It’s been an active start to the MLB offseason, with a couple of notable trades and three potential free agents becoming the first group to accept a ‘qualifying offer’ from their existing teams under the current system.
The idea of the qualifying offer is that it allows a team the chance to keep hold of a player that they’ve had for at least one full season rather than see them leave as a free agent with their contract having come to an end. In practice, that’s not really the way teams see it. They expect the player to leave and get a multi-year contract elsewhere; however by putting a qualifying offer on the table the team will then get an extra draft pick for the following year’s amateur draft as compensation.
The offer is set by MLB based on the average salary of the highest earning 125 players in the league that year. This year the qualifying offer was set at $15.8m, essentially £200k per week at current conversion rates, so it’s a sizeable salary on its own and teams will normally only offer it when they don’t expect a player to take it (i.e. it being judged they will be able to get a contract worth much more than $15.8m on the free agent market).
The Baltimore Orioles will be fine with catcher Matt Wieters accepting their qualifying offer. Had he not missed significant time due to elbow surgery over the past two seasons, Wieters likely would have been off and away, so getting at least one more season from him is a bonus for Baltimore. The Los Angeles Dodgers have more than enough money to make pitcher Brett Anderson’s $15.8m worth paying too.
The one team that perhaps isn’t quite so content is the Houston Astros. Outfielder Colby Rasmus is a decent player, as highlighted by his home-run hitting exploits in the playoffs a month ago, so he is hardly a booby prize, but it certainly looks like they were hoping to get a draft pick out of the offer rather than expecting to give a fair chunk of money to him, bearing in mind they look likely to have a relatively modest payroll again in 2016. That’s the risk you take with making the offer though.
Money is plentiful in MLB so for many teams those sort of risks are ones that can be absorbed easily enough. It’s a different proposition with trades though. The risk there is that the players you give away come back to make you look foolish for years to come. Still, if you want to sign a good player, you have to accept that you’ll need to part with good players (or more commonly good prospects) to get them.
The two biggest trades of the week resulted in the Los Angeles Angels acquiring shortstop wizard Andrelton Simmons from the Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox getting elite closer Craig Kimbrel from the San Diego Padres. The initial reactions suggest the Padres got a good haul of young talent for Kimbrel – less than one year after they gave up several prospects to acquire him from Atlanta – whilst the Braves’ return for Simmons was slightly underwhelming. As always with trades, only time will tell quite how they will be judged in the end.
There are two main subplots from the trades.
The first is that Dave Dombrowski has been brought into the Red Sox’s organisation as President of Baseball Operations with the intention of the team being aggressive in turning around their fortunes in short order. For a club with such significant resources, both financial and in terms of talented staff, it is incredible that they’ve produced a team that’s finished bottom of the AL East in three out of the last four seasons, even if the glory of their 2013 World Series triumph in the other year has dulled the pain of those losing seasons quite considerably. It should be expected that Boston will be one of the most active teams this offseason as they look to get back to the play-offs.
The second is that the Atlanta Braves’ decision to move to a new ballpark for the 2017 season onwards has had a far-reaching impact on the player market. First baseman Freddie Freeman is the only notable player left from their successful 2013 squad now that Simmons has been traded away. Kimbrel will be playing for the Red Sox under the four-year contract that he signed with the Braves back in February 2014 when it looked like he would be with the team for years to come, whilst this year’s free agent class is led by outfielder Jason Heyward who will be testing the market after being traded to the St Louis Cardinals a year ago by Atlanta.
The success of the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros this year has shown the value of stripping everything down and starting again, just as the Braves are now doing. However, teams normally take this route in response to being left with an ageing and expensive roster well past its best. The difference in Atlanta’s case is that their 2013 team had a core of players who looked like being at the heart of a consistent contender for a good few years.
Some dreadful bad luck with injuries to their pitching staff played into the thinking that they should regroup and look to the future, but maybe that will prove to be a mistake. With the two Wild Card format and the apparent absence of any real dominant force in the game at present time, it’s becoming more the case that if there is a realistic chance of making it to the playoffs in a given year, teams will go for it rather than waiting for a perfect year that may never come.
The Braves have now amassed a deep group of prospects from which they hope to form the nucleus of a winning team in a few years’ time, yet they may find they gave up on a group that had a better chance of adding another World Series to the sole 1995 triumph since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966.
The unpredictable nature of baseball is summed up by pitcher Kris Medlen. He pitched brilliantly for the Braves as they won the NL East in 2013 and was one of the core players at the heart of the team, before he suffered an elbow injury in Spring Training 2014 requiring Tommy John surgery and a long spell on the sidelines. The Braves are now in a rebuilding spell, whilst Medlen has just earned a World Series ring as a reliever with the Kansas City Royals.