As spring training gets underway, It's not a coincidence that the five major free agents left on the market were all recipients of a qualifying offer after the 2013 season. Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales, Stephen Drew, Ervin Santana, and Ubaldo Jimenez are all dangerously close to being without on Valentine's Day, but the nature of each's unemployment varies.
Their previous organizations extended them all one-year, $14 million deals and all five players turned them down. By virtue of receiving the qualifying offer, these players have had their markets limited by the fact that whichever team signs them has to surrender their first, unprotected pick in this June's draft. So far, teams have been unwilling to do so given the current contract requests of the players in question, but all for somewhat different reasons.
Nelson Cruz, OF/DH
Nelson Cruz hits for power. It's his trademark tool. He entered the market coming off five consecutive seasons of 20 or more homeruns and he has slugged over .500 in four of the last five years. Even when you adjust for the hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington, Cruz's power remains. The problem is that he doesn't bring much else to the table and was suspended for 50 games in 2013 for his connection to Biogensis.
Since 2011, Cruz has gotten on base at something close to an average rate, but average on base skills and good power only lead to big free agent dollars when they're mixed with other useful attributes. Cruz, unfortunately, has been a poor baserunner and below average defender over each of the last three seasons and he hasn't had a full season of above average production since 2010.
Early reports indicated he was looking for a deal worth around $75 million, but at this point in the calendar there's almost no chance of that happening. The problem for Cruz is that he wants to get paid like a very good player, but he hasn't been a very good player for several years and teams aren't going to pay him that handsomely while also surrendering a pick. Cruz could help a couple of teams, but those teams probably aren't going to be interested at his current asking price.
Kendrys Morales 1B/DH
Morales fits into the same mold as Cruz, although he's a touch younger and trades a little power for on-base ability while also hitting from both sides of the plate. He doesn't have anything to offer on the bases or in the field, but he's also very much aware of that and didn't start with the same kind of demands as Cruz.
The problem for Morales is that he's a DH who can occasionally play first base, while Cruz is still capable of playing a position, even if he isn't great at it. This leaves Morales with very limited options as only a couple of American League teams need a boost at DH and that's before you get to his injury history and qualifying offer. The Orioles are the obvious fit, but he could also make sense in Texas if the Rangers decide to flip Moreland.
Would make sense for: Orioles, Twins, Rangers
Stephen Drew, SS
Drew is a very clear instance of the qualifying offer sapping a player's value. Drew comes with question marks, specifically relating to the long-term health of his ankle, but he has a nice glove at short and an above average bat for the position.
Drew's problem is that he would be a nice addition for many teams, but that might require a position change and a pay cut given the qualifying offer and the number of teams who have established shortstops. The Mets and Drew have seemed like obvious partners over the last several weeks, but the Mets have balked at a deal despite a much lower draft pick cost than the one facing most teams because of their protected first-round pick and earlier signing of Curtis Granderson. But if you ignore the draft pick for a moment, the Pirates, Yankees, Orioles, and Blue Jays would all get better by acquiring Drew if both sides were comfortable with some positional changes.
Would make sense for: Mets, Pirates, Yankees, Orioles, Blue Jays
Ervin Santana, SP
Santana is a pitcher with a lot of lukewarm suitors at the moment. He's been tremendously inconsistent during his career but has also flashed the ability to be a star. The most reasonable estimate probably centers around league average going forward, but a league average starter is a very valuable thing. Perhaps only the Tigers, Nationals and Red Sox could honestly say that Ervin Santana wouldn't make them better.
Santana remains unsigned because he's trying to maximize his return. Unlike Cruz and Morales, plenty of teams are interested; they just aren't interested enough to make a significant commitment at this point in time. If Santana was happy with the Matt Garza contract, he'd be reporting to camp this week. The problem for Santana is that some of the teams that need him the most are teams that can't afford him. When he feels the pressure of his stock falling, he'll agree to a deal and is hoping that an established starter goes down with an injury before that happens.
Ubaldo Jimenez, SP
If free agent negotiations were like a college class that let you drop your worst exam when computing your final grade, Ubaldo Jimenez would have already signed a very lucrative contract. If 2012 hadn't happened, he'd probably have been looking at a $100 million deal. Unfortunately for Jimenez, the free agent market doesn't work like that and he's likely to get something closer to $30 million or $40 million.
Jimenez had excellent numbers during his time with the Rockies but struggled mightily during his first year and a half in Cleveland before finishing strong in 2013. The team that signs Jimenez is betting on the down year being the blip and the bounce back being the reality, but the uncertainty surrounding that dichotomy is keeping teams at bay. A lot of teams could use Jimenez in his 2013 capacity, but everyone would be wise to avoid him if he's planning on returning to 2012 form.
Would make sense for: Mariners, Blue Jays, Royals, Indians, Diamondbacks, Orioles, Pirates, Yankees
While there has been talk that some of these free agents might be well served to wait until their draft pick compensation expires in June, they're all good enough players that spring training injuries and struggles will move teams to increase their offers. It's not a matter of if, it's just a matter of which team feels the pressure first.