MLB Hot Stove: These nine free agents receive $17.4 million qualifying offer
Free agents who reject the qualifying offer are tied to draft pick compensation
. It was the deadline for teams to make their eligible free agents the qualifying offer. The qualifying offer is a one-year contract set at the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball. This offseason, that number is $17.4 million.
Players who accept the qualifying offer -- a few have done so in recent years -- return to their team at the one-year, $17.4 million rate. Players who reject the qualifying offer are tied to draft pick compensation in free agency. MLB and MLBPA changed the compensation rules with the latest collective bargaining agreement to make the penalty for signing a qualified free agent less harsh. Now all first-round picks are protected.
A total of nine players received the qualifying offer before Monday's deadline. They now have a week to mull things over before accepting or rejecting the $17.4 million offer.
Here are the nine players, listed alphabetically.
Even with his control being a significant issue at times and his Cy Young form well in the rear-view mirror, Jake Arrieta will undoubtedly reject the qualifying offer and cash in big as a free agent. He threw 168 1/3 innings with a 3.53 ERA (123 ERA+) in 2017, and when he gets locked in, he's as good as any pitcher in baseball. Arrieta will likely receive a nine-figure contract with an average annual value north of the $17.4 million qualifying offer this winter. An easy decision to reject the qualifying offer.
No team stands to lose as much talent as the Royals this offseason. Lorenzo Cain is one of the several core Royals who became a free agent after the season, and as is often the case, it will be an easy call to reject the $17.4 million offer. Cain hit .300/.363/.440 (112 OPS+) with 15 homers and 26 steals in 2017, and when you add in his standout center field defense and clubhouse skills, you get the recipe for a very in-demand free agent, even with his 32nd birthday not too far away.
A year ago, Alex Cobb was working his way back from Tommy John surgery, and after returning, he threw 22 innings with an 8.59 ERA (47 ERA+). It was ugly. Cobb, 30, bounced back in 2017 as he got further away from elbow reconstruction, and he threw 179 1/3 innings with a 3.66 ERA (113 ERA+) with the Rays. He's not quite the guy he was from 2013-14, when he posted a 2.82 ERA (134 ERA+) in 309 2/3 innings, though he remains a rock-solid mid-rotation starter. Cobb will be a popular free agent target for teams looking for rotation help but not wanting to pay big for Arrieta. He'll decline the qualifying offer for sure.
Had the Royals not traded Wade Davis to the Cubs last offseason, he would've been yet another one of their core players hitting the open market. Davis was not quite as automatic in 2017 as he had been in previous years, especially down the stretch, but he remains an excellent closer and is the best reliever on the market this winter. He won't get $17.4 million annually -- Aroldis Chapman ($17.2 million annually) and Kenley Jansen ($16 million) are the two highest-paid closers in baseball -- though Davis should have no problem securing more than $17.4 million total as part of a multiyear deal. He'll reject the qualifying offer.
Oh look, another (former) Royals player. Greg Holland is the one free agent who I think should seriously consider accepting the qualifying offer. Then again, he declined his $15 million player option to become a free agent, so you know he's looking for a big contract this winter. Holland did lead the NL with 41 saves this year and he was an All-Star, but he struggled mightily in the second half -- he had a 1.62 ERA before the All-Star break and a 6.38 ERA after -- and for a guy in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, that's worrisome. Ultimately, the demand for high-end relievers is so strong that Holland figures to land a nice contract. I just think passing on the $17.4 million qualifying offer is a bit of a risk. He's not a lock to land a huge deal like the other guys listed here.
Like I said, the Royals are poised to lose several core players to free agency this winter. Eric Hosmer might be the best position player on the market this offseason because he's young (28), he's productive (.318/.385/.495 with 25 homers in 2017), he's very good defensively, he has a championship pedigree, and he's seen as a leader in the clubhouse. Hosmer is a divisive player, no doubt, though my sense is he's very highly regarded within the game and is seen a bona fide difference-maker. He'll reject the qualifying offer and sign a massive contract worth no less than $100 million.
Lance Lynn, like Cobb and Holland, just completed his first full season following Tommy John surgery. He had the best season of the three as well, throwing 186 1/3 innings with a 3.43 ERA (124 ERA+). That is right in line with his career 3.38 ERA (114 ERA+). Lynn and Cobb are the best "second tier" free agent starters this offseason. They'll generate plenty of interest from teams not wanting to spend top dollar for rotation help. Lynn will reject the qualifying offer and secure more than $17.4 million guaranteed across multiple years.
One more Royals player for good measure. This season Mike Moustakas set a new franchise single-season record with 38 home runs, plus he is only 29 and provides what is generally regarded as strong third base defense. The knocks against Moustakas are his on-base skills -- he has a career .305 on-base percentage, and it was .314 in 2017 -- and the fact he missed most of 2016 with a torn ACL, though he was healthy in 2017. His earning potential is not as sky high as Hosmer's, but rejecting the qualifying offer is an easy decision for Moustakas. He's going to land himself a very nice contract this winter.
The market for one-dimensional sluggers is not what it once was, but as a 31-year-old switch-hitter with 30-plus homer power and great on-base skills, Carlos Santana won't get stuck settling for a small contract late in the offseason. He has postseason experience and he can be your emergency catcher as well. Santana may not get $17.4 million annually with his next contract, though he will exceed that with his total guarantee. As with almost everyone else who received a qualifying offer this year, Santana will reject it without a second thought.
The most notable free agent who did not receive a qualifying offer prior to Monday's deadline is Zack Cozart, who is far and away the best shortstop on the market this winter. He hit .297/.385/.548 (141 OPS+) with 24 homers in 2017 while also playing elite defense, even at age 32. He seems like a safe bet to get more than $17.4 million on the open market. Instead, the rebuilding Reds did not trade Cozart at the deadline and they won't get a draft pick if he leaves as a free agent.
Keep in mind top free agents like Yu Darvish and J.D. Martinez were not eligible for the qualifying offer because they were traded at midseason. A player must spend the entire season with his team to be eligible for the qualifying offer. Also, players who received the qualifying offer in previous years are not eligible to receive it again. That means free agents Carlos Beltran and John Lackey could not be tendered the qualifying offer this winter, though they were unlikely to receive one anyway.
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