MT. LEBO – Free agency opened for business at 12:01 a.m. this morning and unlike in the NFL, there’s typically not much immediate action as players and teams methodically work the market. While the Pirated did sign Russell Martin early in the signing period last offseason, GM Neal Huntington has indicated he will let the market play out this offseason. (Prediction: James Loney signs on Christmas).
The most interesting development so far is which free agents were – and which were not – extended one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offers by their respective 2013 teams by Monday’s 5 p.m. deadline.
There are 13 players who were given qualifying offers:
OF Shin-Soo Choo
OF Carlos Beltran
OF Curtis Granderson
OF Jacoby Elsbury
SS Stephen Drew
2B Robinson Cano
1B Kendrys Morales
1B Mike Napoli
C Brian McCann
SP Ubaldo Jimenez
SP Ervin Santana
SP Hiroki Kuroda
(Note: If a team loses a free agent that was extended a QO, that team receives a compensation-round pick, which falls between rounds 1 and 2, and the team signing the player loses a first-round pick if they are picking between 11-30 in the first round or a second-round pick if drafting 1-10).
You can probably cross all of those above players off the Pirates’ free agent shopping list. And on a side note, what a weak free agent class, which as I wrote on Sunday, the new reality of the free agent labor pool is that it has contracted.
Not only are they all going to be expensive but they would all require the Pirates to give up their 2014 first-round pick. That’s too much treasure for a player 30 or older. (I thought Drew might be an interesting fit .. otherwise all those names were long shots).
What’s interesting is who was not on that list: AJ Burnett.
That’s interesting because he led NL starters in strikeout rate AND groundball rate (56.5). That’s a rare combination for a pitcher. According to Fangraphs.com’s WAR he had a better 2013 than the three starting pitchers on the list. (Baseball Reference only has Burnett with 1.7 WAR in 2013, which seems low).
That’s interesting because the $14.1 million one-year offer is below market value for a pitcher of Burnett’s ilk in 2014. See: Tim Lincecum’s two-year $37.5 million deal.
Now the Pirates have more information than we do because Burnett and his agent are not speaking to the media. Maybe Burnett is leaning toward retirement, or maybe they have already outlined the framework of an acceptable deal and maybe the Pirates don’t want to negotiate against themselves by setting an opening line at $14.1 million. Maybe Burnett really is either going to retire or pitch for the Pirates.
Still, the qualifying offer made sense for a couple of reasons:
A.) Can any team really trust a player not to test the free agent market? A two-year, $40 million offer might change loyalties.
A couple years ago in the NBA, the Cavaliers had a handshake agreement with Carlos Boozer. He said would not test the free agent market and would sign an extension. Boozer left for a near max deal with Utah. By making the qualifying offer, the Pirates would at least get back compensation if Burnett left. And honestly, a sandwich pick for a 37-year-old pitcher isn’t a bad deal. Perhaps that is an ideal outcome.
B.) The qualifying offer would also cut down on the possible outside market for Burnett. Teams would be much more hesitant to pursue Burnett if the cost included giving up a first-round pick.
The qualifying offer reduces demand and ensures compensation should the player leave. And even if the team has a fear the player might accept the QO, it typically doesn’t happen. I don’t believe a single player accepted a QO last offseason.
But at the end of the day it doesn’t sound like the Pirates extended a QO because they are not willing to pay Burnett $14.1 million, which could make up nearly 20 percent of their allotted 2014 payroll.
“Nothing has changed in terms of our situation with A.J.,” Huntington said Monday. “This decision is not a reflection of our valuation of A.J. It’s more a reflection of our desire to build a championship roster. A $14.1 million (offer) is a significant chunk of our estimated budget for next year.
“The challenge is, the valuation of a player and our ability to field a championship roster don’t always align.”
There is risk in giving a 37-year-old a significant percentage of team payroll.
Perhaps the Pirates believe they have enough pitching depth and want to spend their free agent resources at 1B, RF and SS.
But what Monday signals is that the the Pirates are not ready to significantly increase payroll to a level of what many fans desire, they are not ready to leave the neighborhood of small-market-level payrolls. While there are record revenues pouring into the game, there are still budgetary constraints in Pittsburgh.