MLB Hot Stove: Qualifying offer candidates for 2019-20 offseason and what it means for free agency

The 2019 World Series came to end Wednesday night and, Thursday morning, 131 players officially became free agents. They will be eligible to sign with new teams this coming Monday. Here are all the important offseason dates.

Monday is also the deadline for teams to tender their eligible free agents the qualifying offer. The QO is a one-year contract set at the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball, and the player has 10 days to accept or reject. Here are the QO values over the past few years:

  • 2012: $13.3 million
  • 2013: $14.1 million
  • 2014: $15.3 million
  • 2015: $15.8 million
  • 2016: $17.2 million
  • 2017: $17.4 million
  • 2018: $17.9 million
  • 2019: $17.8 million

Steady increase from 2012-16, a less gradual increase from 2016-18, and now a decline in 2019. That isn't surprising see how the average salary decreased last year for only the fourth time in 50 years. Teams across the league are cutting payroll and the QO value reflects that.

Anyway, players who accept the QO return to their team on that one-year, $17.8 million contract. Also, they can not be traded until June 15 without their consent, so the whole "make him the QO and if he accepts, just trade him" idea doesn't really work. Players who reject the QO are attached to draft pick compensation in free agency.

To be eligible for the QO, the player must have spent the entire season with his team, and he must not have received the QO previously. So, for example, the Cubs can make Cole Hamels the QO because he was with the team the entire season, but not Nicholas Castellanos because he was a midseason trade pickup.

Here are R.J. Anderson's top 50 free agents and here's a preview of the free agents who could receive a QO prior to Monday's deadline (players are listed alphabetically within each tier).

Definitely getting QO

Madison Bumgarner San Francisco Giants SP
It's still not clear whether Bumgarner will get a massive contract in the six-year, $155 million neighborhood (Jon Lester money) or a smaller yet still lucrative deal in the three-year, $75 million range (Jake Arrieta money). Either way, the Giants will make Bumgarner the QO and he will reject it because there is more money waiting for him out there in free agency. San Francisco would probably be thrilled if Bumgarner accepted the QO. They'd get to keep a franchise icon for another year at a reasonable salary.
Aroldis Chapman New York Yankees RP
Chapman can opt out of the final two years and $30 million on his contract. It has been reported he wants to stay with the Yankees, but is trying to leverage the opt-out clause into an extension. If Chapman does declines his option, the Yankees will make him the QO and he'll reject it. He's not going to walk away from two years and $30 million only to turn around and accept a one-year, $17.8 million contract, you know? This is likely Chapman's last chance at a big contract.
Gerrit Cole Houston Astros SP
One of two very obvious "they'll make the QO and he'll reject it" cases this free agency. Cole is the best pitcher on the planet right now, and he is the best pitcher to become a free agent since Max Scherzer five years ago. He will, of course, reject the QO and likely sign the most lucrative pitching contract in baseball history sometime this winter. Something like seven years and $32 million per year is in the cards, and it could be that the team that offers the eighth year gets him.
Josh Donaldson Atlanta Braves 3B
Last offseason Donaldson bet on himself and signed a one-year, $23 million contract with the Braves. Following a strong bounceback season that could earn him some down-ballot MVP votes, Donaldson is in position to cash in as a free agent. With his 34th birthday creeping up, the goal here is to get more than $17.8 million total, not necessarily a higher annual value. Just get the largest possible payday, even if it's something like $15 million per year across two or three years.
J.D. Martinez Boston Red Sox DH
Martinez had been traded from the Tigers to the Diamondbacks the last time he became a free agent, so he did not receive the QO then and is still eligible to receive it now. He can opt out of the final three years and $60 million remaining on his contract and, similar to Chapman, the Red Sox will make him the QO and he'll reject it if he does opt out. Martinez won't walk away from three years and $60 million only to take a pay cut with the QO.
Anthony Rendon Washington Nationals 3B
Rendon is the other guaranteed "they'll make the QO and he'll reject it" case this offseason alongside Cole. He is the best free agent position player on the market and in line for something like six years and $30 million per season. Honestly, that feels light. I'd bet on Rendon clearing $200 million this winter. Point is, the Nationals will make Rendon the QO and he will no doubt reject it. Easy call.
Stephen Strasburg Washington Nationals SP
Yet another player with an opt-out. Strasburg, the World Series MVP, can walk away from four years and $100 million, and he must do so before the team's World Series parade Saturday. If he does decide to decline the four more years on his current deal, the Nationals will make Strasburg the QO just in case he signs elsewhere. He's not going to accept it, and the bet here is Washington makes a very strong push to re-sign Strasburg. Stronger than their push to re-sign Rendon.
Zack Wheeler New York Mets SP
There was a time not too long ago where it appeared Wheeler was a fringe QO candidate. He finished the season very strong though, and his 377 2/3 innings the last two years are 12th most in baseball. That answered some questions about his durability. Among the players listed in this tier, Wheeler is most likely to accept the QO. The bet here though is he rejects it and seeks out a nice multi-year contract in free agency because he may never be better positioned to cash in than now.

Tough decisions for QO

Jose Abreu Chicago White Sox 1B
Abreu has been a steady, durable run-producer the last six years and he also brings high-end intangibles to the table. Young players look up to him as a leader. The downside is Abreu turns 33 in January, and the market is not particularly kind to one-dimensional sluggers with little to no defensive or baserunning value. The White Sox love Abreu and it seems likely they will re-sign him at a lower rate rather than make him the QO. If they do make the QO, he could accept.
Didi Gregorius New York Yankees SS
At this point last year Gregorius was a slam-dunk QO candidate. Prime-aged shortstops with power and great defense are always in demand. Then Gregorius needed Tommy John surgery, missed the first two months of 2019, and struggled at the plate after returning. It's easy to look at Gregorius and think he will get back to being his old self next year, as he gets further away from surgery, but who really knows? Sir Didi strikes me as a candidate to accept the QO, rebuild his value in a hitter's ballpark, then test free agency next year with no QO attached. The Yankees may not want to risk it given their payroll situation and other free agent plans (i.e. pursuing Cole).
Cole Hamels Chicago Cubs SP
An oblique injury sabotaged what had been a very strong contract year for Hamels. He struggled once he returned and his stuff has started to diminish with age. Hamels turns 36 in December and that's a bad age for a free agent, even one with his track record. That said, I suspect Hamels will be a popular target among contending teams looking for a quality starter on a short-term contract. Don't the Cubs fit that description? Their payroll plans may dictate this QO decision more than anything.
Jake Odorizzi Minnesota Twins SP
I lean yes, the Twins should make Odorizzi the QO, but I can understand the hesitation. Payroll is an obvious concern, and the previously home run prone right-hander (1.4 HR/9 from 2016-18) just managed the lowest home run rate of his career (0.9 HR/9) in the year of the dinger. There are some questions about whether 2019 Odorizzi is the real Odorizzi, which could impact his market and Minnesota's QO decision. My guess is the Twins make the QO and he rejects it, but this feels very wide open to me. I could see Odorizzi rejecting it, accepting it, or not getting it at all. Nothing would surprise me.
Marcell Ozuna St. Louis Cardinals LF
The good: Ozuna turns only 29 later this month, so he has age on his side. The bad: Ozuna's defense has declined quite a bit in recent years, so he is essentially a low on-base slugger now, and that doesn't pay well in free agency. The Cardinals are deep in outfielders and could simply cut ties with Ozuna and move on rather than risk him accepting the QO. Two years ago this would've seemed crazy, but, right now, the bet is St. Louis does not make Ozuna the QO.
Will Smith San Francisco Giants RP
Even in this free agent climate, relievers are still getting paid well. Seven relievers received multi-year contracts worth at least $9 million annually last offseason. One of them was Craig Kimbrel, whose market was sabotaged by the QO and did not sign until June. Does Smith want to risk that fate? Probably not, but, at the same time, this might be his only chance to cash in on a big free-agent contract. I think there's a decent chance the Giants make Smith the QO and he rejects it, and eventually signs a multi-year deal worth more than $17.8 million. At age 30 and with Tommy John surgery in the not too distant past, that's the goal here. Beat $17.8 million total across however many years.

Notable free agents ineligible for the QO (alphabetically): Nicholas Castellanos, Cubs (traded); Edwin Encarnacion, Yankees (traded, received QO previously); Yasmani Grandal, Brewers (received QO previously); Dallas Keuchel, Braves (midseason addition, received QO previously); Yasiel Puig, Indians (traded); Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dodgers (received QO previously)

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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