By finishing with one of the worst 10 records in MLB, the Oakland Athletics can sign a player who rejects a qualifying offer without forfeiting their first round draft pick (currently No. 4), instead of giving up their next pick. The A's have never signed a player who rejected a qualifying offer, but they have never had that protected pick.
Last year, forfeiting the No. 20 pick would have cost the A's $2,214,000 (41%) of the $5,444,100 bonus pool they had for the first 10 rounds of the draft. Besides not drafting Richie Martin, if the A's had made the rest of their selections they would have been just over the threshold for forfeiting the following year's first round draft pick.
So far for Oakland, the A's would only be giving up a draft pick with a slot around $1.7 million, their Competitive Balance Round A pick immediately after the first round, which will be somewhere around just 20 percent of their bonus pool.
So who would they sign? On the one hand, the players who receive qualifying offers are typically the ones likely to get big dollar long-term contracts, ones that the A's typically eschew. On the other hand, the ones where the decision to extend a qualifying offer were a bit iffy have their contract values retarded by the prospect of losing that draft pick.
Just a quick reminder, a player can only receive a qualifying offer if he has been with his team the entire season preceding free agency. Players who were traded are not eligible, so that eliminates a player like David Price or Johnny Cueto. First let's rule out the players I think will receive deals far beyond what the A's would be willing to offer, let's say more than five years, more than $20 million per year:
Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, as the young ones here, might actually get high average annual value deals and get opt-outs after three or four years if they want to re-test the free agent waters while in their prime earning years. All of these players I think will get at least five years and more than $20 million per year.
In terms of the shorter-term lower average annual value players still receiving qualifying offers, it's slim picking among the position players:
While the A's outfield does need help with Josh Reddick departing before 2017, it is not clear whether Denard Span will even receive a qualifying offer from the Washington Nationals after a season-ending hip injury that held him to 61 games in 2015. The A's might want to look further downmarket than Span, given his injury troubles.
Dexter Fowler might be interesting, though I think he's on the upper end of what the current front office would spend on a free agent. Ryan Davis, writing for Baseball Prospectus Wrigleyville, thinks the market for Fowler's services will be around 4/$65MM.
On the infield, the trouble with going after Ian Desmond is that he stands in the way of Oakland's developing shortstops due up sometime between 2016 and 2018. Desmond also struggled at the plate this year, hitting .236/.292/.389 with a career-high 28.7 percent strikeout rate.
Daniel Murphy is an interesting candidate to use up a draft pick in that he has had a consistent bat at second base (career 109 wRC+), hits left-handed, and has played a little bit of third base too. He would be a significant upgrade on Eric Sogard, and his addition would probably mean trading Brett Lawrie or Danny Valencia to open up second base for Murphy (unless the A's re-open the Danny Valencia left field experiment). While he will have suitors such that he would be unlikely to actually accept the qualifying offer, Murphy's market will probably be in the range where the qualifying offer will be a significant drag on his earning potential, and he plays a non-premium position.
The starting pitching market is quite a lot deeper in 2016, with perhaps seven starters receiving qualifying offers but not superstar-type deals:
Oakland's starting rotation for 2016 pencils out to Sonny Gray, Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman, and Sean Nolin next year, with Jesse Chavez, A.J. Griffin, and Jarrod Parker somewhere in that mix. Sean Manaea is a mid-year call up at best, having finished the year strong with Double-A Midland.
Oakland could use another starter to try to replace Scott Kazmir's production, but they probably don't want to pay what Kazmir would cost them now that he has three successful post-Sugarland Skeeters seasons under his belt. MLB Trade Rumors' Brad Johnson recently opined that Anderson could use Brandon McCarthy's four-year, $48MM contract as a comparable for a deal this offseason. Charlie Wilmoth also pulled up Francisco Liriano's three-year, $39MM contract.
I'm tempted to say Anderson at the moment looks like what Kazmir looked like to the A's after his one year with the Cleveland Indians. With Kazmir it was about becoming a smarter player that didn't rely solely on his fastball and proved he could pitch in the majors after independent ball. With Anderson it was about avoiding freak injuries.
It's a fairly deep market for starting pitchers, and the A's could take advantage of the qualifying offer depressing their contract values.
What the A's end up doing this offseason is anyone's guess, but this is the start of the conversation about how to make use of the benefits of a Top 10 draft pick. Think I've miscategorized a player, missed a player that will be offered a qualifying offer, or think the A's will stretch for one of those top tier free agents? Fire away.
Update (8:13 AM): Thanks to helpful comments below, I've changed my mind on where Dexter Fowler will stand in the qualifying offer process and added him to the list of potential A's candidates, though I think the contract he would get would still be a reach for the A's, but not an impossible one.