying offer — if Brantley also has draft pick compensation attached to his services, it could further dampen his market and allow the Astros a better chance at re-signing him for less than $18.9MM in average annual value.  That said, if Brantley and his agents see a tough market coming, they could choose to accept the QO if Houston issues one.

The Astros also face a difficult payroll situation in 2021.  $137.75MM has already been committed to eight players, one whom (Justin Verlander) is a non-factor due to Tommy John surgery.  A big arbitration class could be trimmed by some non-tenders, but that still leaves the likes of Carlos Correa or Lance McCullers Jr. in line for significant raises.  Adding Brantley at $18.9MM might be an added expenditure the team isn’t willing to make, especially if the Astros still have designs on re-signing Springer.

Probably Not: Andrelton Simmons (Angels)

We’ll end with yet another shortstop, arguably the best defensive shortstop (or player?) of all time.  However, Simmons’ glovework actually seemed mortal in 2020 — he had a minus-2 Defensive Runs Saved and -1 Outs Above Average over 265 1/3 innings, though he was hampered by an ankle sprain that led to an injured list stint.

Simmons turned 31 in September and hit decently well (.297/.346/.356) over 127 plate appearances, though he only played in 30 games due to his IL trip and his decision to opt out of the season’s final five games.  He might be apt to accept a qualifying offer under those circumstances, and the Angels aren’t likely to extend one since they have a shortstop replacement on hand in David Fletcher, and would probably prefer to put $18.9MM towards fixing the struggling rotation.

We’ll also place Reds outfielder Nick Castellanos in the “probably not” category, as Castellanos can become a free agent if he opts out of the three years and $48MM remaining on his contract.  However, it is very doubtful Castellanos exercises that clause to become a free agent again, as he only hit .222/.298/.486 with 14 homers in 242 PA in 2020.

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