Hey, did you know the San Francisco Giants recently hired a new manager? You might have read about it.
But you know what you haven’t read about on here lately? The offseason. So let’s take a break from the Kapler-induced drama and focus on something a bit more lighthearted: successful players getting shafted at the negotiating table!
What, you mean pre-arbitration players?
No, I mean—
Or players going through arbitration.
No, I’m talking—
Or are you talking about those players who sign outrageously team-friendly contracts because they have no negotiating power and their only other choice is to play for the minimum for 3+ years despite putting up great, even All-Star, even MVP-caliber seasons and hope they’re still good or not injured by their arbitration years, at which point they can get one-year deals that still vastly undervalue their production?
Well, sure, but that’s not—
And if they somehow manage to get through their arbitration years without getting injured or sucking, they still won’t have a fair shot at free agency because teams will hit them with a qualifying offer?
Yes! That’s it! You can stop now!
But of course, many players hit free agency well past their prime—
I SAID YOU CAN STOP NOW!
This year, 10 players got saddled with the baseball’s passive-aggressive version of the franchise tag, which is valued at $17.8 million. That’s a pretty nice chunk of change, of course, but it’s also worth noting it’s the first time that the qualifying offer has dipped in value.
But that’s a whole other can of worms. Instead, I want to focus on which of those 10 players are most likely to receive the Keuchel treatment.
As many of you may remember, Dallas Keuchel was a good pitcher who had the misfortune of receiving a qualifying offer from his former employer, the Houston Astros. Not only did it plummet his value, it also severely limited his negotiating power, so much so that he wasn’t signed until after the MLB draft in June, when teams would no longer lose draft picks for acquiring him. (I must also mention that this happened to Craig Kimbrel, too.)
Who, if anyone, will be this offseason’s Dallas Keuchel? Let’s take a look at the 10 candidates.
The [Redacted]: Jose Abreu, Jake Odorizzi, Will Smith
Rather than risk free agency with a QO over their heads, these three played it safe, and for good reason. Jose Abreu and Jake Odorizzi, who accepted their offers, are just okay, while Will Smith, who is actually great, is still just a reliever.
Also, according to ESPN, Smith grew six years younger and now plays catcher, so that probably helped.
The Superstars: Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg
Like the previous group, these three are also safe from the Keuchel treatment, but for an entirely different reason. The reason being, they’re really, really, really good at baseball.
In addition to being the uncle of Brandon Crawford’s children, Gerrit Cole finished second in Cy Young voting to fellow (and probably soon-to-be former) teammate Justin Verlander, a year after finishing fifth for the award. Sure, things got a little awkward between him and the Astros at the end, but he’s easily the best pitcher available, and he will get paid as such.
Not too far behind Cole is Stephen Strasburg. You could even make an argument that Strasburg is better: He’s posted 3+ rWAR six times across his career, while Cole’s only done the same in three seasons. However, Strasburg’s health is a big question mark, and he’s two years older, both of which will likely hurt his bottom line. Still, plenty of teams will pursue a pitcher who, when healthy, is a perennial Cy Young contender.
And then there’s Anthony Rendon. He will be next year’s NL MVP while playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and you can all praise me as a prophet when my prediction comes true.
The Old One: Josh Donaldson
Ah, baseball—where being in your mid-thirties is considered old.
Josh Donaldson will turn 34 in December. Soon enough, he’ll be able to use this gif unironically:
Despite his senior citizen status, Donaldson is still a fantastic player. Coming off an injury-shortened 2018, Donaldson signed a one-year, “prove you’re not broken” deal with the Braves, which he subsequently did with a 6.1 rWAR campaign. He produced at the plate, with a line of .259/.379/.521, and while UZR wasn’t a big fan of his defense at third base, his 15 DRS was second only to Matt Chapman. If it weren’t for the existence of Nolan Arenado, Donaldson would likely be walking away from 2019 with his first Gold Glove.
For all those reasons, he’ll avoid getting Keuchel’d. Where the QO might hurt him is in the length of his contract, but he probably wasn’t getting anything longer than a three-year deal, anyway.
The Previously Always Injured One Who the Giants Totally Don’t Regret Trading: Zack Wheeler
Before there was the Belt Wars, there was the Beltran War. 2011 was an aggravating season for many reasons, but none have the sustaining power of the eternal debate about whether or not giving up Zack Wheeler for Carlos Beltran doomed the Giants’ chances at any future success ever again.
It’s worth remembering Wheeler didn’t pitch at all in 2015, and besides one game in the minors, he didn’t pitch at all in 2016. He returned in 2017, but he missed nearly half of the season with various injuries.
We’ve heard this story plenty of times before—the promising prospect whose career is derailed by injuries. There was no reason to think that wouldn’t end up being Wheeler’s fate.
But then, he managed to pitch a full season in 2018. And then he did it again in 2019. And it turned out he was good! He finished the two seasons with a combined 8.3 rWAR, and he was at the center of plenty of trade rumors throughout.
His injury history will give teams pause, but the numbers, his relative youth, and the lack of mileage on his arm means someone will bite.
The Oh Gawd This Is Depressing: Madison Bumgarner, Marcell Ozuna
Let’s talk about Marcell Ozuna first. After a spectacular 2017 when he sported a .312/.376/.548 line on his way to winning a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove (because your glove is only as good as your bat) with the Miami Marlins, Ozuna has failed to impress in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform. He’s still a productive player who hits for plenty of power and is average to above-average defensively, depending on who you ask, but that’s a far cry from the promise he showed two years ago.
Are teams ready to give up a draft pick for a player who increasingly looks like a league-average starter? He’s only 29, so there’s hope he could have a bounceback season or two, and he’ll be relatively cheap. I can’t imagine many teams would pass up a chance to acquire Ozuna at the right price—perhaps something along the lines of three years, $45 million. And it’s hard to see Ozuna turning down that offer.
Which leaves Madison Bumgarner.
Excluding his injury-shortened 2018, Bumgarner had his worst season since 2012, when he was 22. He’s three years removed from his last All-Star appearance, and while he’s good for a lot of innings, his numbers are trending in a bad way. He’s giving up more homers, his hard contact rate is way up, and his strikeouts are down. Removing him from the friendly confines of Oracle Park will only make these trends worse. And while he’s younger than Keuchel, he also has 500 more innings on his arm, not including the postseason.
I’ve previously used Keuchel as a comp for Bumgarner’s situation, and I think it still stands. Bumgarner is on the decline. He’s still a solid pitcher, just as Keuchel is, but you can’t ignore reality—and neither will teams around the league.
As far as I can tell, Bumgarner has two saving graces. First, he doesn’t seem as interested in landing a big contract as Keuchel did, and second, there seems to be plenty of interest across the board to keep him in San Francisco.
But as recent events have shown, Farhan Zaidi isn’t particularly interested in making the popular moves. And if Bumgarner is forced to test free agency, he might find himself waiting it out just as Keuchel did.