Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

To Qualifying Offer, or not to Qualifying Offer (2015 version)

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Zimmermann will get a QO: who else? Photo Unk.

Zimmermann will get a QO: who else? Photo Unk.

We’ve talked around and about this issue.  Here’s a post entirely about it.

Which Nats pending Free Agents should the team offer a Qualifying Offer (QO) to this coming off-season?

First, for completion of Analysis, here’s the canonical list of FAs on the 40-man roster as of the end of the 2015 season (using Cots as a source):

  • Jordan Zimmermann, Dan Uggla, Doug Fister, Ian Desmond, Denard Span, Nate McLouth, Casey Janssen, Matt Thornton, Reed Johnson

So, lets just get this out of the way; we’re not talking about Uggla, McLouth, Janssen, Thornton or Johnson here.  Maybe the team could think about re-signing some of these guys to non-guaranteed/minor league deals, or negotiate an extension for one of the relievers.  I wouldn’t be entirely against that (especially for Thornton, who has been pretty durn good both in general (2.43 ERA on the year even if he got hit hard a couple times in August) and against lefties in particular (.203 BAA against lefties on the year), but this post is about the 4 big names.

Important links for this analysis: Here’s the total 2016 FA list at mlbtraderumors.com and their take on the 2016 FA power rankings.  We won’t know what the QO amount is until mid-October, but we can estimate that it will likely be somewhere around $16.3M.  Here’s my Qualifying Offer worksheet, listing every player who has gotten one and their eventual signed contract details with Average Annual Values (AAVs) listed.

By the way, here’s some salient points ignored for the purposes of this post, but which could make this post obsolete.

  1. I’m assuming that all pending FA players are acting rationally and in their own interest, and not working in concert with the players union and en masse turning down the qualifying offers.  So far, evidence shows this point may not be the case, as we’ve seen several players who inexplicably turned down QOs in the past.  The most blatant examples were Michael Cuddyer in 2014 and Kendrys Morales in 2013.  Cuddyer in particular was curious mostly for the timing; he signed a 2yr/$21M deal even before officially rejecting the 1yr/$15.3M qualifying offer, and it is hard not to make the argument that Cuddyer would have been much better suited to just taking the one-year deal for what was nearly the entire sum of the two year deal he eventually took.  I have no idea if Cuddyer just desperately wanted out of Colorado, which could be true … but then his destination didn’t support that argument either (prior to the season, the Mets were projected to be just another also-ran in the NL East; nobody predicted their run to 90 wins).
  2. I’m assuming that Mike Rizzo hasn’t already made a “hand shake” deal with any of these players to specifically NOT offer the QO, since it can be such a huge damper on their eventual FA market.  We have argued this conspiracy theory before, with lack of QOs to both Adam LaRoche but especially Edwin Jackson being examples of players who may have had a gentlemen’s agreement prior to departing the franchise.

Lets take these guys one by one.

  • Zimmermann: he’s a member of the likely “big 4” of FA starting pitchers to be available this off-season (also including David Price, Johnny Cueto and presumably Zack Greinke if/when he opts out of his existing deal).  Given Cueto’s issues at the end of 2015, I’d likely put Zimmermann as the third most valuable starter available.  And he’ll have no shortage of suitors.  We know he spurned signing a longer term deal on two different occasions (first when they negotiated his 2-year arbitration-buyout deal and then again last off-season) and the rumors are that the Nationals management/Rizzo are hesitant to commit major dollars to a post-Tommy John survivor.  He seems likely to sign a nine-figure deal somewhere, easily outdistancing the AAV of the QO.  Verdict: Offer the QO, he’ll reject it and signs elsewhere for more money than the Nats are willing to commit.
  • Desmond: he’s *easily* the best middle infielder on the FA market, a good combination of offense and defense whose best season was in 2012 but has three straight Silver Sluggers and sort of rebounded towards the end of his otherwise dismal 2015.  I agree with other analysts; he likely was a fool to turn down $107m as has been widely reported, and will be lucky to get 60% of that in the FA market.  I’m guessing he gets a four year deal with an AAV of $18M or so.  Verdict: Offer the QO, he’ll reject it and signs elsewhere because that’s kind of the corner he’s painted himself into, and the Nats have their ready-made replacement for him in Trea Turner.

Those two were obvious.  These next two are not.

  • Span: Another guy who picked a really bad year to miss 2/3rds of the season.  Span’s 2015 numbers are exactly in line with his excellent 2014 numbers, a point that his agent will be making this off-season. His injuries however could give teams pause.  He had “core” surgery in the spring, recurring back issues in the summer and then a torn Hip labrum in August that put him out for good.  Would you want to risk signing a 31yr old center fielder who just had hip surgery?  A good question.  Span does have competition in the CF free agency market, with decent players like Dexter Fowler, Colby Rasmus and Austin Jackson in the space.  The interesting tidbit that just popped up though is Span’s announcing that he’s switched agents and is now with the Scott Boras Corporation.  Boras is Mr. Free Agency, and has gleefully advised several prior clients to decline QOs and go head long into free agency only to watch them flounder (see Kyle Lohse, Stephen Drew and the aforementioned Morales as examples of players under Boras advisement who declined QOs in seemingly ill-conceived decisions).  Why did Span just switch to the super-agent Boras unless he needed someone to go out and drum up a good offer?  I think this is evidence enough that he’ll decline the QO and test the market.  And, even if Span accepts the QO (which I don’t think he would), he’d be competing with Michael Taylor for the starting CF job … on a team where our starting OF missed hundreds of games in 2015 and where the presumed 4th OF got 500+ at-bats this year.  So having Span around (who, by the way, hits lefty on a team that desperately needs lefty-hitting players) wouldn’t be the end of the world if he accepted the offer.  Verdict: Offer the QO, Boras will tell him to decline it anyway and the Nats will get an additional comp pick.
  • Fister: Prior to 2015, Fister was one of the more under-rated starters in the league and seemed like a safe bet to sign one of these 5yr/$65M deals that we see all the time.  Believe it or not, Fister ranked 17th in the league in fWAR among starters for the combined seasons 2011-2014.  17th!  That’s better than the likes of Cueto, Darvish, Strasburg, and a whole  host of “better” pitchers.  Unfortunately, he chose his walk year to fall off a cliff, with his average fastball velocity (which has already been trending down for 4 seasons) falling more than a MPH and a half just this year.  He was ineffective in the rotation and was removed, and has been pitching out of the bullpen for weeks.  He’s making $11.4M this year but it seems like he’s going to be lucky to get a 1yr $8M deal now from a team willing to give him a shot at the back of their rotation.  If the Nats were to offer him a QO and he took it,  he’d likely be the leagues most expensive long-man (now that Tim Lincecum is out of contract that is) and/or he’d block a spot that really needs to go to either Joe Ross or Tanner Roark.  I just don’t see how the team can risk extending one.  VerdictNo QO, and Fister tries to find a pillow contract with a team like Oakland or San Diego where he can likely put up decent numbers.

So, that’s my thinking.  Nats make three QOs, cut ties with everyone, replace internally across the board like they were always planning to, and net a slew of extra supplemental first rounders in a 2016 draft that is significantly deeper than this year’s.  Sounds good to me.

26 Responses to 'To Qualifying Offer, or not to Qualifying Offer (2015 version)'

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  1. Absolutely concur; QO’s for JZim, Desmond and Span. Good walkthrough of the issues and considerations Todd.

    John C.

    17 Sep 15 at 2:49 pm

  2. I think the Span decision comes down to the medicals. I have heard a 6 month rehab, which puts opening day in question. If there is a concern over his availability to start the season, it would rule out the QO for me. Doesn’t rule out bringing him back under other circumstances (and I would like him back for 1-2 years but that may not be possible), but the QO decision has to be made early in the rehab process, and I think it may be a long putt for the Nats to make, given their reluctance with other players.

    Can’t argue with your other three conclusions.

    Wally

    17 Sep 15 at 2:53 pm

  3. Agree with it all Todd.
    Before switching to Boras, there’s no way I’d QO to Span, but Boras’s ego won’t allow him to let Span accept and now they can walk away with another pick.

    Mark L

    17 Sep 15 at 3:08 pm

  4. I did consider the hip labrum issue; someone else well known recently had the surgery right? Oh yeah here it is: http://www.denverpost.com/rockies/ci_26332939/troy-tulowitzki-has-torn-labrum-will-miss-rest

    Troy frigging Tulowitzki had the same thing done at nearly the same time last August. 5 month recovery time. He made 2015’s opening day.

    Useless fact of the day: Tulowitzki went to the same high school that my dad did! Fremont HS in Sunnyvale, CA. That’s an old high school (sorry Dad).

    Todd Boss

    17 Sep 15 at 3:54 pm

  5. Nobody’s arguing? Damn I did the post too well. I should have said something dumb to get a reaction and more comments. Isn’t that what the cool kids aka Radio show hosts do? :-)

    Todd Boss

    17 Sep 15 at 3:55 pm

  6. We’re not the cool kids; everyone on this site has brain.

    Mark L

    17 Sep 15 at 7:47 pm

  7. Agree as well. Good analysis.

    Andrew R

    17 Sep 15 at 11:40 pm

  8. OK, let’s shake things up. Is the piece here about what the Nats *should* do, or what they *will* do? They may be two different things. Todd makes a good case for offering to Span, but his medical issues make me wary. The Nats do need a solid 4th OF who is starter quality, and *if healthy*, Span could cover a WAR valuation of $16M with 500 ABs or so. But there’s no guarantee of the health or the ABs, and no one wants another McLouth sinkhole.

    But here’s the bottom line: in every borderline offer/no offer situation in the past, the Nats have not offered. That goes double when dealing with Boras clients. So my prediction is that they won’t offer to Span, simply because that’s what they do.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I’d be very open to re-signing Span for a couple of years, with the understanding that he’d be the 4th OF, but at no more than $10M/per. The complication here is Boras. He’ll hold out Span until Feb./Mar. (all the more so if waiting for the medical reports to improve), and the Nats like to fill slots like these in Dec. If Span does come back, I think it would be sort of a last-resort, late offseason thing for both team and player.

    The other QO questions seem no-brainers: offers to JZim and Desi, no offer to Fister. Going into the season, it looked possible that the Nats would be able to offer to all four and have a truckload of draft picks, but that hasn’t played out as planned, like a lot of other things. You don’t hear much talk now of trying to re-sign JZim and particularly Desi, either. Heck, going into the year, some people were saying to re-sign all four. After the seasons they’ve had, that’s painful to contemplate, particularly with Desi and Fister. I wish them all well, as they all seem like class acts who have meant a lot to the team, but it’s time to say goodbye.

    KW

    18 Sep 15 at 6:59 am

  9. The complication with Denard Span signing that deal (KW’s 2 years/$10M AAV) isn’t Scott Boras, it’s that span would be nuts to accept that deal to be a 4th OF. Really, he’d be nuts to accept that deal to make MAT a 4th OF. Span has put up 11 bWAR/10.8 fWAR over the previous three seasons and put up 1.5 fWAR in just 61 games this season. He’s going to get an offer that guarantees more – if he signs for “only” $10M per it would be for a longer term, and if he signs for just two years the AAV would be considerably higher. He’s not in a Doug Fister “prove you can still play” situation. Span has proved that when he’s even mostly healthy he’s good.

    John C.

    18 Sep 15 at 9:02 am

  10. I would agree that Span would be worth more to other teams, but not to the Nats. That said, if the Nats did force him to turn down a QO, he would become one of the those limbo guys like Todd mentioned, as teams would be very wary of giving up a draft pick to sign him.

    KW

    18 Sep 15 at 9:19 am

  11. Another quick thought. Boz is out today with a strong call for the Nats to be vigilant in trying to extend Harper sooner rather than later. I concur, as I think many of us do. Do the Nats really want to risk ticking off Boras by slapping the QO on Span when they’ve got much bigger fish to fry with Scotty? I agree with you guys that the by-the-book GM play would be to make the QO to Span and collect the draft pick. But I don’t think it’s going to happen here. Frankly, I don’t think Ted would let it happen, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

    KW

    18 Sep 15 at 1:33 pm

  12. Span – if he wasn’t hurt, I think he is looking at a Melky contract at least, and likely an additional year. But he is hurt, and it is hard for me to know how much to discount for that. I do not think it results in a QO though, because it’s a high AAV and limited to 1 yr. so an extended rehab directly undercuts your bargain. I don’t think the decision will have anything to do with Boras though.

    Harper – of course I’d love to have the player, but before knowing the cost it’s another one that’s hard to say. Harper is younger than Stanton and just had a year 50% better than anything he ever put up. What does it take, 12/$400m? Gotta be something in that neighborhood. I dunno. That’s a lot of beans, even if they aren’t mine.

    Wally

    18 Sep 15 at 2:21 pm

  13. Boras probably won’t be the ultimate deciding factor in the Span QO equation, but his involvement does matter. EJax and Soriano were both in line for QOs but walked away Scott-free. I still can’t believe they didn’t tag Jackson, who was in line for (and got) a big contract.

    Incidentally, the pick that the Cubs weren’t forced to give up in 2013 resulted in Kris Bryant. The Nats wouldn’t have gotten that #2 pick, which would have gone to the Rockies (Bryant in Coors???), but Aaron Judge was among the comp picks that year.

    KW

    18 Sep 15 at 3:34 pm

  14. What will the Nats do? I don’t think they offer Span a QO; they seem to risk averse in that regard.

    Harper: no way he extends or gives a team discount. Boras wants him in FA so Boras can get his cut of the largest FA contract ever signed. He hits free agency after the 2018 season. The Nats basically have three years to cash in before he’s gone to one of the teams with “NY” or “LA” in their title. Who else coudl afford him? Can you frigging imagine Harper with the short porch in Yankee stadium?? He might hit 60.

    Todd Boss

    18 Sep 15 at 4:15 pm

  15. I adree on Harper, Todd.
    Just enjoy him these next 3 years and just wave goodbye after.
    This year his numbers are truly historic and the team is still mediocre. They would have a sub .500 record if there weren’t 2 AAA teams in the division.

    It’s very important to factor Boras’s ego in to all this.

    Mark L

    19 Sep 15 at 12:01 am

  16. I would say that at best, the Nats have a one in three chance to get a long-term contract with Harper, and that may be optimistic. But what other choice do they have but to try? If this season is an indicator, he truly is the generational talent we were promised, just getting warmed up at 22. Ted Lerner and Rizzo have the relationship with Boras necessary to at least start the conversation. It would be an insane deal, probably 15+ years and approaching $500M total value. That’s what Boras would want. The Nats likely would prefer just extending for six or seven.

    We’ll see. I’m not holding my breath, but I sure hope they try. If there’s a chance, it will happen this offseason (best shot) or next. Once he gets within the two-season window, he’s walking.

    KW

    20 Sep 15 at 7:36 pm

  17. Plus an opt out, or two.

    I don’t see it happening, and I am not sure I want it to. A contract like that has more downside than upside, I’d say, and is potentially franchise altering to the bad. Look, Bryce is amazing, certainly, but baseball isn’t basketball. It needs numerous core guys, not one superstar. And I think there is a decent argument to say that this year, similar to Trout of the last year or two, might actually be the best year of Bryce’s career. I mean, it is historic after all.

    While I do think baseball payrolls are rising to another level, and a team like the Nats may be able to handle 5 or so $100m contracts at once down the road (not now, certainly), I think Mark’s right, just enjoy the next three years. He is going to have to go to LAD or NYY, I think, but we may very well have the best seasons of Harp’s career.

    Wally

    20 Sep 15 at 8:45 pm

  18. Hmm. Last offseason, we had people lining up to say that the Nats should pay the clearly declining Desmond $20M per for six or seven year to extend him. Now I advocate extending the best player in baseball, probably five or six years before his peak, and I’m left standing alone? What gives? I’m fine with that; #IStandWithBryce.

    Too much, you say? Too much compared to what? The Lerners are among the richest owners in pro sports. They have the money. I spent the first few years after the publicly built stadium opened furious at how little of it they were spending on the team. They’ve opened their pockets some recently, but it’s time for an enduring gesture. Ted can’t take it with him, after all. Sure, the NYC and LA teams have significantly more TV money. Even when the MASN deal gets settled, it won’t be in that league, but it probably would be enough of a bump to pay the Harper freight and more. (Also, the Werth contract would be off the books before a Harper extension would kick in.)

    Would the Nats really save by not signing him? Let’s do some Fangraphs math. Harper, if healthy, is establishing himself at the extraordinary level of a 10-win player. Per Fangraphs, each win share is worth around $7M, a number that will go up over the life of a contract. To replace 10 wins right now, you’re looking at $70M a season. If you’re paying Bryce $35M, you’re getting them at half price.

    Of course Bryce won’t average 10 wins a season over the life of the long-long-term contract that Boras would want. But how many would he have to average to make it worth it? Let’s go whole hog and say the contract is $500M over 15 years, including the three arb years. $500M / $7M per win = 71 wins over 15 years, which works out to 4.7 wins per year. Remember, this isn’t a Pujols or Cano contract where you’re paying totally for post-30 decline years. You’re getting rise and peak as well. The cost-recoup odds on Bryce are a lot better than they are on Max (or on any other $100M+ pitcher, for that matter). I’d bet on Bryce hitting 71 wins over 15 years, probably without much sweat.

    Or would you rather your 2019 OF be Taylor, Robles, and Stevenson?

    Just stirring the pot. Again, I have already acknowledged that it is unlikely that Boras would do a long-term deal. But if any duo can at least get to first base in that discussion, it would Ted Lerner and Mike Rizzo.

    KW

    21 Sep 15 at 12:51 pm

  19. KW, I’m advocating a blank check, so I’m kind of with you.

    Except given that he’s only 22, why can’t he give 10 WAR seasons for the next 10-12 years? Is $40MM/yr really a lot of money for that? 12 years, $400MM feels like a good deal, especially given his marquee value added to his baseball skills.

    I think the Nats get a deal done here. This offseason. $400MM is too much money for Harper to pass up 3 years from free agency.

    Andrew R

    21 Sep 15 at 1:50 pm

  20. I agree with making a big push to sign Harper; I’m just not going to be furious if the $$ figure gets high enough that the Nationals/Lerners walk away. It’s always easy to spend OPM (“Other People’s Money”).

    There’s a dream scenario and a nightmare scenario in either event, whether they sign Harper or not. I’m happy the Nats have him this season and for three more after this.

    John C.

    21 Sep 15 at 4:19 pm

  21. I’ll be glad when this season is over. You invest a lot of time in a team and this team has been just too frustrating to watch. This group from the manager on down cannot handle even the mildest bit of pressure.

    Marty C

    24 Sep 15 at 10:26 am

  22. The Nats have been unwatchable for me for several weeks now. I made the mistake of watching Miracle Max against the O’s and of course he gives up the homer. Maybe when they play the kids I’ll watch some more.

    So how about a contest? Pick the team our FA signs with:
    JZimm : ARI
    Desi : NYM
    Span : SD
    Fister : SEA

    Fister was the hardest one, since he’ll likely linger for a while.

    Wally

    25 Sep 15 at 1:30 pm

  23. I’ve kept watching. Like Marty noted, it’s been miserable, all the more so since the Mets have done everything possible to keep the Nats in the race. The O’s sweep becomes just the latest in a long series of lost opportunities.

    I don’t want to hate on Max too much, because in general, I love his attitude, the way he attacks, the fact that he’s actively sought to mentor guys like Harper and Ross, etc. But here’s the deal: the Nats have lost 15 times that he’s started this year. Sometimes it has been the team’s fault for not scoring enough; sometimes it has been his; sometimes Matt’s for leaving him in too long. The Tigers only lost seven times when he started in ’13, nine times last year. Sigh.

    Sorry for floating the big Harper thing and then not having much of a chance to get back to it. I certainly agree with John that the number can’t get too ridiculous without it making sense for the Nats to walk away. (Although it’s hard to define where “ridiculous” begins if talks start at half a billion!) I also agree with Wally that Boras would insist on an opt-out (or two), so the Nats wouldn’t be on the hook for the full freight. So really, we’d be looking at the three arb years plus three or four years behind – the absolute career peak, as Bryce would turn 30 at the end of the seventh season. The deal would look a lot like Stanton’s, where the really big bucks don’t kick in until after the opt-out.

    Of course Stanton is a cautionary tale of someone who can’t stay healthy. Bryce reminds me more of the brilliant Ken Griffey Jr., who hit a few too many walls along the way and was never the same after 30. Bryce’s early career numbers have been similar to Junior’s.

    KW

    25 Sep 15 at 1:51 pm

  24. Wally – I could see Fister at the back end of nearly every West Coast rotation, although I doubt Billy would pay him a longer FA contract. But the Giants, Dodgers, Angels, Pods, and M’s all have needs, and money.

    Speaking of the Pods, they’re said to be floating Tyson Ross. If they Nats don’t think they can be comfortable filling their rotation from within, I’d be a lot more interested in trading for Ross than signing an FA starter.

    I could see Desi on either side of NYC. The scuttlebutt for years has been that he’s had his eye on replacing Jeter. I wonder whether the FLA teams would show any interest in paying him enough to bring him to his home area.

    Span is a total wild card, based on health, whether he gets slapped with the QO, etc. He could fill a role on a lot of teams, including the Nats, but Boras is sure to price a lot of the competition out of the market.

    JZimm seems to have benefited in the FA starter pecking order by Cueto’s post-trade struggles. We’ll see. I’ve always had Jordan ticketed for the Cubs, or at least somewhere in the Midwest.

    KW

    25 Sep 15 at 2:01 pm

  25. Officially eliminated on Sept. 26. RIP, 2015 season.

    KW

    26 Sep 15 at 11:16 pm

  26. New posted on this. I’ve been busy as hell and have really been unable to spend much time on the blog for the past month or so.

    Todd Boss

    27 Sep 15 at 1:45 pm

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