Rosenthal: How will qualifying offer impact free agents? Plus Mets, Braves battle for playoff bye

On Feb. 10, in the middle of the owners’ lockout, commissioner Rob Manfred announced the league agreed to eliminate draft-pick compensation for free agents who rejected a qualifying offer. The seeming concession, however, came with a caveat: The end of the qualifying-offer system needed to be negotiated with the Players Association as part of a new collective-bargaining agreement.

Two days later, the league indeed offered to eliminate direct draft-pick compensation, but as part of a proposal tied to luxury-tax thresholds the union rejected as too low. A month later, as talks came to a head, the league said it would relent on the qualifying offer only if the union agreed to an international draft. The parties tabled the issue, setting a deadline of July 25, for agreeing upon the exchange. Unsurprisingly, they did not. And so the qualifying offer likely will remain in place for the next five years, restricting certain free-agent salaries.

When calculating the cost of a free agent, teams factor in the losses of a draft pick or picks, as well as international bonus pool space. The system, acknowledged by union head Tony Clark to affect fewer and fewer players each offseason, is still estimated by industry sources to cost players between $50 million and $100 million annually. Yet, the impact is not expected to be terribly significant on the 2022-23 free agents who might receive qualifying offers. The players are that good.

For those who might have forgotten, a team that signs a qualified free agent and exceeds the luxury-tax threshold forfeits a second- and fifth-round pick plus $1 million in international bonus pool space. A club that neither exceeds the threshold nor receives revenue-sharing loses forfeits a second-rounder plus $500,000 in international pool space. A revenue-sharing recipient loses a third-rounder.

Players cannot receive a qualifying offer twice, so José Abreu, Carlos Correa and Noah Syndergaard need not worry about the attachment of a draft pick serving as drag to their markets. Players traded in the middle of a season also cannot receive a qualifying offer, possibly exempting Josh Bell, Andrew Benintendi and Willson Contreras, and — if the Red Sox sell — Nathan Eovaldi and J.D. Martinez.

Here is a look at the potential free agents who, as of now, are either strong bets or borderline possibilities to receive the one-year qualifying offer, which last offseason was worth $18.4 million. Asterisks denote players who can opt out of their contracts and become free agents.

Strong bets

* Nolan Arenado, 3B, Cardinals
Chris Bassitt, RHP, Mets
* Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox
* Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets
Edwin Díaz, CL, Mets
Aaron Judge, OF, Yankees
Joe Musgrove, RHP Padres
Brandon Nimmo, CF, Mets
Carlos Rodón, LHP, Giants
Dansby Swanson, SS, Braves
Trea Turner, SS, Dodgers

Most of these are fairly obvious. Swanson’s market conceivably might be hurt by a qualifying offer simply because three other shortstops with stronger track records might reach free agency. Bogaerts has complete no-trade protection, increasing the difficulty of the Red Sox moving him if they sell. Musgrove, who remains in the middle of negotiations for an extension, might never hit the market.

Four Mets are on this list, but fans of that club should not get too excited by a potential bounty of draft picks. For starters, the team would be better off keeping those players. In addition, the Mets are well above the luxury-tax threshold, so for each departed free agent they only would receive a pick after the fourth round.

Borderline possibilities

Tyler Anderson, LHP, Dodgers
Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers
Sean Manaea, LHP, Padres
Martín Pérez, LHP, Rangers
Taylor Rogers, CL, Padres
Jameson Taillon, RHP, Yankees

Notice a common theme? Five of the six players on this list are starting pitchers enjoying solid to excellent seasons, but the equation likely would change for anyone who starts to fade. At the moment, Taillon (6.98 ERA last six starts) and Manaea (5.91 last six) are facing that very prospect.

Kershaw, earning $17 million this season, below the level of the qualifying offer, is a unique case. The Dodgers declined to extend him a qualifying offer last offseason while he recovered from elbow trouble. They likely would take a similar approach if he chose to return in 2023, so as not to corner him into a decision.

Rogers, with a 6.62 ERA in his last 18 appearances dating to June 2, only would draw consideration for a qualifying offer if he got hot again down the stretch. A one-year deal in the $18 million to $19 million range for a top closer is not necessarily unrealistic. Raisel Iglesias rejected a qualifying offer from the Angels last offseason before returning to the team on a four-year, $58 million free-agent contract.

Mets vs. Braves at the deadline, too

As the deadline approaches, the new playoff format should motivate both the Mets and Braves to be particularly aggressive. The Yankees, Astros and Dodgers have all but wrapped up first-round byes. The final bye figures to go to the NL East champion (the Brewers, leading the NL Central, are 6 1/2 games behind the Mets). The runner-up, meanwhile, very well could draw the Padres in the best-of-three, wild-card round.

As things currently stand, the NL Central champion would be the No. 3 seed, facing the Cardinals, the third wild card and No. 6 seed. The Mets or Braves, as the top wild card, would be the No. 4 seed. The Padres, as the second wild card, would be the No. 5.

The Nos. 3 and 4 seeds hold significant advantages, hosting every potential first-round game. The Mets, however, just lost two of three at home facing the Padres’ Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove. The return of Fernando Tatis Jr. is expected to make the Padres even stronger.

Even if the Mets or Braves prevailed in a first-round matchup, they would need to expend their top starting pitchers and potentially start the Division Series at a disadvantage — much as the Dodgers did in the NLCS last season after defeating the Cardinals in the wild-card game and Giants in the Division Series.

Twins in need of a splash

Two rival officials Monday expressed little confidence the Twins would hold on in the AL Central, which they currently lead by 3 1/2 games over the Guardians and four games over the White Sox.

One of the officials said he believed the Guardians were better than the Twins, citing Minnesota’s thin pitching staff, mediocre offense at catcher and occasionally shaky infield defense at positions other than shortstop. The other official said he believed the White Sox would win the division by five or more games.

Entering Monday, the Twins were averaging 4.56 runs per game (13th in the majors), the White Sox 4.41 (15th) and the Guardians 4.39 (16th). But if the Twins fail to address their pitching, the dire forecasts of the two club officials might come to fruition.

The bullpen market is always flush with possibilities at the deadline, but the shortage of quality starters is a problem for the Twins and other teams looking for rotation help. The Reds’ Luis Castillo and Athletics’ Frankie Montas are the headliners, but the group could expand if pitchers such as the Marlins’ Pablo López, Red Sox’s Nathan Eovaldi, and Giants’ Carlos Rodón and Alex Wood become available.

Comps for a Castillo trade


Luis Castillo (Elsa / Getty Images)

So, what kind of return should the Reds expect for Castillo, who is under club control not only for the rest of this season, but also the next one?

Consider two recent deadline trades for starting pitchers at the same level of service — José Berríos, who went from the Twins to the Blue Jays in 2021; and Marcus Stroman, who went from the Jays to the Mets in 2019.

Each deal brought two well-regarded prospects, and each included right-hander Simeon Woods Richardson, the 48th selection in the 2018 draft. For Stroman, the Jays acquired Woods Richardson and righty Anthony Kay, the 31st pick in 2016. For Berríos, the Twins acquired Woods Richardson and shortstop Austin Martin, the fifth pick in 2020.

The performances of those players have yet to match their pedigrees. Woods Richardson, 21, has a 3.40 ERA in 11 starts at Double A, but currently is on the injured list. Martin, 23, is struggling offensively at the same level. Kay, 27, has a 5.48 ERA in 28 major-league games, and is currently on the injured list with the Jays at Triple A.

The Astros’ deal for Gerrit Cole in January 2018 also was somewhat comparable to the situation the Reds face with Castillo, though Cole was under club control for two full seasons, as opposed to one-plus. For Cole, the Pirates acquired right-handers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, third baseman Colin Moran, and outfielder Jason Martin.

Rays pondering next moves

The season-ending losses of center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (left hip) and catcher Mike Zunino (thoracic outlet syndrome) will not necessarily alter the Rays’ deadline plans. Club officials all but anticipated the developments, which is why they acquired catcher Christian Bethancourt from the Athletics on July 9 and signed free-agent outfielder Roman Quinn on July 21.

The challenge for the Rays, who currently hold the second AL wild-card spot, will be figuring out how to bolster their roster while they await the returns of first baseman/outfielder Harold Ramirez (fractured right thumb), shortstop Wander Franco (right wrist discomfort) and center fielder Manuel Margot (right knee sprain). Ramirez and Franco are expected back in mid-to-late August, Margot in September.

The Rays’ current position-player group is the fourth youngest in the league, creating a need for what one club official described as “more adults in the room.” The front office, however, lacks a clear road map for how to improve. Perhaps in another week, the information it gathers on players such as right fielder Josh Lowe and designated hitter Luke Raley will provide a more obvious direction.

Like most contenders, the Rays are exploring bullpen help — they’re among the teams scouting the Cubs’ available relievers, even though their own roster and injured list includes numerous options. A play for Cubs catcher Willson Contreras does not appear to be a priority, but the Rays are not afraid to swing big. A year ago at the deadline, they talked with the Cubs about Craig Kimbrel and Kris Bryant.

One possibility for the Rays is an exchange of major-leaguers similar to the deal in May 2021 that sent shortstop Willy Adames to the Brewers for right-handers Drew Rasmussen and J.P. Feyereisen. They do not intend to go backward, not when they view a postseason berth as well within reach.

Around the horn

Information from major-league sources and The Athletic staff:

• As the Mets search for another bat, their list of potential targets includes the Orioles’ Trey Mancini, Royals’ Andrew Benintendi and — if he becomes available — the Red Sox’s J.D. Martinez. The addition of designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach would appear to make a right-handed hitter such as Mancini or Martinez a better fit.

• Nationals first baseman Josh Bell remains a priority for the Astros. The Nats are likely to move Bell before right fielder Juan Soto, if they move Soto at all. The Astros also are exploring the addition of another catcher as Jason Castro recovers slowly from a left-knee issue.

• The chances of the Rangers reaching the postseason are less than 1 percent, but the team still wants to acquire a controllable starting pitcher. Righty Jon Gray is under contract through 2025, and it would behoove the club to sign Martín Pérez to an extension if he finishes strong. Pérez is open to the idea.

(Top photo of Chris Bassitt: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today Sports)

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