Could John Lackey accept his qualifying offer?
This afternoon at 5 pm Eastern is the deadline for teams to make the qualifying offer to their outgoing free agents. For 2016, the qualifying offer is a 1 year deal worth approximately $15.8 million. If a player gets a week to decide whether to accept or decline the offer. If he declines the offer and goes on to sign with another team, the team he left receives a compensatory draft pick from the signing team.
The Cardinals announced that they have made two today: Jason Heyward and John Lackey.
Heyward was the obvious choice. At 26 years old and coming off perhaps the best season of his career and expecting to net a giant free agent deal (with projections as high as $200 million), Heyward will most certainly be declining the qualifying offer. He has no reason to accept it. So there’s a potentially free draft pick.
For Lackey though, the response is less obvious unless his agent has already told you that they’ll be turning it down. Which is doubtful because it would damage your bargaining position in free agency.
John Lackey turned 37 in October and is at the tail end of his baseball career. He experienced a resurgence last season after being acquired from Boston at the deadline. Part of the reason the deal was made is that he had an option for 2015 at the league minimum, thanks to some creative bargaining by Theo Epstein in case Lackey had another arm injury. He did.
Over his 43 starts in St. Louis, Lackey posted a 3.10 ERA and a 16-13 record. His 2015 campaign saw him win 13 games with a 2.77 ERA in 33 starts and his ERA+ of 143 makes it the second best season of his career. His best season would be a 150 ERA+ season where he finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting. The similarities to that season are uncanny.
But all the on field production in the world can’t create a way to ignore the fact that at 37, Lackey’s best baseball seasons are behind him. The odds of getting a repeat performance are slim.
Down the stretch this season Lackey talked about how he enjoys pitching in the postseason and was glad to be somewhere he was going to get that opportunity. I think that’s important to note. Remember when the Cardinals acquired him last summer and there was some question as to whether he’d honor that option year? I do, and I think it’s because he’d been considering retirement rather than making league minimum for a last place team.
Given what we’ve seen in the past, when a player gets tagged with a qualifying offer, it hurts their market value unless they are a star player.
For example, you wouldn’t think twice about giving up a pick for 26 year old Jason Heyward, who you’re going to lock up for 7, 8, or 9 years. But for a 37 year old John Lackey who has a couple good seasons left in him, the question is how desperate you are.
For a small market team that needs prospects flowing through their system to remain viable, they’re not going to spend it on a 37 year old pitcher. That eliminates a number of contenders.
The last Cardinals pitcher to turn down a qualifying offer was Kyle Lohse. At 34, Lohse was coming off a 16 win campaign with a 2.88 ERA, a 133 OPS+, and a 3.51 FIP. Lohse stewed in free agency until finally signing a 3 year, $33 million deal with Milwaukee.
His season wasn’t that far off of Lackey’s. At three years older, Lackey posted 13 wins, a 2.77 ERA, a 143 ERA+, and a 3.57 FIP.
Lohse had to wait and took a salary hit courtesy of the draft pick compensation he was tied to.
In a Twitter conversation with Dan Buffa yesterday I put my expectation for Lackey at 2 years, $26 million. He was much more optimistic at 3 years, $45 million. But I think all changes with the qualifying offer involved.
I remember a conversation I had with Matthew Leach, current MLB.com columnist and former Cardinals beat writer for MLB.com, where he told me that teams are willing to gamble dollars on a player. But when it comes to years and prospects, they are much less willing.
So teams are going to be reluctant to give up that draft pick for Lackey. If he wasn’t tied to compensation, I think most contending teams would give him a call. I think Pittsburgh would have been a great destination for him.
Lets add up the situation now. We have a 37 year old pitcher who wants to pitch in the postseason. That means he wants a contender. You’ve already made him a qualifying offer which has likely torpedoed his marketability.
When you consider all of this, I can easily see him becoming the first player in Major League history to accept a qualifying offer. Which brings me back to my initial point. Teams don’t usually make a qualifying offer (or in the old system, offer free agency salary arbitration) to players they think might actually take it.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens.
Players have until November 13th at 5 pm Eastern, a week from today, to decide whether to accept or reject their qualifying offers.