Amid all of the players who changed teams leading up to last week's Major League Baseball trade deadline—and there were, like, a lot of 'em—two who aren't exactly expected to make a major impact for their new clubs just might have a pretty big impact on the way the sport handles one niche aspect of free agency. Eventually.
When shortstop Stephen Drew and first baseman/designated hitter Kendrys Morales were moved in two separate swaps that amounted to salary dumps, the transactions once again brought to light a problem that has become an unintended consequence for baseball: the qualifying offer.
The Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins essentially unloaded Drew and Morales, respectively, in order to free up some money over the remainder of the 2014 season. It came as no surprise that the teams were looking to move on: Neither player was any good following their midseason signings after they had rejected qualifying offers (QO)—each worth $14.1 million—from the Red Sox and Seattle Mariners, respectively, at the end of last season.
That backfired big time, however, as neither Drew nor Morales found any suitors willing to bring them aboard despite having had solid seasons in 2013 and having agent Scott Boras—a man who usually gets the very best offers for his clients—as their representation. How could they have overplayed their hands so badly?
Because, under the most recent collective bargaining agreement from 2011, signing a free agent who rejects a QO costs the signing team a draft pick—as well as the millions of dollars tied to it and used to sign amateur players under the current slotting system.
Consider what Kyle Lohse told Jon Heyman of CBS Sports last March: "The market goes from 30 teams to like two or three," said Lohse, who rejected the qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals after the 2012 season and then had to play the wait-and-hope game that winter before ultimately signing a three-year, $33 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers at the very end of spring training on March 25. "I don't think that's the idea of a free market."
As such, Drew and Morales were left to wait, and wait, and wait some more before two clubs finally—mercifully—took pity on them and signed them to prorated deals. In the middle of the season.
Drew and Morales, like the 11 others who said thanks-but-no-thanks to the QO last offseason, were counting on a chance to score a multiyear contract on the open market when last winter began. But, unlike the rest, Drew and Morales were left teamless well into the spring.
Thus, they became the first of 22 players under the first two years of this new QO format to have their free agency extend into the regular season.
Will any player finally accept the qualifying offer this offseason?
"Until somebody accepts a qualifying offer," said Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin via Jayson Stark of ESPN, "how can we tell whether it's working or not?"
That's a fair point, which has led to the logical expectation that in this offseason one of two things will happen as a way of course-correcting this system. Either:
- A team that issues a QO as a means to pick up a draft pick will fall into the too-cute trap when a player accepts.
- Fewer teams will gamble with extending QOs for just that reason.
But that approach is more reactive than proactive. Obviously, making any alterations to the CBA before it expires (following the 2016 season) is unlikely, but that doesn't mean some possibilities shouldn't be considered.
Especially when the likes of Ricky Nolasco is able to sign a four-year, $49 million contract with the Minnesota Twins merely a month into the offseason, while fellow right-hander Ervin Santana—a superior pitcher—has to play a game of chicken that ultimately results in his settling for a one-year deal worth $14.1 million with but two weeks to go until the start of the season.
All because something as random as being traded during the year—as Nolasco was in going from the Miami Marlins to Los Angeles Dodgers last July—provides an escape from the dreaded QO.
That's sure to provide more than a little relief to recently traded shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and righties Justin Masterson and Jake Peavy, all of whom are free-agents-to-be in the middle of so-so seasons (at best), yet who no longer have to fret about their market being undercut by the possibility of a QO.
"It locks you into one [year], after one [year], after one [year), because, if you have a good year, they can do it again," Lohse pointed out to Stark. "There's no stopping them from continuing to do the one-year thing."
That could be just how things play out for Nelson Cruz, who also turned down the QO last winter, only to wind up having to take a below-market $8 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles in late February. Although he's cooled off in recent weeks, Cruz is having a big year with 29 homers—second-most in the majors—and is once again a candidate to receive the QO at season's end.
This has, in fact, become a concern for the sport and the MLB Players Association in particular. Here's what MLBPA executive director Tony Clark told Ian Browne of MLB.com in February:
The way the free-agent market has played itself out over the last couple of years suggests that Draft pick compensation in the free-agent market in general is a concern that we're paying attention to. Obviously we still have guys -- very, very good players, quality players -- that can help a number of clubs who are still on the market; some with Draft pick compensation, some not. So it's something that we're paying attention to. It's something that we're concerned about. And it's something that I'm sure will be a topic of discussion here going forward.
There are certain criteria that's going to have to be met for the CBA to be opened up. I'm not sure that's happened. So it may be something where between now and 2016 we can continue to have discussions. I don't think it's in anyone's best interests, what's happening right now -- clubs or the players. But if it's something that has to be addressed come 2016, then we'll address it then.
So it's clear that some kind of change is needed here. But what?
Well, perhaps preventing any player from being offered QOs in consecutive offseasons. That way, at least there's no risk of anyone falling into a never-ending QO cycle.
Another easy option? Making the QO a two-year contract, which would give teams more to weigh—and more pause—when it comes to extending said offers to players for the primary purpose of obtaining an extra draft choice.
Even allowing a rejected QO to remain on the table for a predetermined amount of time could work as a fallback option for players who find their market doesn't materialize over the offseason. That, however, could hamstring teams from making other moves at the risk of later being on the hook for several million dollars that hadn't been expected as part of the budget.
But here's a so-simple-it's-crazy thought: Just put an end to tying draft-pick compensation to free agents. Period.
That would allow free agents to be, you know, free. Crazy, right?
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