The World Series will be completed in less than a week, which means the offseason is imminent. Almost right away, some key decisions will have to be made. Within five days of the World Series ending, contract options will need to be either exercised or declined and clubs will also have to choose whether or not to issue qualifying offers to eligible players.
A player is eligible for a qualifying offer if they have never received a QO before and spent the entire season with the same club. The value of the QO changes annually, calculated by taking the average salary of the 125 highest-paid players in the league. That means it generally rises as salaries increase over time, with this year’s QO expected to land around $20.5MM. If a player receives and rejects a qualifying offer, he becomes a free agent. If he then signs elsewhere, the signing team is subject to draft pick forfeiture and possibly other penalties, while their previous club receives draft pick compensation.
MLBTR is taking a look at the candidates, with one post focusing on the position players and this one looking at the pitchers.
These five are slam dunks to receive and reject the qualifying offer. Ohtani won’t pitch in 2024 after undergoing elbow surgery, but he is still expected to hit and will perhaps return to the mound in 2025. As one of the best hitters in baseball and the potential for two-way contributions down the road, he’s in line for a record-setting contract. Nola is coming off a down season relative to his own standards but has an excellent track record that will put him in line for a nine-figure deal even with the QO attached. Gray’s total earning power will be capped somewhat by the fact that he turns 34 in a week but his excellent work in 2023 should be able to get him a new deal around $20MM per year over multiple seasons. Snell just wrapped up an excellent campaign, finishing with a 2.25 ERA that could see him net a second career Cy Young award. That sets him up for a huge payday even after rejecting the QO. Hader has been one of the best relievers in the game for a long time and could challenge Edwin Díaz for the biggest contract ever for a reliever.
Kershaw has been eligible for a qualifying offer in each of the past two offseasons but didn’t receive one. That wasn’t a reflection of his performance but a sign of respect. In each case, Kershaw went into the winter not knowing if he wanted to come back to the Dodgers, jump to his hometown Rangers or retire. The Dodgers decided both times not to issue him the QO so that he wouldn’t have to make a rushed decision at the beginning of the offseason. Since Kershaw is once again undecided on his future, it seems fair to expect that the Dodgers will decline to extend the QO, though Kershaw would warrant one in a vacuum.
Lugo spent most of his career working out of the bullpen but hit free agency a year ago and drew plenty of interest as a starter. The Padres eventually brought him aboard via a two-year deal with a $15MM guarantee and incentives, as well as an opt-out after the first season.
The righty made the most of the opportunity, making 26 starts and logging 146 1/3 innings with a 3.57 earned run average. He stuck out 23.2% of batters faced, walked 6% and kept the ball on the ground at a 45.2% clip. There were some concerns about Lugo’s ability to hold up over a full season, both since he hadn’t had that kind of workload before and because he had a slight tear of his UCL in 2017 that wasn’t surgically addressed. But in 2023, Lugo made just one trip to the injured list, missing just over a month due to a calf strain.
Now that Lugo has proof of concept as a starter, he should have greater earning power than he did a year ago, even though he’s about to turn 34. Turning down the one year and $7.5MM left on his deal should be an easy call, but then the Padres will have a more difficult choice. It would be hard for Lugo to turn down a 2024 salary more than twice what he made in the prior season, so there would be a decent chance he accepts a QO. With the club reportedly looking to cut payroll, they may not want to take that chance.
Maeda has had his ups and downs in recent years but is heading into free agency with some momentum. He posted a 2.70 ERA in 2020 but then that figure jumped to 4.66 in 2021 before he underwent internal brace surgery on his elbow. He missed all of 2022 and then struggled early in 2023. In his fourth start of the season, he was shelled by the Yankees, allowing 10 earned runs in three innings. He was then placed on the injured list with a triceps strain while sporting an ERA of 9.00 for the year.
But after getting healthy, his results were much better. He was activated from the IL in late June and made 17 more appearances the rest of the way. He tossed 88 1/3 innings with a 3.36 ERA, 29% strikeout rate and 7% walk rate. Though his ERA for the whole year finished at 4.23, it seems fair to conclude that the early-season injury inflated that number.
The righty has never had a massive salary locked in. When he initially came over from Japan, the Dodgers signed him to an incentive-laden deal that guaranteed him $25MM over eight years. That came in the form of a $1MM signing bonus, $3MM salary each year and $6.5MM in incentives available each season based on games started and innings pitched. If he suddenly had a $20.5MM guarantee in front of him for his age-36 season, that would likely be very tempting.
The Twins aren’t one of the top payroll teams under normal circumstances and may need to cut back spending due to uncertainty around their TV revenues. They may not want to blow a huge chunk of their budget right at the beginning of the offseason, especially when their rotation is already in decent shape with Pablo López, Joe Ryan, Bailey Ober, Chris Paddack and Louie Varland currently pencilled in.
Wacha had some strong seasons earlier in his career with the Cardinals, but injuries became an issue more recently. He settled for a $3MM guarantee while joining the Mets for 2020, then was limited to 34 mediocre innings in the shortened season. The Rays took a shot on him in 2021 with another $3MM guarantee and he stayed healthy enough to log 124 2/3 innings with a 5.05 ERA. That relatively healthy campaign was enough to get him a one-year, $7MM deal with the Red Sox for 2022, and he then tossed 127 1/3 innings for that club with a 3.23 ERA.
He lingered on the open market for a while last offseason but eventually landed a four-year, $26MM guarantee from the Padres with a layered option structure. After the 2023 World Series, the Friars will have to decide whether or not to trigger two $16MM club options for 2024 and 2025, effectively a two-year, $32MM deal. If they decline, Wacha has a $6.5MM player option for 2024 and then $6MM player options for 2025 and 2026.
The righty is coming off another decent season. Though his shoulder landed him on the IL this year, just as it had in 2022 and 2020, he was able to make 24 starts and throw 134 1/3 innings with a 3.22 ERA. His 22.4% strikeout rate and 7.8% walk rate were both close to league average, though he may have benefitted from a .266 batting average on balls in play and 79.7% strand rate. His 3.89 FIP and 4.43 SIERA suggest his ERA might not be wholly sustainable.
As mentioned in the Lugo section above, the Padres are facing a budget crunch. Though they are likely pleased with Wacha’s results in 2023, would they want to give him a pay raise by triggering that option? If they pass on that, Wacha would likely turn down his player option and return to free agency. He would be eligible for a qualifying offer at that point, which would be a higher salary than the club option but on a shorter commitment. The Padres effectively have to decide between 1/20 or 2/32 or simply letting Wacha walk.
Some fans of the Yankees might shudder at the thought of the club bringing back Montas at a higher salary, but it’s not a completely crazy idea. Though he was hurt or ineffective from the moment he donned pinstripes, he’s not too far removed from some strong results. From 2019 to 2021, he posted an ERA of 3.51 over 336 innings pitched. In that time, he struck out 26.3% of batters faced, issued walks at a 7.3% clip and kept 43.7% of batted balls on the ground. Among pitchers with at least 300 innings pitched in that time, that ERA ranked him 21st in the majors. Even in 2022, prior to the infamous trade, he was still quite good. He registered an ERA of 3.18 in his 19 starts for the A’s that year.
Players returning from injury absences can often still find themselves big salaries on short-term deals. Noah Syndergaard got one year and $21MM from the Angels after missing most of 2020 and 2021 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Corey Kluber got $11MM from the Yankees even though he was 35 years old and made just eight appearances over the two previous campaigns. James Paxton got $10MM from the Red Sox under similar circumstances.
The Yankees have a couple of long-term contracts in their rotation with Gerrit Cole and Carlos Rodón. The latter hasn’t worked out well so far, with Rodón injured for much of 2023. The club needs rotation reinforcements with Michael King, Clarke Schmidt and Nestor Cortes pencilled into the back end, each of whom comes with some question marks. They could add another marquee free agent, but maybe they’d prefer to take a short-term flier on a player they have obviously liked for a long time, giving up four prospects to acquire him and Lou Trivino just over a year ago. They then agreed to a $7.5MM arbitration salary for 2023 even as questions about his shoulder lingered.
Though there’s an argument for the possibility, it ultimately seems like the odds are against this happening. The Montas trade has gone so poorly, both from an on-field perspective and a PR one, that it’s hard to envision the club doubling down. If Montas doesn’t receive the QO, he will likely be fielding one-year offers slightly below the $20.5MM salary range.
As mentioned up top, players are only eligible to receive the qualifying offer if they haven’t received one previously and also spent the entire year with just one MLB club. Rodriguez and Stroman, who can each opt out of their respective contracts, have each been issued a QO earlier in their career. Flaherty, Giolito and Montgomery were all traded midseason, which makes them ineligible as well. Players coming from other leagues aren’t eligible either, so Yamamoto and Imanaga won’t have the QO in play. For each of these pitchers, the lack of a QO helps their earning power since clubs won’t have to forfeit any draft picks to sign them.