ST. LOUIS -- Before the Cardinals can begin pursuing players on the free-agent market this weekend, they first have decisions to make regarding their own free-agent class.
Teams interested in making qualifying offers to their free agents have until 4 p.m. CT on Friday. The qualifying offer, which has a value determined by averaging the top 125 player salaries from the previous season, is a one-year binding offer if a player accepts.
Clubs take the risk of a player accepting these offers (which has yet to happen since the process began in 2012) in order to secure Draft pick compensation for players who sign elsewhere. Players will have until Nov. 13 to accept or reject these one-year deals.
Heyward, a free agent at 26, enters the offseason seeking his first multiyear deal. He is among this free-agent class' premier players and is expected to command a contract ranging between $150-200 million. Heyward is all but assured to decline the qualifying offer, which is even more reason for the Cards to give it to the right fielder.
While the Cardinals have made re-signing Heyward a priority, they will only do so within financial reason. The seeming charade of offering Heyward a qualifying offer that he will decline is nevertheless important in that it would assure the club an extra Draft pick if Heyward leaves. That would give St. Louis a longer return from the 2014 trade that brought in Heyward at the cost of 10 years' control over pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins.
The decision about whether to make Lackey a qualifying offer isn't as cut and dry. Lackey was a bargain this year due to a clause that was put into his last contract that added a 2015 club option at the Major League minimum if Lackey missed significant time due to surgery earlier in the deal. Though the Cardinals reworked that option to provide Lackey with a series of performance incentives, his contributions -- a 13-10 record and 2.77 ERA in 33 starts (218 innings) -- far outweighed the overall contract obligations.
Certainly the Cardinals would welcome the veteran right-hander back, but any interest from the organization's end is unlikely to match up with Lackey's contract expectations. Coming off one of his best seasons and having just turned 37, Lackey is seeking what could be his final substantial multiyear deal. That is the sort of commitment the Cards are unlikely to make, especially after exercising Jaime Garcia's 2016 option.
So what about a qualifying offer? It seems unlikely Lackey would accept it, particularly if he feels he could find a better multiyear deal on the open market. St. Louis, as a result, could net the extra Draft pick.
There is, of course, always the risk that the offer is accepted, which is something the Cardinals will weigh when determining whether to extend it. That will come down to whether the club would be comfortable having $15.8 million committed to a 37-year-old pitcher for one season.