After examining which position players may or may not be in line to receive a one-year, $18.9M qualifying offer this winter, let’s look at the pitching side of the free-agent market. For a refresher on how the qualifying offer system operates, MLBTR’s Anthony Franco recently published the key details, including draft pick compensation and how the QO cannot be applied to a player more than once.
The easy call: Trevor Bauer (Reds)
Bauer is the one slam-dunk candidate of the field, as the Reds will surely issue him a QO, and Bauer will just as surely reject it as he looks for a richer contract. Cincinnati would stand to recoup a compensatory draft pick if Bauer signed elsewhere, but the somewhat unique nature of Bauer’s free-agent plans could affect that pick. As a revenue-sharing team, the Reds’ compensatory pick would fall after the first round of the draft, but only if Bauer signs for more than $50M. If Bauer were to stick to his one-time plan of accepting a one-year contract with a high average annual value, it’s possible such a deal might not crack the $50M threshold — say, if Bauer took a one-year, $45M pact. In this scenario, the Reds’ pick would fall between Competitive Balance Round B and the third round, or roughly 35-40 picks under their placement if Bauer signed for more than $50M.
Borderline: Kevin Gausman (Giants)
After a shaky 2019 season, Gausman was non-tendered by the Reds and ended up signing a one-year, $9M with San Francisco. The “pillow contract” strategy ended up working, as Gausman posted a strong year and is now positioned for a larger free-agent payday. On paper, it seems like Gausman is a logical candidate to be issued a qualifying offer, but the situation might not quite be so clear cut — MLB.com’s Maria Guardado considers it “unlikely” that Gausman will get a QO.
Why would the Giants hesitate? While the team would like to re-sign Gausman for 2021, the Giants might simply not value him at an $18.9M price point and could be concerned that Gausman would accept the qualifying offer. There are some similarities between Gausman’s situation and the decision Jake Odorizzi faced last fall, as Odorizzi had also rebounded from an off-year in 2018 but chose to accept the Twins’ qualifying offer rather than test what he felt could be an unfriendly free-agent market. Given how the pandemic has lowered revenues all over baseball this year, it is quite possible Gausman has concerns about his own trip to free agency and might prefer to lock in $18.9M right away.
Borderline: Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees)
To provide some sort of an idea about how much uncertainty surrounds the offseason player market, consider the range of contract predictions George A. King III of the New York Post collected from evaluators about what Tanaka could land this winter. Tanaka has been solid to excellent over his seven years in the Bronx, is still relatively young (he turns 32 in November) and the Yankees certainly need pitching. So his QO case is another that would seem pretty straightforward in a normal winter.
As much as the Yankees value Tanaka, if they think there’s a chance he could accept a qualifying offer, they could opt to not issue one if they feel they can re-sign him for less than an $18.9M average annual value. Every dollar may count for the Yankees, as there has been speculation that the Yankees could look to reset their luxury-tax penalties by getting payroll under the $210M tax threshold.
Borderline: Marcus Stroman (Mets)
Stroman presents one of the strangest cases of any qualifying offer candidate ever, since he didn’t throw a pitch in 2020. He began the season on the injured list due to a calf muscle tear, then chose to opt out of playing altogether (after he had amassed enough service time to qualify for free agency). Stroman has been vocal in the past about his desire for a long-term contract, but given the circumstances, such a deal could be hard to come by.
If Stroman is still adamant about landing a multiyear deal, it’s possible the Mets could issue a QO if they are pretty certain he’ll reject it. If Stroman is now open to accepting a one-year deal to rebuild his value, the Mets probably won’t issue a qualifying offer…or would they? In theory, Steve Cohen’s impending purchase of the franchise means more money could be available on payroll, so the Mets could be more open than most teams to an $18.9M expenditure on a pitcher they were counting on as a staple of their rotation. Further complicating the matter, however, is the fact that teams have only until five days after the World Series to issue qualifying offers, and Cohen might not be officially approved as the Mets’ new owner by that time. That could leave current GM Brodie Van Wagenen in something of a holding pattern about big-picture decisions, particularly since Sandy Alderson has been tabbed to take over as the Mets’ chief decision-maker on baseball operations, and Van Wagenen could soon be out of a job.
Borderline: Liam Hendriks (Athletics)
As noted in our position player QO forecast, the Athletics also face a tough qualifying offer decision on shortstop Marcus Semien. It isn’t likely that the A’s would be willing to pay any player $18.9M per season, and if they did, they would surely be more comfortable giving that money to an everyday player like Semien rather than a reliever, even an ace reliever like Hendriks.
Hendriks posted good results from 2015-18 and has been flat-out dominant over the last two seasons. Hendriks might be apt to reject a QO to see if he can translate his track record into a nice multiyear contract, but as a relief pitcher entering his age-32 season, Hendriks might be another player wary of what the market will bear. Baseball Reference lists Hendriks’ career earnings as just under $12.5M, so accepting the qualifying offer would itself count as a massive payday.
Probably Not: Alex Colome (White Sox)
The White Sox don’t have the same payroll limitations as Oakland, but they are also unlikely to risk paying a closer $18.9M. Colome has been tremendous over his two seasons in Chicago, even if advanced metrics aren’t quite as pleased with his grounder-heavy arsenal and relative lack of strikeouts. (But Colome induces a lot of soft contact.) Colome is also turning 32 this winter, and the White Sox have several potential closers in waiting, so they could prefer to spend their available payroll space on more pressing needs like starting pitching or another outfield bat.