Kyle Lohse's long free agency will finally come to an end. The pitcher has agreed to terms with the Milwaukee Brewers just one week before Opening Day, putting to rest any fears that he might not join a team until after the amateur draft.
Still, while it's clear now that Lohse will not have to wait until halfway through the season to find himself a home, his saga might leave behind some lingering concerns for other free agents. After all, Kyle Lohse, for all his flaws, has provided the Cardinals with 400 innings of 3.11 ERA ball over the last two years.That's 15th best in the game, and somehow not good enough for prospective buyers to bite until March?
The message has been sent to prospective free agents: qualifying offers are not something to take lightly. Teams are valuing first-round drat picks higher than ever, and shying away from longer contracts (unless, of course, we're talking about the Los Angeles teams). $13+ million is a lot to make for one year of work, and even if it doesn't come with a long-term contract, at some point a player has to wonder how much they're going to realistically see on the open market.
The Red Sox have hopefully been paying close attention to the reaction from players to Lohse's predicament, gauging just how well-understood that lesson is. After all, they could have as many tough decisions to make on qualifying offers as any team next year.
For one of the free agents to be, the choice will be easy. Jacoby Ellsbury gets a qualifying offer so long as he's not completely awful. After all, look how much B.J. Upton and Michael Bourn received this offseason. Speedy center fielders don't have to hit that well to make ridiculous money, and there's no way Scott Boras tells Ellsbury to take the offer and run even if he doesn't come close to his earlier offensive peak.
The rest, however, are not so clear. The Red Sox will see the contracts of the following players end after 2013:
- Stephen Drew, already making $9.5 million, who from 2008 to 2010 had an OPS of .800 as a shortstop.
- Mike Napoli, who can make $13 million this year if he stays healthy, but has a degenerative hip issue.
- Joel Hanrahan, who has been a dominant closer for the last couple of years and has a chance to really secure his reputation by performing in the AL East.
- Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a catcher with a bat who could well have some of his flaws covered up by having a platoon partner in David Ross.
The Red Sox probably would've been just fine giving a qualifying offer to any or all of those players after a good season in 2013. Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are each at offensively bankrupt positions. Rafael Soriano just set the market pretty high for closers with his $28 million deal with the Nationals. Salty might be a bit of a stretch, but the idea of three-year, $30-36 million contract wouldn't seem to be beyond the realm of possibility after a good year. Mike Napoli is a bit of an outlier given his hip, but we'll get to that later.
The point is that Salty, Drew, and Hanrahan might have once been considered safe to offer qualifying offers to regardless of whether or not the Sox were really interested in bringing them back in 2014 at that price. If a player is offered three years and $33 million, while they may not make as much per year as on a $14 million one-off, they'll often go for both the security, and the possibility for even larger amounts offered by the open market.
Now, however, that message has been sent. Without a qualifying offer, Jarrod Saltalamacchia could probably draw that three-year deal. With one, however, does he have any chance? How good will Drew have to be for teams to risk both their money and a draft pick on a player with a reputation for being fragile? Can Hanrahan find another team as willing to spend on a closer as the Nationals?
Simply put, if the Red Sox are planning to give any of these players qualifying offers in the case of a positive season, they have to do so assuming that they'll accept.
The good news for Boston is that an accepted offer is not necessarily a bad thing. One-year deals are often worth overpaying on, after all, for the future flexibility they bring. If the Sox have no other answer at catcher, and the Ross - Saltalamacchia combo works well in 2014, it could make sense to go again, even at that price. If Xander Bogaerts isn't ready to take over at short, yet, and Jose Iglesias hasn't proven his ability to hit, another year of Drew could be just what the doctor ordered. And of course you can never have enough relief pitching.
In fact, for Mike Napoli you might say the Red Sox have a perpetual option on the catcher for whatever the qualifying offer is set at. After all, who's going to sign a player with a degenerative hip condition to a long-term contract? By placing the added cost of a draft pick on him, the Red Sox can pretty much guarantee the answer is no one.
That unique situation aside, it's a decision the Red Sox will have to make on a case-by-case basis. They are set to have a good deal of money to spend for 2014, and hopefully with the arrival of Jackie Bradley Jr. and others, they'll be spending it to fill relatively few gaps. They just have to recognize that, when offering qualifying offers, they can't count on getting off scott free every time.
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