Sunday was an important date on. It was the deadline for teams to tender their eligible free agents the qualifying offer (QO). Six players received the QO prior to the 5 p.m. ET deadline, their teams announced: Reds righty Trevor Bauer, Giants righty Kevin Gausman, Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu, Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, Astros outfielder George Springer, and Mets righty Marcus Stroman.
Bauer, LeMahieu, Realmuto, and Springer are among the top free agents available this winter and are good bets to reject the QO and seek a larger payday elsewhere. Gausman getting the QO was a surprise, though he pitched well with San Francisco (3.62 ERA in 59 2/3 innings) after signing a one-year contract worth $9 million last offseason. The Giants and Gausman are discussing a multiyear contract, reports The Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly. Gausman could accept the QO if the two sides don’t reach a deal.
Stroman opted out of the season because of COVID-19 concerns. He could accept the QO, as he might find it beneficial to delay free agency by a year in the hopes that the market eases up a bit by that time. The Mets are very much in need of rotation help, and given the likely willingness of new owner Steve Cohen to invest in payroll the club will not be disappointed if Stroman does accept the QO.
The QO is in essence a one-year offer that, once tendered by the team, cannot be withdrawn. The salary is set at the average of the top 125 MLB salaries each year, and for 2021 QOs that figure is set at $18.9 million, which is up from last year’s figure of $17.8 million. If the player offered a QO accepts it, then he’s under contract for the subsequent season — 2021 in this instance — at that figure. If he turns down the QO and signs with another team, then his former team may be entitled to compensation in the form of draft picks. However, not every outgoing free agent can be tendered a QO:
- Players who played for more than one team during their walk year are ineligible for a QO. This often applies to walk-year players dealt leading up to the trade deadline.
- Players who have previously received a QO cannot receive a QO again. In this year’s free agent class, this rule applied to Nelson Cruz, Marcell Ozuna, and Justin Turner, among others.
Players who accept the QO are not eligible to be traded until June 15 without their consent, which prevents teams from in essence doing an immediate “sign and trade” by using the QO. As for the loss or gain of draft picks, teams signing a free agent who turned down a QO that same offseason no longer lose first round picks, but picks in later rounds will be lost if the signing team is over the luxury tax. Teams that receive revenue sharing monies are subject to less stiff penalties. Teams that neither exceed the luxury tax nor receive revenue sharing fall between the two penalty schedules. The team losing a QO free agent receives a compensation pick, the position of which is determined by revenue status and the value of the contract the free agent signs. Players who go on the market after turning down a QO tend to see their free-agent offers reduced accordingly, since their signing necessitates the loss of draft picks.
Typically, just the most coveted of potential free agents receive the QO, as teams are disinclined to risk being locked in at the QO salary for lesser talents. Given the financial strain of the 2020 season — the regular season was shortened to 60 games because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and no fans were permitted at games until the late rounds of the playoffs — teams are even more cautious with salary commitments. Yes, MLB has almost certainly exaggerated the scale of its losses, but those losses are nevertheless going to affect spending.
Notable free agents who did not receive the QO this year include Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees, Marcus Semien and Liam Hendriks of the Athletics, Didi Gregorius of the Phillies, and Michael Brantley of the Astros.
Players presented with a QO have 10 days to accept or reject it.