The qualifying offer has impacted the free agent market for the last 10 offseasons, but it wasn’t clear if there would be an eleventh as Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association engaged in labor talks last winter. When the lockout was over and the new collective bargaining agreement was finally settled, one sticking point remained — the implementation of an international player draft. If the union agreed to this draft, the league would have agreed to scrap the qualifying offer system altogether.
However, July’s deadline for a decision on an international draft came and went without any new agreement, and thus the status quo of the QO will remain for the 2022-23 free agent class. As such, we can now look ahead and predict which players will or could receive qualifying offers from their teams at the end of the season.
A quick refresher on the QO rules. The qualifying offer is a one-year contract with a salary figure determined by averaging the top 125 salaries of all MLB players. Last year’s figure was $18.4MM, and it’s safe to estimate that this winter’s QO will be worth somewhere in the range of $18-19MM. Any free agent is eligible to be issued a qualifying offer unless a) they have received one in past trips to free agency, or b) they haven’t spent the entire 2022 season with their current organization. For instance, the Padres can’t issue Josh Bell a qualifying offer because Bell was only acquired at the trade deadline.
If a player accepts the qualifying offer, he returns to his current team on that one-year deal in the $18MM-$19MM range. (The player can also negotiate a longer-term extension with his team after accepting that QO, as Jose Abreu did with the White Sox in November 2019.) While some free agents have indeed taken the qualifying offer, the large majority reject the deal in search of a richer and lengthier contract. If a player rejects a QO and signs elsewhere, their new team must give up at least one draft pick and possibly some international draft pool money, while their former team will get a compensatory draft pick in return.
With several prominent names in this year’s free agent market eligible for the QO, let’s look at some of the candidates, starting with position players.
Easy Calls: Nolan Arenado (Cardinals), Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox), Willson Contreras (Cubs), Aaron Judge (Yankees), Brandon Nimmo (Mets), Dansby Swanson (Braves), Trea Turner (Dodgers)
There isn’t much drama in any of these decisions, as these players are all obvious candidates to be issued qualifying offers that will be rejected. Nimmo is perhaps the only name on this list that rates as a bit of a surprise, yet he has quietly posted strong numbers over his seven seasons in New York, including a quality 2022 campaign. Most importantly, Nimmo has also stayed healthy, playing in 104 of the Mets’ 113 games — this is already the second-most games played for Nimmo in any season of what has been an injury-plagued career.
Arenado and Bogaerts aren’t guaranteed to be free agents, as either could pass on exercising opt-out clauses in their current deals. However, Bogaerts is a virtual lock to opt out, and Arenado is having such a great season that he should be able to comfortably top the $144MM he is owed through from 2023-27. Since Arenado has been vocal about how much he likes playing for the Cardinals, an extension is certainly possible before Arenado even hits the open market, with the Cards perhaps tacking another guaranteed year and more money onto the deal to prevent the third baseman from opting out.
Easy Contract-Option Calls: Tim Anderson (White Sox)
The White Sox hold club options on Anderson’s services for both the 2023 and 2024 seasons, with next year’s option being worth $12.5MM (with a $1MM buyout). Though he could technically be a free agent, there is zero doubt the Sox will exercise Anderson’s 2023 option, so a qualifying offer is a moot point.
Borderline Cases: Mitch Haniger (Mariners), J.D. Martinez (Red Sox), Jurickson Profar (Padres), Anthony Rizzo (Yankees)
Rizzo’s two-year, $32MM free agent deal with the Yankees includes an opt-out clause after this season, and it would seem like the first baseman (who just turned 33 earlier this week) will indeed test the open market again. Rizzo’s first full season in the Bronx has seen him hit .224/.342/.504 with 27 home runs, with the fifth-best wRC+ (139) of his distinguished career. Rizzo’s age, home/road splits, and first base-only status will limit his market to some extent, and draft-pick compensation via the qualifying offer will also make other teams wary. But, Rizzo was still able to land a multi-year pact last winter coming off a lesser platform year, so he should be able to match or better that pact again. Rizzo has quickly become a clubhouse and fan favorite in New York, so this could be another situation where a player is convinced to pass on an opt-out due to a contract extension.
Haniger has appeared in only 15 games this season, due to both a high ankle sprain that required a trip to the 60-day injured list, as well as a two-week stint on the COVID-related injury list in April. He has been on a tear since returning to action last week, but if his numbers settle down, then it seems likely that Seattle won’t issue a qualifying offer. However, if Haniger continues to mash over the remainder of the season and returns to his 2021 form, the Mariners face an interesting decision.
A late-season hot streak could do enough for Haniger’s market that he might reject a qualifying offer, as since Haniger turns 32 in December, this could be his best shot at a lucrative multi-year deal. On the flip side, he could still choose to accept the QO, knowing that his checkered injury history could work against him in free agency — Haniger can bank the one-year QO payday and then hope for a full and healthy 2023 season as a better platform for that longer-term deal. From the Mariners’ perspective, paying around $19MM for Haniger could be seen as a worthwhile investment, especially since the team doesn’t know what to expect from Kyle Lewis and Jarred Kelenic heading into 2023.
Martinez turns 35 on August 21 and is still posting above-average (120 wRC+) numbers, hitting .281/.346/.443 with nine home runs over 422 plate appearances. That still represents a significant power dropoff from Martinez’s norms, and he has been a DH-only player this season. Even with the looming threat of losing Bogaerts from the Red Sox lineup, Boston might still pass on issuing a QO to Martinez out a concern that he might accept, since chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom seems to be looking for more flexibility with both the roster and the payroll.
Profar is another less-likely candidate to receive a qualifying offer, even if he is also playing well. Between good offensive (119 wRC+, 12 homers, .254/.345/.416 over 467 PA) and defensive (+5 Defensive Runs Saved, +1.8 UZR/150 in left field) numbers, Profar has been a 2.8 fWAR player in 107 games with San Diego this season, a nice bounce-back from an underwhelming 2021. With a player option attached to his 2023 services, Profar can either earn $7.5MM next season or take the $1MM buyout and test the open market.
At the very least, it would seem like Profar will indeed opt out and try to secure a longer-term contract, but it would seem like a reach if the Padres issued a qualifying offer. Profar will only be 30 on Opening Day, so he could accept the QO to lock in that one-year payday, and then be on track to test the market again at age 31. Considering the Padres might exceed the luxury tax threshold for the second straight year and will face a lot of free agent decisions this winter, they probably won’t want to risk Profar being bumped into the $19MM salary range. Profar could be another extension candidate, given president of baseball operations A.J. Preller’s belief in Profar’s ability dating back to their days in the Rangers organization.
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