MLB free agency: Will anyone accept the qualifying offer?

There's no chance Cano accepts the qualifying offer, but will anyone else? - Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

We're looking at the second year of two in which no free agent accepted the qualifying offer.

The qualifying offer is fairly new to baseball. It was introduced in the collective bargaining agreement signed before 2011 concluded and first went into practice just last winter, when the first-ever batch of QOs were submitted to those free agents deemed worthy. Just 22 qualifying offers have been extended, total, in the two years of its existence. If things hold as expected, not a one of them will have been accepted.

The Red Sox submitted three qualifying offers, to Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, and Stephen Drew. Like last winter, when David Ortiz declined a deal but then re-signed, they are expected to bring back at least Napoli -- though not for the qualifying offer -- while Ellsbury is likely a goner, and Drew possibly gone as well. The Yankees handed out qualifiers to Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, and Hiroki Kuroda. It seemed initially that Granderson might accept, but given the paucity of quality free agents available, he's more likely to decline and test the market. Both Cano and Kuroda could return to New York as well, but it's just not happening via the qualifying offers, especially not for Cano. In addition to these six, Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo, Nelson Cruz, Ubaldo Jimenez, Brian McCann, Kendrys Morales, and Ervin Santana were given the qualifying offer.

Because teams can pick and choose who receives a qualifying offer, there is almost no risk to the clubs offering them, assuming they're particular about which players receive them. This was not so under the previous system, which was a combination of arbitration offers and the Elias player valuation system, which split players into types: Type-A free agents receiving an arbitration offer merited first-round draft compensation, while Type-B earned their previous teams second-round reimbursement. There was more room for error here, since receiving arbitration didn't automatically make a player expensive -- you would see relievers and even high-quality bench players receiving arbitration offers in order to either convince them of a one-year return to their team or in order to setup, at the least, draft compensation. The qualifying offer, however, is based on the average of the top-125 most-lucrative contracts in MLB, and that averaged out to $14.1 million this year -- it places the same price on every free agent considered compensation-worthy, and that both limits the number of players considered to be worth compensation as well as the risk of anyone accepting the offer.

Essentially, if a player is talented enough that a one-year deal for $14.1 million can be submitted to them right out of the off-season's gate, then they are very likely in a position to earn more than that with some patience over the course of winter. Kyle Lohse had to sit at home until March of 2013 before he finally found himself a contract after declining the last winter's 2013 qualifier of $13.3 million from the Cardinals, but he wound up with a three-year, $33 million contract for his trouble. Curtis Granderson might find himself in a similar situation, given he had injury troubles and his defense has aged to the point where left field is his home, but eventually, someone will pay up for his services, knowing this is their chance to pick up someone with his ability and promise on the relative cheap.

20130925_kkt_sz2_918Photo credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

So, teams only give qualifying offers to players they are aware will seek out riches, setting themselves up to receive compensation for their foresight more than for their loss. This is why the likes of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Bartolo Colon, Josh Johnson, and more did not receive qualifying offers: despite their ability, due to age, short-term success, injury, or a number of other items on the potential red flag checklist, they were threats to accept a qualifying offer. Or, as is the case with Saltalamacchia, the qualifier would have represented an as-of-yet unseen level of payment for the player: no one is going to submit a qualifying offer to a player just to get a draft pick if there's even the slightest chance they could accept.

Maybe at some point we'll see teams take more risks with the players they're submitting the qualifying offer to, but it's unlikely. As the price of a one-year, compensatory contract rises with the rest of baseball's salaries, it's hard to believe anyone will be more open to the idea of treating the qualifying offer as anything but an occasional opportunity to score a free draft pick. Players don't mind, because they are going to get paid regardless, and those who don't receive a qualifying offer can hardly be offended, since the market is more open to them than it was just two years ago, when being a high-quality reliever would attach the stigma of draft compensation to their resume. Owners don't mind, because it's a low-risk proposition for them that pays off in the form of more low-cost acquisitions through the draft.

About the only people who might mind are those who work in front offices, but they don't get to vote on these issues between Players Association and ownership. As always, they will adapt to the circumstances handed to them -- given all of 22 qualifying offers have been handed out in two seasons, you could say they already have.

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