How Will Qualifying Offers Impact Red Sox Trio of Ellsbury, Napoli and Drew?

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How Will Qualifying Offers Impact Red Sox Trio of Ellsbury, Napoli and Drew?
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The Boston Red Sox have won their third World Series title in the past 10 seasons, but it will soon be time for them to exchange their party hats for thinking caps. Business awaits.

Boston general manager Ben Cherington might already be there, as the latest word around the campfire is that he's made up his mind regarding a couple of the club's more pressing matters.

According to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, the Red Sox are going to make qualifying offers to three pending free agents: center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, first baseman Mike Napoli and shortstop Stephen Drew. Assuming the offers are made, the three of them will have seven days to accept or reject them.

If you need a catcher-upper, qualifying offers are one-year deals for a specific amount of money based on the average value of the league's most lucrative contracts. If rejected, the team that offered it will get a compensatory draft pick in the upcoming draft if the player who rejected it signs with another team. That team, in turn, will lose its first-round pick, unless it's a top-10 pick, as those are protected.

According to MLB.com's Mark Sheldon, qualifying offers are worth $14.1 million this year. Ellsbury, Napoli and Drew would have to decide whether to take that money, or to reject it and take their chances on the open market. Them doing so would carry some risk, as we found out last winter that teams are wary of making deals that would require them to forfeit a draft pick.

Such are the circumstances that Ellsbury, Napoli and Drew would be facing once their qualifying offers are handed down, which sets us up quite nicely for a discussion about what would happen next for each player.

 

Jacoby Ellsbury

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Ellsbury made $9 million in 2013, so a $14.1 million salary in 2014 would mean more than a decent raise.

But here comes the easiest prediction of the year: Ellsbury will not be accepting a qualifying offer from the Red Sox.

Ellsbury's last two healthy seasons have been fantastic. He had a .928 OPS and topped 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in 2011, a year in which he was the MLB leader in FanGraphs WAR. He wasn't as dominant in 2013, but he did fine with a .781 OPS and a league-leading 52 stolen bases, numbers that helped put him in the top 15 for WAR.

Having just turned 30 years old, Ellsbury is still in the thick of his prime, hence the reasons he ranks second on MLBTradeRumors.com's free-agent power rankings behind only Robinson Cano. 

One thing that already seems certain is that Ellsbury will have more suitors in free agency than Cano. Heyman has written that the following clubs could be interested in signing him: the Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, Houston Astros and New York Mets. All in addition to the Red Sox, of course.

The Astros, Mariners and Phillies all finished in the bottom five in WAR out of center field in 2013. Jon Jay isn't much more than an average regular in St. Louis. The Dodgers could open up a hole in center field if they deal one (or more) of their outfielders. The Mets have an excellent defender in Juan Lagares stationed in center field but could use Ellsbury's bat at the top of their lineup.

With so many sensible suitors out there, Ellsbury doesn't have to worry so much about being tied to draft-pick compensation hurting his value. It also helps that several of his suitors—the Astros, Cubs, Mariners and Mets—have protected top-10 draft picks. If one of them were to sign Ellsbury, the cost would be a mere second-round pick.

To be sure, Ellsbury could still end up back in Boston. The Red Sox won't have to worry about forfeiting a draft pick no matter what, so they'd have an advantage if the bidding gets too high for the four teams with protected picks. 

If Ellsbury does come back to Boston, though, he won't be crawling back. It's hard to imagine him accepting a deal worth anything less than nine figures, whether it comes from Boston or elsewhere.

 

Mike Napoli

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The Red Sox initially had Napoli signed for $39 million on a three-year deal last winter. But then they discovered he had a degenerative hip condition and talked him down to a one-year deal worth only $5 million guaranteed.

Napoli did earn an extra $8 million in incentives in 2013, so he eventually did make the $13 million he was supposed to make. Even still, a one-year deal worth $14.1 million would technically mean a nice raise for him too.

But not surprisingly, Napoli doesn't sound like a guy who's going to be happy with another one-year deal.

"It was very frustrating when I was trying to sign," Napoli said of his free agency last winter, via MLB.com. "I waited seven years for free agency and then got an opportunity, and it got taken away because of something I didn't even know I had and had never had any pain from."

J. Meric/Getty Images

Napoli did build a strong case for a multi-year deal with the season he had. He only hit .259, but he had a .360 on-base percentage and hit 23 home runs. And because his defense at first base turned out to be a pleasant surprise, Napoli placed seventh among first basemen in fWAR.

So yes, Napoli is all but certain to reject a qualifying offer and take his chances on the open market. But once he has draft-pick compensation tied to him, exactly what might happen next is the iffy part.

One GM told Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe that Napoli will get a three-year deal elsewhere if the Red Sox don't want to give him one. But that was said before Napoli was clearly in play for a qualifying offer, when the only risk to signing him to a multi-year deal was his health.

If the qualifying offer comes and Napoli rejects it, clubs will have to determine whether signing him to a multi-year deal is worth the health risk and the lost draft pick. There's a proposition that's liable to make GMs squirm, and Napoli's market could feel the effects.

Because of that, Napoli would be taking a bigger risk than Ellsbury if he chooses to reject a qualifying offer from the Red Sox. And that, naturally, could work in Boston's favor, as the Red Sox might find themselves talking to a player without a whole lot of leverage.

Which, indeed, is something the Red Sox went through with Napoli last winter. He could have signed with anybody once Boston's three-year offer was off the table. That he settled for Boston's one-year offer tells us he didn't have any other choice.

This is not to suggest it's going to come to that again. The Red Sox know what they're getting with Napoli, and it doesn't sound like there are any hard feelings on his part for how things went last year.

"They've treated me so good here, the way they've taken care of me has been unbelievable," Napoli recently said, via ESPNBoston.com. "When the time comes I'm pretty sure we're going to have conversations. I hope to be back here next year."

The Red Sox would have to pony up if it turns out Napoli's market isn't impacted by him being tied to draft-pick compensation. But because it's not hard to imagine it being affected, the Red Sox might be able to get him back on a team-friendly deal in the end.

 

Stephen Drew

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The Red Sox signed Drew for $9.5 million last winter, and the only incentives he earned in 2013 came via a $500,000 bonus for reaching 500 plate appearances.

So behold the familiar refrain: $14.1 million would be a pretty nifty payday for Drew.

But he's not going to settle for such a deal, of course. Like Ellsbury and Napoli, Drew can be expected to reject a qualifying offer if one comes his way.

Shortstop is one of baseball's premium positions, and Drew is going to be the most attractive shortstop on the market this winter. He had a .824 OPS over his final 82 games, and his 5.3 UZR placed him 11th among qualified shortstops, according to FanGraphs.

That Drew also played excellent defense in the postseason will only help his perception as a premium defensive shortstop who can also hit a little bit. This makes him different from fellow free agent Jhonny Peralta, who's a darn good offensive shortstop who only passes as an average defender (at best).

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But then there are the reasons Drew would have to seriously consider accepting a qualifying offer.

Drew does have an injury history that could scare teams off. A serious ankle injury cost him the last 64 games of the 2011 season and the first 73 games of the 2012 season, according to Baseball Prospectus' injury database. In 2013, he missed 26 games with a concussion, a bad back and a hamstring strain.

Drew also didn't help himself with his performance in the postseason. His defense may have been excellent, but he went 6-for-57 at the plate with 19 strikeouts and only two walks. Beyond that 82-game stretch in which Drew was hot, he only had a .730 OPS in 558 total plate appearances.

Joel Sherman of the New York Post recently speculated that Drew will command as much as $12 million over three or four years on the open market. That's a lot of money to pay for a guy who has some legit question marks attached to his name, especially if it means losing a draft pick.

And unlike with Napoli, it's not a given that the Red Sox are going to be there to welcome Drew back if draft-pick compensation hurts his market. Xander Bogaerts is ready to be an everyday player and should fit nicely at shortstop next to Will Middlebrooks at third base. No doubt that's what the Red Sox envisioned when they signed Drew to his one-year deal in the first place.

As such, Drew could end up being this year's Kyle Lohse: the guy who rejects a qualifying offer from a team that has no interest in actually bringing him back, and then is forced to settle for less than fair market value.

Treacherous business, these qualifying offers. Drew might soon be able to tell you all about it.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Contract information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

 

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