Will Tim Lincecum get a qualifying offer from the Giants?
Under the rules of baseball's new collective bargaining agreement, teams that make a qualifying offer worth the average of the top 125 salaries—$13.3 million for 2013—to their free agents receive a compensatory first-round draft pick from the club that signs those players.
Nine players received qualifying offers after the 2012 season ended. But the price of a first-round pick severely restricted the market for some of those players. Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse still haven't signed with anyone. Adam LaRoche and Rafael Soriano received few offers as well.
As agent Scott Boras told the Associated Press in November, qualifying offers will likely be given to only the elite free agents. Also, teams have to be with their teams for a full season to get a qualifying offer. That's why Zack Greinke didn't receive one from the Los Angeles Angels, for example.
Another consideration is that if a player accepts that qualifying offer, his team will have to pay him that money. As a result, MLB clubs can't just make the offer because they want the draft pick. Teams have to actually want that player back. Otherwise, it's a risk.
Which players among the 2014 free-agent class could find themselves in a similar circumstance next winter? Here are seven prospective free agents who stand a strong chance of getting a qualifying offer after the 2013 season.
Jacoby Ellsbury figures to be the top player available in the 2014 free-agent class.
Making a qualifying offer to Ellsbury is a win-win situation for the Boston Red Sox. If they lose him to free agency, they'll get a first-round draft pick (or a second-round pick, if he signs with a team that has a top-10 selection).
Ellsbury is almost certain to decline the offer, as he'll likely get a much larger contract on the open market. Even if he doesn't, however, the Red Sox could use him for at least one more season. Boston signed center fielder Shane Victorino, but Ellsbury is a much better player.
Since Scott Boras is his agent, Ellsbury probably won't sign a contract extension before testing free agency. He could still re-sign with Boston, but there is a risk of losing him. The qualifying offer allows them to get something in return (assuming the Red Sox don't trade him at midseason).
Carlos Ruiz will turn 35 years old before the 2014 season begins.
But as one of the best catchers in MLB, he'll likely draw heavy demand on the free-agent market next winter. There are very few teams that can say with certainly that they're comfortable with their situation at that position.
While the Phillies have Tommy Joseph and Sebastian Valle as promising young catchers in their minor league system, neither player might be ready to make the jump to the majors in 2014.
Meanwhile, Ruiz is playing better than ever. Last year, he was playing at an MVP-caliber level before he got injured. He hit .325 with a .935 OPS, 32 doubles, 16 home runs and 68 RBI. Very few MLB teams get that level of production from their catchers.
Making a qualifying offer to Ruiz is therefore a low risk for the Phillies. If he accepts the offer, Philadelphia would likely be happy with having him back for another year. But if Ruiz signs elsewhere, the Phillies get a first-round pick that could help restock a depleted farm system.
If the New York Yankees let Robinson Cano go to free agency, he may be the best hitter available on the market.
As a second baseman—a position not known for its offense—Cano will be a top target for several teams, many of which are among the big spenders in MLB. How fiercely would the Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals or Detroit Tigers pursue him, for example?
The Yankees will surely work to sign Cano to a contract extension before he becomes a free agent. However, according to ESPN's Buster Olney, general manager Brian Cashman could take a hardline stance against the 10-year, nine-figure deal that Cano is expected to seek.
With Cano employing Scott Boras as his agent, the chances of him not going to free agency seem slim. This could be different, since the Yankees are known for paying top dollar for its best players. But ownership also wants the payroll to say under the $189 million luxury tax threshold for 2014.
Regardless, the Yankees will extend a qualifying offer to Cano. The team did so with Nick Swisher, Rafael Soriano and Hiroki Kuroda after last season, though they really only wanted Kuroda back.
Cano is almost certain not to accept the offer and opt for free agency instead. Of course, that doesn't mean he won't re-sign with the Yankees. It might just mean that the open market—rather than the Yankees themselves—will determine Cano's value.
As a Scott Boras client, there is very little chance that Shin-Soo Choo will re-sign with the Cincinnati Reds before he becomes a free agent.
Cincinnati might also prefer not to re-sign Choo because he'll be too expensive on the open market. The Reds acquired him for the 2013 season as an "all-in" move to give them an impact player in the outfield and make a run at the World Series.
Extending a qualifying offer to Choo thus becomes something of a no-brainer for the Reds.
Cincinnati might prefer that Choo doesn't take the offer, but he very likely won't because a bigger contract awaits him in free agency. Plenty of MLB clubs seek a corner outfielder with Choo's skills. (If he proves he can capably play center field, his price will go up.) The Reds will happily accept a first-round draft pick from there.
If Choo does accept the offer, the Reds will probably be all right with paying him a potentially below-market salary for one year.
If Josh Johnson proves he can make it through a full season healthy, he could be the top starting pitcher available in free agency next winter.
Johnson will be 30 going into the 2014 season and has shown himself capable of posting an ERA under 3.00 and throwing 200 innings. He averages eight strikeouts per nine innings over an eight-year career. He is the ace almost every MLB team wants at the top of its rotation.
Unless Johnson shows he can't handle AL East competition or breaks down yet again during the season, the Toronto Blue Jays will likely want him back. He was arguably the centerpiece of the Blue Jays' blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins and could be Toronto's No. 1 starter long after R.A. Dickey's two-year contract has expired.
But Johnson will be in demand on the free-agent market and figures to decline a qualifying offer from the Blue Jays.
That creates a relatively low-risk situation for Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos. Accepting the offer would be fine, since the Blue Jays surely want to re-sign him. If Johnson leaves, a first-round pick would help replenish the minor league system that Anthopoulos tapped out this offseason.
The Milwaukee Brewers surely want Corey Hart back. If the team doesn't sign him to a contract extension before the end of the season, general manager Doug Melvin will certainly try to re-sign him as a free agent.
Besides Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez, Hart is the Brewers' only other impact hitter capable of 30 home runs and 100 RBI. Even if Mat Gamel or Hunter Morris supplant Hart at first base, he can move back to right field if Carlos Gomez or Norichika Aoki go elsewhere.
But a batter with Hart's power figures to be in high demand for any team in need of a run-producing right fielder or first baseman. Consequently, Hart likely won't accept a qualifying offer from the Brewers and they can get a first-round pick if he signs with another team.
Though Melvin would be disappointed by losing Hart, he's given up several prospects over the years in trades for CC Sabathia, Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke. Getting a first-round selection for losing Hart would help restock Milwaukee's minor league system.
Though the St. Louis Cardinals have several starting pitchers—including youngsters Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller—general manager John Mozeliak probably doesn't want to lose Adam Wainwright.
Chris Carpenter will be 39 years old next year and might be ready to call it a career after this season. Jake Westbrook will turn 36. Neither pitcher might be in the Cards' rotation in 2014.
Meanwhile, Wainwright had a strong year for someone pitching his first full season following Tommy John surgery. He finished with a 14-13 record and 3.94 ERA, averaged eight strikeouts per nine innings and threw 198.2 innings for the year.
Wainwright looks like he's ready to reclaim his role as the Cardinals' ace. (That is, unless you believe Carpenter is the No. 1 starter.)
The Cardinals will surely try to sign Wainwright to a new contract before he becomes a free agent. But if he does hit the open market, a pitcher with his credentials will draw heavy interest.
Wainwright probably wouldn't accept a qualifying offer, as he'd get a larger contract in free agency. But if he did, the Cardinals would get their top starter back for a one-year deal at a below-market price.
Tim Lincecum had the worst season of his major league career in 2012, compiling a 10-15 record and 5.18 ERA in 33 starts.
But the San Francisco Giants want to sign him to a contract extension.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle's Henry Schulman, the Giants have an eye on using some of the money they saved this offseason to re-sign Lincecum next winter.
Lincecum is likely to test free agency, as he's insisted on signing two-year contracts during his arbitration eligibility with an eye on eventually hitting the open market.
Of course, Lincecum could decide that his declining performance means he won't get a better deal than what he receives from the Giants. But that will surely depend on how he pitches during this upcoming season. If he regains his Cy Young Award-winning form, it's extremely unlikely he signs a contract extension.
But since the Giants want Lincecum back, they'll make him a qualifying offer. If he signs elsewhere, San Francisco will take the first-round pick. If Lincecum decides to take the offer, it will almost certainly be for less than he would have gotten in a long-term contract.
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