If Ubaldo Jimenez manages to pass the apparent gauntlet of the Baltimore Orioles' physical examination, this year's class of qualifying offer free agents will shrink to a total of four. Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew, Nelson Cruz, and Kendrys Morales.
Their attempts at finding new teams have been complicated and significantly protracted by the draft compensation they became associated with when they declined qualifying offers from their 2013 teams. The going has been slow, but as the season nears, the list of qualified free agents has correspondingly shrunken.
Last season, Santana was excellent in Kansas City. He put up a 3.24 ERA in 211 innings with a 1.14 WHIP and his best walk rate since 2008.
That success was thanks in part to the Royals chasmic park, but also to an adjustment Santana made to his repertoire. He began mixing his pitches and increased the use of his sinker, a pitch that he's able to use to induce ground balls 57 percent of the time.
At the beginning of the offseason, Santana was reportedly looking for a deal in excess of $100 million. He might have to settle for half that amount, as Ubaldo Jimenez appears to have done with the Orioles. Although some teams might have evaluated Santana and Jimenez as better options than a pitcher like Ricky Nolasco -- who signed a four-year, $49 million deal with the Twins -- the draft compensation attached to those pitchers has caused their markets to dovetail with Nolasco's. Neither pitcher accepted his team's $14.1 million qualifying offer, and that might sound like a greedy move, but each player was presented the option of either a one-year deal that could end in injury and a tough trek back to where they found themselves at the end of the 2013 season, or the option they chose -- declining the offer and risking a stale market in hopes of finding the security of a multiyear deal. So, while it might seem like these players are making decisions with an exaggerated sense of self-worth, things aren't quite that simple.
Santana is likely no longer an option for the Orioles, and the Blue Jays were unwilling to make a $50 million offer to Jimenez, so they could be out of the running for his services as well. CBS Sports' Jon Heyman mentioned the Mariners and Indians as possibilities for Santana, and a return to the Royals isn't completely out of the question either, though Kansas City's general manager Dayton Moore said he doesn't see a reunion as a fit for his team.
The Mets and Red Sox have been both rumored as possibilities, but GMs from both clubs have also called a Drew deal "unlikely." Drew is a plus defender at a premium position, but the draft pick attached to him and his recent proclivity for the disabled list have been causing teams to recoil at the prospect of offering him a multiyear deal. The Mets are the most "obvious" fit.
They are currently set to feature Ruben Tejada, a career .259/.323/.319 hitter, at shortstop. Tejada could post above-replacement level production for New York this season, but Drew would almost certainly be a better option for 2014 -- and for 2015, when Matt Harvey will be back and the team's young pitching prospects acclimate themselves to the majors.
After the Orioles get the Ubaldo Jimenez signing behind them -- which is likely, since they probably can't afford to send another player packing with a bad physical -- the team might be in a more reasonable position to sign another qualified free agent. Like Cruz. Of course, the Orioles aren't the only team that could make a play for Cruz, but since his market has been so quiet for so long, the 33-year-old outfielder might have a good reason to be optimistic. Orioles' GM Dan Duquette said his club would be more inclined to sign multiple qualified free agents if they decided to sign one, because of the lessened blow to their draft plan.
The Mariners' biggest offseason addition, Robinson Cano, has been lobbying for his new club to add Cruz, though Cano's input might not be enough for the Mariners to actively pursue Cruz. However, their first-round pick is protected, and they have already forfeited their second rounder by signing Cano, so their draft losses would be less significant than most teams.
Cruz is still a talented hitter, but his defensive value has become a liability over the last three years. Over that span, he's been "worth" -21 defensive runs saved. That paired with waning slugging numbers, his extravagant contract demands, and his PED suspension from 2013, all makes him a risk to say the very least.
Baltimore could target Morales as well, or the switch-hitting first baseman/designated hitter could also choose to sit out a third of the season to avoid the draft compensation to which he's tethered. If he is "forced" to do so, the Players Union would likely take action. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement runs through 2016, but if talented players are unable to find competitive deals because of the qualifying offer, changes could be on the way sooner than that.
Morales, 30, has also drawn interest from the Pirates, but Pittsburgh is hesitant to part with a draft pick to sign Morales. Seattle could still be an option as well, according to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe.