This is the fourth year that qualifying offers have been a part of MLB's free agent process. If you're unfamiliar with them, the best free agents are offered pricey one-year contracts by their former teams at the onset of free agency (this happened on Friday). The players then decline those offers, and if they sign with a new team that winter then the new team loses its best draft pick (outside of the top 10 overall picks) and the old team gains one after the first round (ends up late-20s or 30s). If the player re-signs with his old team, then the draft is unaffected.
Theoretically a player can accept the qualifying offer and sign the one-year contract (this year, it's $15.8 million), but all 34 players who received these offers over the last three years declined them. The next one to accept will be the first in history.
Here is this year's list of qualifying offers:
RHP Zack Greinke
RF Jason Heyward
(If you're wondering about notable absences like David Price, Johnny Cueto, Scott Kazmir, Yoenis Cespedes, and Ben Zobrist, players who switch teams midseason aren't eligible for a QO.)
Should the Oakland A's sign a free agent this winter who would cost them a pick in next summer's draft? Some years it makes sense and some years it doesn't, just as some players merit the extra cost and others don't. Let's look at the A's situation.
Reasons to go for it
The biggest reason to not worry about losing a pick is that Oakland's top selection in next year's draft is protected due to being within the top 10. Thanks to the A's 68-94 record, they have the No. 6 overall pick, so they would only lose their next-best pick. A look at where they currently stand:
First Round: No. 6 overall
Comp Round A: approx No. 37-40 overall
Second Round: approx. No. 49-52 overall
We won't know the exact placements of those latter picks until we know where all of the qualified free agents sign, but those are some educated guesses based on last year's order and some other adjustments. If the A's signed someone out of the QO table above, they would lose something like the No. 40 pick in the draft.
In the 50-year history of the draft, four players have been chosen No. 40 and gone on to exceed 10 bWAR in their careers, led by Keven Tapani and including Huston Street and Milton Bradley. If you expand to the No. 39 pick, only three guys drafted and signed out of that spot had 10-bWAR careers, led by Don Baylor; go back to No. 41 and Fred Lynn is the only star draftee who signed. Things do get slightly better as you move a couple more spots up to No. 37/38 (David Wright, Noah Syndergaard, Adam Jones), and if you move back to the late-40s you'll find some Hall of Famers, but the bottom line is that by this point in the draft there are about 3-to-1 odds your pick will never even reach MLB.
That's a big difference from the No. 6 pick, where you can dream for a superstar like Barry Bonds, Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield or Zack Greinke and have 3-fo-1 odds that your player will make the Majors. The number of No. 6 picks who have accrued 10 bWAR (11) is nearly as high as the number of No. 40 picks who even played 10 games in MLB. Even a team picking No. 20 has reason for optimism, with about a 50/50 chance of that player reaching the bigs and a list of stars like Mussina, Sabathia, Torii Hunter, and Bob Welch.
But losing the No. 40ish pick? It shouldn't automatically be a dealbreaker. When other teams look at these qualified free agents, they will be factoring in the loss of a pick in the teens or 20s, and that might be the thing that holds them back enough for Oakland to win the bidding.
The A's should have some money to spend this winter, with several expensive 2015 contracts now off the books and a roster almost entirely made up of arbitration and pre-arbitration players -- Coco, Butler and Doolittle are the only guys with long-term deals at the moment. There are holes to fill in the rotation and lineup, and some of these free agents could really help.
Reasons to hold back
Even given all of that, I'm still not convinced. Billy Beane's front office has shown us two things over the last couple decades: they're better than average at identifying young talent, and they're nothing special at making big-money moves for proven guys. Signing Cespedes out of Cuba was a great use of funds, but that seemed more like picking the right prospect in the draft than paying a premium for an established player. Otherwise, the only three-year free agent deals I can think of over the last decade have been Butler and Esteban Loaiza. Toss in the big extension to Eric Chavez, and a couple smaller extensions to Coco and Jermaine Dye, and I'd almost rather the team stick to one- and two-year deals for under-the-radar guys and injury bounce-backs, on top of their normal building from within through drafts and savvy trades. Their wisdom does not extrapolate dollar-for-dollar, and when they do make a bad call on an eight-figure deal it can really hamper their payroll.
The next factor is Assistant GM Dan Kantrovitz. My understanding is that he's highly regarded when it comes to finding talent in the draft, and his time spent in the Cardinals front office certainly doesn't discourage such a reputation. He's only been here a year and already multiple teams have interviewed him for open GM positions, so he's in some level of demand even though he didn't get those jobs. At that rate who knows how long he'll be here before he gets stolen away by another team, and for that matter who knows when the A's will have three picks in the Top 50 again. It seems like a perfect storm, the high picks aligning with the year in which Oakland briefly has an extra draft whiz on board.
Furthermore, having the extra high pick increases Oakland's overall bonus pool. Teams are allowed to spend a certain amount on their picks, with each slot assigned a dollar amount -- for example, last year the No. 6 pick carried a recommended bonus of just under $4 million, the No. 40 pick was over $1.5 million, and No. 50 was around $1.2 million. Some guys are willing to sign for under-slot, while other high-ceiling guys might demand over-slot bonuses after slipping to a later round than expected (or if they are weighing a college commitment). Adding that extra seven figures to the bonus pool theoretically gives the team more flexibility throughout the draft to maximize the return.
And what would the A's get in exchange for losing this pick? That's really what it comes down to. They're not getting the top guys, like Greinke or Heyward. I personally think Gordon is out of Oakland's price range, if he even leaves KC, and the same goes for Upton and Davis. So we're talking about a decent mid-rotation starter like Gallardo or Chen, a late-30s guy like Iwakuma or Lackey, or a total unknown like Shark? A solid outfielder with serious flaws and limited upside, like Rasmus or Fowler? I understand that any of those players would help the 2016 squad, but I would already be wary just considering the 3-4 year commitments they would take, before even factoring in the extra draft compensation. None of these guys screams to me that he will definitely make a big difference here:
- I like the idea of Chen, but he's got a career 110 ERA+ and has never thrown 200 innings in a season. Isn't that the type of pitcher Beane finds pretty easily? He's starting his next contract at age 30. I bet Kazmir will cost a similar amount, pitch similarly well, and not cost a pick. Or just wait for Sean Manaea.
- Gallardo was once a strikeout maven, but now he's a low-K guy who throws 5-6 inning starts. I feel like the A's already have a couple of those. He'll be 30 next season. May as well go after Mike Leake, who does similar things but is younger and doesn't cost a pick. Or stick with Kendall Graveman and Jesse Hahn.
- Iwakuma will be 35 and has always called Safeco home. Lackey is 37. You trying to give them 3 guaranteed years? I'm not. If you want an oldie, give me Bartolo Colon on a one-year deal -- he made 31 starts each of the last two years.
- Shark has thrown 200 innings each of the last three years, but in only one of those seasons was his ERA+ above 90. He'll be 31 next year and his velocity declined in 2015. I think he's a great buy-low candidate, but if part of the price is a draft pick then I'm not buying low enough. I'd give him a one-year pillow deal, but if that's what he wants then he should just accept the qualifying offer that's already on the table.
- I was in favor of grabbing Rasmus on a one-year deal last winter, and I might consider a three-year deal now, but the draft pick pushes me over the top. Mark Canha can provide power in LF anyway. If you must add more power, Korean slugger Byung-ho Park only costs money; as an international free agent, he's your best bet of recreating the Cespedes bargain this winter.
If Oakland gave up a pick to sign a serious star, then that would be a different story. But the kinds of players who are in their price range are generally the kinds of guys I wouldn't give up that extra asset for because they seem like marginal upgrades at best.
And remember, the farm is going to start contributing soon as well. We could see Manaea in Oakland next year, mixed in among the quartet of acquisitions from last winter (Graveman, Bassitt, Hahn, Nolin). A couple of those guys should step up behind Sonny, and in the meantime maybe they only need to add a one-year stopgap to reliably absorb some innings in 2016. As for the lineup, hitters like Rangel Ravelo, Chad Pinder, Renato Nunez and Matt Olson will be knocking on the door next summer; why block them by committing multiple years to a guy like Rasmus, when they might be ready to match his value (and at the minimum salary) as soon as 2017?
No, this doesn't seem like the time to be committing several years to a veteran. This seems like the time to keep the roster and payroll flexible, and to let the oh-so-close prospects shake out how they will based on their own readiness and not on whose bloated salary is entrenched ahead of them on the depth chart. The 2016 A's can compete if things break just right, but they shouldn't be in full win-now mode. They aren't one Chen or one Rasmus away from being serious contenders right now, and in fact we don't even know exactly what holes will need to be filled next season.
Waiting a year lets the roster picture come into better focus, and it opens the possibility of a more compelling free agent class to choose from. Granted, if they do strike next winter then they'll lose a much better pick, but maybe more of the front office will have been poached by then anyway. Maybe the team will be back in that winning mindset where the pennant is a closer goal than the future of the farm. And in the meantime, maybe the guy they draft next year at No. 40ish ends up being trade bait for the veteran they actually end up needing in their next playoff run.
The timing just doesn't make sense for a big purchase, or for the spending of anything except money. I could understand bringing back Zobrist if the bidding doesn't get too high, or Kazmir if his mediocrity in Houston makes him undervalued again. Otherwise, 2016 should be a year for Beane's team to get back to its roots -- graduating some exciting prospects and filling in the gaps with shrewd, short-term under-the-radar moves.