Qualifying offer price for 2015 increases to $15.3M

Detroit Tigers v Cleveland IndiansWhile MLB narrows its focus on the field this week, with the American League Championship Series now set between the Orioles and Royals and the NLCS down to the Cardinals against the winner of the Giants-Nationals series, the business of business of baseball continues for all 30 teams as the offseason gets underway.

And one of the first orders of business was determining the new qualifying offer figure, which will be $15.3 million, as announced Tuesday, based on the average salary of the top 125 paid players in the game.

That’s another significant hike from the original $13.3 million after the new Collective Bargaining Agreement introduced the qualifying offer plan in 2013 and the $14.1 million from last year. What will be interesting now is to see how players — and teams — deal with qualifying offers this offseason after Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew turned down the $14.1M last year and then wound up having to sit out the first two months of the season before struggling upon their late arrivals.

Of the 22 players who received qualifying offers in the first two years of the system, all 22 have rejected the guaranteed one-year deal and pursued free agency. But with the Draft pick compensation tied to those players, the lower tier of those qualified free agents have discovered a tough market and Morales and Drew both paid a pretty good price for rejecting the one-year deals.

Thus it will be interesting to see how things play out this offseason, with clubs having until the fifth day after the completion of the World Series to extend qualifying offers.

This isn’t a scenario that will impact the Mariners as directly this winter, however. Offering Morales a qualifying offer last year was a no-brainer. With Scott Boras as his agent, the veteran DH made it clear he was setting a high market for himself by turning down multi-year deals with Seattle in the three-year, $30 million range. The Mariners knew he would turn down a qualifying offer, so it was an easy choice to make him that offer and give themselves a chance to recoup a high draft pick in return if he signed elsewhere.

As it turned out, Morales and Boras misread the market, he didn’t sign anywhere else until after the June Draft and Seattle wound up with no draft pick compensation. In the ultimate twist, they wound up acquiring Morales by trade from the Twins for reliever Stephen Pryor six weeks later, a move that didn’t pay great dividends when Morales hit just .207 with seven home runs and 24 RBIs in 59 games with Seattle.

There’ll be no repeat scenario of the qualifying offer to Morales this winter and not just because he played poorly in 2014. Players traded in-season can’t be extended qualifying offers. So Morales, one of seven Mariners headed to free agency upon conclusion of the World Series, will be free to go wherever he wants.

Morales has expressed interest in staying in Seattle, but he said the same thing last season and then turned down some pretty good offers. This time I find it extremely unlikely the Mariners will pursue Morales’ return unless his price drops dramatically and other options fall through.

The Mariners certainly will have interest in retaining some of their other pending free agents, but none fall anywhere near the salary structure that would call for a qualifying offer. Reliever Joe Beimel is a solid bet to return, but he made the team as a non-roster invitee on a Minor League deal last spring and won’t break the bank. Same story with outfielder Endy Chavez, who has made the team on Minor League deals the past two seasons.

Veteran right-hander Chris Young figures to be the most-pursued of Seattle’s free agents after his strong comeback season, going 12-7 with a 3.85 ERA in 30 outings. Young certainly improved his negotiating strength with his first healthy season since 2007 and will cost a lot more than the $1.5 million base salary he played on this year, but he’s certainly not a $15.3 million qualifying offer candidate with his injury history.

Seattle’s other free agents are outfielder Chris Denorfia, catcher Humberto Quintero and outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, who spent the year on the restricted list. Again, none of those three are big-money targets, nor was DH Corey Hart, who already became a free agent after being designated for assignment.

So the Mariners won’t play the qualifying offer game with their own players, though it’s possible they’ll pursue other teams qualified free agents. They did it last year with Robinson Cano, sacrificing their own top non-protected Draft pick to land the biggest free agent on the market.

Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez (pictured) figures to be in that boat this winter and surely the Mariners will be one of the many pursuers for his right-handed bat, though that competition — and price — figure to be steep. Do the Mariners have a chance? Sure. After seeing Cano come to Seattle a year ago, it would be foolish to think otherwise. But Martinez will have lots of options, including staying in Detroit, so its extremely premature to even speculate on those possibilities.

Who else figures to be in the qualifying offer category? It seems likely that starting pitchers James Shields from the Royals, Max Scherzer of the Tigers and Ervin Santana of the Braves will draw the one-year guaranteed offer of $15.3 million, along with outfielders Nelson Cruz of the Orioles and Melky Cabrera of the Blue Jays, shortstops Hanley Ramirez of the Dodgers and J.J. Hardy of the Orioles, Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval, Pirates catcher Russell Martin and Yankees closer David Robertson.

Others may join that list, but those 11 are a pretty solid starting point for discussion. Cruz turned down a $14.1 million qualifying offer last year from the Rangers, wound up settling for an $8 million deal with the Orioles and then put up an AL-leading 40 home runs with 108 RBIs for Baltimore.

So, yeah, it’s an interesting game within the game to watch this winter. And the price of business was set at $15.3 million.

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