Every year, baseball teams give their free agents a choice. They can accept gobs of money to return for a season. Or they can leave for what's in the mystery box. To this point, every single free agent has chosen the mystery box.
For the most part, this works out for the player. The mystery box is filled with long-term contracts worth more than the qualifying offer, which is about $15.8 million this year. The money from the long-term deals most of these players will get will set their families up for generations. Hooray for the mystery box.
Every so often, though, a player gets caught in the gears of the machine, and he has to wait until February, March, or, gasp, June to sign with a new team. Every single team essentially told Stephen Drew in 2014 that he wasn't as valuable as a speculative mid-round pick in the following draft. Kendrys Morales was told the same. Both of them had to wait until midway through the season to sign, and both of them were disasters on the field that year.
Last offseason, everyone still took the mystery box. And it worked. The Mets pounced on Michael Cuddyer, possibly because they thought of not paying a first-round pick as some sort of mail-in rebate, and they won the pennant because of it. Well, in spite of it, at least. Francisco Liriano looked like a candidate to accept the qualifying offer, but the market for pitching was so goofy, he got three times as much. Ervin Santana took the box two years in a row, and it paid off the second year.
Which brings us to the two-part question of this offseason: Is this the year someone accepts the qualifying offer, and if not, who stands to lose the most by rejecting it? It's time again for the ...
Completely Hosed by the Qualifying Offer Power Rankings
Last year, Michael Cuddyer had the top spot. He was the first to sign. Somehow, I don't think that's the case this year. In order from "not hosed at all" to "teams aren't gonna want to give up a draft pick for this dude" ...
21. Zack Greinke
He doesn't care. Not unless the draft pick is the tiebreaker for a team that really, really can't choose between him or David Price.
20. Jason Heyward
19. Alex Gordon
Also not hosed.
18. Jordan Zimmermann
Maybe there's a way to skip to the people who are hosed?
17. Justin Upton
Okay, guess not. Probably not hosed.
16. Chris Davis
Yeah, he'll do fine.
15. John Lackey
Teams wouldn't get too weird about giving up a draft pick for a sub-3.00 ERA guy, even if he's old and surly.
14. Wei-Yin Chen
Better than you think, and probably a more attractive free agent than Liriano was. You know how that turned out.
13. Hisashi Iwakuma
GET TO THE HOSED PLAYERS.
12. Howie Kendrick
Talent at second base is scarce enough that Kendrick shouldn't sweat it. I don't know if he's getting a $75 million deal or anything, but we're in the tenth consecutive year of Kendrick being pretty danged good. Teams will give up a draft pick to see if he can go for 13 or 14 straight years.
11. Yovani Gallardo
Worth a draft pick? Ugh, probably, but you have to say it like that: ugh, probably. He will make a team better in the first and maybe second year of his deal, and a win-now team would much rather have the win in the hand instead of the draft picks in the bush.
Still, you have to grunt and groan when you think about giving up a pick for a useful player instead of a star.
10. Colby Rasmus
Now, saaaaay, here's an interesting case. The Astros would love to have him back for a year and $15.8 million. They certainly have room in the budget, and it would allow them to avoid a long-term deal with a talented-yet-flawed player.
On the other hand, do you want your team to give up a first-rounder for Rasmus? If my team is giving up a first rounder, I want it to be because of DAVID PRICE or DEREK JETER IN HIS PRIME, not for a shaggy, sweaty dinger-and-strikeout machine.
Someone would eventually crack, valuing the power too much to resist. But the Rasmus Line is where you really start considering the value of a draft pick relative to the expected contributions of the free agent.
9. Dexter Fowler
Rasmus has a tool that's hard to buy in the offseason bazaar. Fowler is more of a generic pretty-okay player. Like Rasmus and the Astros, the Cubs would be thrilled to have Fowler back on a one-year deal. Also like Rasmus, Fowler is probably right to think there's a bigger contract waiting for him out there.
That contract will wait, though. Trades will have to fall through, other free agents will have to sign elsewhere. Fowler seems like the kind of free agent who will hang out until February, when a team will say "FINE, we'll give up the draft pick." He's not the free agent who will hang out until June, though.
8. Denard Span
Just re-read that last section and replace "Fowler" with "Span." In exchange for you not making me write the same thing with different words, I offer you an amusing GIF:
[Editor's note: Span did not end up receiving a qualifying offer, so at least now he won't have to wait!]
7. Ian Desmond
Here's a funny one: Desmond's team would most certainly not be okay with him returning on a one-year deal. They have his replacement already, and they would like to allocate their offseason funds to find a replacement for Zimmermann and/or Span. Desmond being the first player in history to accept a qualifying offer would be very, very funny.
But he's not accepting it, and the Nationals know this. His down season is going to make teams wary of giving up a huge multi-year contract, and the draft pick is going to limit the appeal of a one-year show-me deal for big money. He'll get paid, but the pick will hurt a little.
6. Matt Wieters
Scott Boras doesn't do qualifying offers. I mean, no one does, but Boras is so vehemently against them, he loses the occasional gamble. Drew and Morales were both Boras clients when they had to wait until the following June to sign for less money. Wieters might be in a similar situation.
Except, like Kendrick, there aren't a ton of players with this skill set available around the league. Wieters offers power and switch-hitting acumen out of the catcher's position when healthy. Which is a huge caveat, but the talent is going to be too tantalizing for a team.
There's something else we're ignoring: 10 teams will have protected draft picks, which means they wouldn't care nearly as much. That's a third of baseball, not to mention the Orioles, too. The Rockies and Marlins could all make good arguments why Wieters would be a good gamble for them, as could several of the other teams in the top 10.
Either way, Wieters is getting paid.
5. Daniel Murphy
Probably not hosed. Even if his World Series was a bummer, his NLDS and NLCS dominance will make at least one team googly eyed, and he plays a position that's not super easy to fill, so he'll get paid, even in the era of defense.
Still, out of the seven full seasons he's played, he's been worth over two wins exactly once. He'll probably want scores of millions over a long period of time. To give up that money for that kind of production -- which is likely to decline, mind you -- and give up a pick is going to be a tough proposition for a lot of teams. We're starting to wade into the ambiguously hosed territory.
Of course, the Mets might be so terrified of paying Murphy $15.8 million, they might not even extend the qualifying offer. He's like a reverse-Desmond, where his team could actually use him, but wouldn't want to gamble just for a lousy draft pick.
4. Marco Estrada
I keep reading that the Blue Jays aren't likely to extend Estrada the QO, and I just don't get it. Their alternatives to keeping Estrada around for $15.8 million are to spend three times as much on pitchers who might not have been as good last year, unless they spend six times as much on a pitcher who was a little better. Overpaying a third starter for a year is much more preferable than overpaying a third starter for five years, so I'd imagine the Blue Jays gamble.
In a market deep with pitchers -- pitchers who were traded midseason, and who don't have to deal with the qualifying offer, too -- it's hard to see a fit for Estrada if he makes other teams give up a pick. Maybe one of the 10 protected-pick teams would have interest. He seems very, very A's when you put it like that.
We're getting deeper into the hosed waters, though. Deeper and deeper.
3. Jeff Samardzija
The White Sox surprised everyone by declining Alexei Ramirez's $10 million option. Are they pinching pennies, or are they saving up a war chest in case Samardzija accepts the qualifying offer? Of all the free agents this year, there isn't anyone else would benefit more from having a brilliant 2016 season and hitting the market right away than Samardzija would.
I'd argue that a one-year rebound deal is his best scenario, really. If he takes a two- or three-year deal for fifth-starter money, there probably isn't going to be $75 million in the new contract waiting on the other side. It's questionable that he's going to be good in 2016, much less 2018. The next long-term deal he signs just might be his last.
Always assume that the player is going to decline the qualifying offer, but I'm not sure if the QO has made sense for anyone quite like Samardzija. If he declines it, look for him to have an Ervin Santana-like wait into the spring, where a team signs him because of injury-related calamity.
2. Brett Anderson
He's young, so he has that going for him. But he's remarkably average in a deep market for pitching, with a 101 ERA+ and a FIP that suggests he was lucky to have even that. He's never thrown 200 innings, and this last season was the first time he'd thrown more than 112 since his rookie year in 2009. He faded in the second half, too, with his ERA jumping by a run and is already-low strikeout rate diving a little lower. He pitched into the seventh inning just twice in his last 11 starts, which makes his upside somewhere around the back end of a quality start.
But he's a quality pitcher, so someone's gonna want him. It'll just be March, though, after a badminton accident wipes out three-fifths of a team's rotation. There's a chance that he'll be on the sad Drew/Morales list and have to wait until June, but there's also a chance he could become the first player to accept the qualifying offer. Like Samardzija, hitting the market after an excellent 2016 season would be very, very lucrative, and getting paid $15.8 million to be a fifth starter isn't a bad gig at all.
Declining the QO would cost him money, though. By definition, then, he's high up on the hosed power rankings.
1. Ian Kennedy
The appeal of Ian Kennedy eludes me. Since 2013, there have been four starting pitchers who have pitched more than 400 innings and been below replacement. Tim Lincecum is one. Eric Stults, Ryan Vogelsong and Ian Kennedy are the others.
Why would the Padres want Kennedy back for one season at an eighth of the team's payroll? He's been bad, actively bad, for three straight years. He gave up 19 homers last year in Petco Park alone. That's a season for most pitchers. He did it in half his games, pitching in one of baseball's most spacious parks.
Pretend the Padres believe in his perfectly fine 2014 season and perfectly fine second half in 2015, though. Pretend that they've surveyed their options to rebuild their rotation, and they want cost certainty, even if they have to pay a premium for it. Pretend that all of this makes them give Kennedy the qualifying offer.
He has to take it, right? There can't be even a two-year, $20 million deal for him out there, can there? Look at those other pitchers who were below replacement. Vogelsong had to take a one-year, $4 million deal. Lincecum took a two-year deal with an annual value just above this year's qualifying offer, and that was because the Giants paid a hero and Cy Young tax, hoping he could return to form. Stults is available for much, much cheaper, even if he's been about as valuable.
What kind of contract could Kennedy possibly expect? I keeps staring at his Baseball-Reference page, wondering why anyone would bother making the qualifying offer, and then wondering why he would even consider rejecting it?
Oh. Oh, dear.
There is no one more hosed than Ian Kennedy, not unless the Padres decline to extend the qualifying offer. Teams won't give up a first-round pick when they can just nab Vogelsong to be just as productive for a fifth of the price. And Boras will forever and always prefer the mystery box, convincing his clients to gamble on it.
There's a chance that we'll check in next May, and read stories about how Kennedy is staying in shape. Here is the best chance for this year's Drew/Morales conundrum. Best of luck, Ian Kennedy.
Predictions: Zero qualifying offers accepted, with the Padres declining to extend the offer to Kennedy. Qualifying offers are dumb, they exist only to suppress salaries, and they're just about the worst thing of the offseason. They exist, though, and they're going to hose at least one player this offseason. Possibly several.
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