The previous two offseasons have left us with a new, unexpected baseball term: Victim of the Qualifying Offer, which refers to a player who has spurned the offer in search of longer-term riches only to regret how he played his hand.

Doing away with Major League Baseball’s Type A-B free-agent system and implementing the one-year qualifying offers at the end of the last collective bargaining agreement made understanding free agency much simpler. Under the new rules, teams can offer their free agents a one-year contract worth the average salary of the game’s 125 highest-paid players, and if the player rejects the offer, that team receives a compensatory draft pick between the next year’s first and second rounds. Conversely, the team who signs that player loses its top unprotected pick.

Simple, right? Sure it is. Still, despite the new system being easier for the casual fan to comprehend, it has resulted in baffling outcomes for players who have either received, turned down and/or had their stock severely hindered in the free-agent market because they are attached to draft-pick compensation.

“You hate to say it, but it really messes up free agency for guys who worked hard,” Stephen Drew told insider Jon Heyman last February before he eventually signed with the Boston Red Sox (but not until late May). “A lot of people don’t want to give up that first-round pick, and that’s what it boils down to. It’s unusual.”

Based on what we have witnessed the last two falls, winters and even springs, this current offseason is actually the abnormality. When Melky Cabrera signed with the Chicago White Sox last week, it officially broke the Curse of the Qualifying Offer.

This offseason had 12 players receive and reject the qualifying offer of $15.3 million—none of the 33 players extended the one-year deal over the last three offseasons has accepted the offer—and only Max Scherzer and James Shields remain unsigned. However, their availability is all about the market playing out and cost rather than draft-pick compensation.

Last season, Drew was not alone in free-agent purgatory. Ervin Santana, Nelson Cruz and especially Kendrys Morales had their stocks crippled by draft-pick compensation. All of them ended up with one-year deals agreed to either late in the process or for significantly less money than they would have made by accepting the qualifying offer or both. Morales signed with the Minnesota Twins after the June amateur draft, when his compensation was voided.

This year, there figured to be at least one solid candidate to regret declining the qualifying offer had he actually done so. The Colorado Rockies offered the one-year deal to Michael Cuddyer, a shocking move considering the Rockies’ outfield logjam, that Cuddyer played in 280 games in his three seasons with Colorado and that he had severe Coors Field/road splits. Cuddyer seemed likely to accept the offer since a multiyear deal for him appeared uncertain, plus if he rejected the qualifying offer, he would have been the safe bet to see his free agency extend well beyond the new year.

But then the New York Mets came calling with a stunning two-year, $21 million contract. Knowing what had happened to other non-top-tier free agents before him, Cuddyer was set to accept the Rockies’ offer had the Mets deal not come together. 

Cuddyer, 36 next season, was the offseason’s first significant signing, and it was a sign of things to come in an offense-starved market. Virtually any hitter with a pulse became coveted, including those tied to a draft pick.

Victor Martinez, Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez were the first dominoes to tumble after Cuddyer, although they were never candidates to be QO victims. Russell Martin followed, but due to his defensive and pitch-framing attributes, he was also never likely to see his free agency extend into the late winter or early spring.

Cruz, who rejected last year’s offer and ended up almost inexplicably waiting until late February to sign a one-year, $8 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles, signed a four-year, $57 million deal with the Seattle Mariners before the winter meetings. This year, neither draft-pick compensation nor a Biogenesis suspension was a factor, and no one expected it to be.

Aside from Cuddyer, closer David Robertson was maybe the next likeliest to be a victim of the qualifying offer. Before Robertson, Rafael Soriano was the only other reliever to receive and reject a qualifying offer, and he ended up waiting until mid-January to get a deal in 2013. But being the lone experienced closer on the open market got Robertson a four-year deal from the White Sox at the winter meetings.

That signing left 30-something pitchers Santana, a victim last year, and Francisco Liriano as the only candidates for QO victimization.

“I never thought it would happen this way. I thought it would be easier,” Santana told USA Today Sports’ Jorge L. Ortiz last spring about being a QO victim. Fortunately, neither he nor Liriano would endure the same fate this offseason.

Both pitchers signed right after the winter meetings, helped by the fact that the market’s alternatives—Scherzer and Lester—were seeking nine-figure contracts. And just like that, no one was left to regret his decision of rejecting the qualifying offer.

The system is still too new to know if it is cyclical, but it seems reasonable to believe free agents will become victims based on market needs. This year has clearly been a buyer’s market, and even fringe-level free agents are benefiting, although current and expected rich TV deals could have something to do with this going forward.

Fair or unfair, the qualifying-offer system is in play for at least the next two offseasons before the collective bargaining agreement can be reworked. While there were no victims of the system this time around, odds tell us we will see the draft-pick compensation scare away suitors and leave players waiting through spring training for teams in the near future.


Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He spent the previous three seasons as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News and four years before that as the Brewers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.

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