Desmond, Hellickson, Walker each have a week to accept or reject one-year, $17.2 million deals
By Andrew Simon
Each offseason, free agents presented with qualifying offers face difficult decisions. These players either must settle for one-year deals -- albeit lucrative ones -- or decline and take their chances on the market while potentially hindered by Draft-pick compensation.
This year, qualifying offers are worth $17.2 million, and teams had until Monday at 5 p.m. ET to extend them to any free agents who weren't traded during the season. The 10 recipients now have until next Monday to accept or decline.
For those who choose the latter option and sign with a new team, that club must surrender its first-round pick in the 2017 Draft (or a second-rounder if the club has a protected top-10 selection or already gave up its first-rounder). This tends not to be a major hurdle for top-level free agents, but those further down in the pecking order can find themselves in a bind, as many clubs are reluctant to part with such a valuable pick.
Because of that, last offseason was the first time in the four-year history of the qualifying offer that a player accepted, as Brett Anderson (Dodgers), Colby Rasmus (Astros) and Matt Wieters (Orioles) all did so. Will anyone follow in their footsteps this year? Will anyone decline and come to regret it?
With those questions in mind, here is a look at three of the most intriguing qualifying-offer cases:
Ian Desmond, OF/SS, Rangers
A year ago, the qualifying offer played a major role in Desmond's disappointing first go at free agency. Of course, it also didn't help that he was coming off a rough season (.674 OPS) and that few teams had a significant need at shortstop. Whatever the reasons, Desmond languished until the end of February, when he settled for a one-year, $8 million deal with the Rangers and agreed to shift to the outfield.
In the big picture, Desmond would seem to be in much better spot this time around. He handled the position switch capably, soon moving from left to center, and now can market himself at two positions or as a super-utility type. Desmond also put together his fourth 20-20 season in five years and lifted his overall offensive production back above a league-average level, from an 83 weighted runs created-plus (wRC+) to 106.
On the other hand, Desmond's splits could provide cause for concern. In the first half, a batting average on balls in play above .400 helped support a .322/.375/.524 line. After the All-Star break, that BABIP dipped to .287 -- below his 2015 mark of .307 -- and Desmond hit just .237/.283/.347. Will that slump, plus the Draft pick, make teams skittish once again?
Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Phillies
In a typical offseason, Hellickson might not have received an offer, but this is far from a typical offseason when it comes to starting pitching. That's because it's an extremely scarce commodity, with 36-year-old Rich Hill sitting atop a paper-thin group of free agents. Hellickson has an argument to be No. 2 among available starters, so in that sense, it might be smart for him to test the market.
Still, it's worth wondering just how far other teams would be willing to stretch for a pitcher with Hellickson's recent track record. The righty, who will turn 30 next April, posted a 4.86 ERA over 383 2/3 innings from 2013-15. His ERA improved all the way to 3.71 over 189 innings this season, but that was accompanied by a much smaller drop in FIP (4.29 to 3.98), as Hellickson made minor improvements in his strikeout, walk and home-run rates.
If a club believes in Hellickson's ability to sustain his above-average 2016 production, a multiyear deal could be in order. But even considering the state of the market, that doesn't seem to be a certain outcome for a pitcher who doesn't light up radar guns, miss lots of bats or induce loads of ground balls.
Neil Walker, 2B, Mets
Catcher Wilson Ramos, recovering from knee surgery, did not receive a qualifying offer from the Nationals. Walker's own injury situation isn't severe enough for the Mets to take that same approach, but it still could affect how Walker responds.
The switch-hitter, suffering from a herniated disk in his lower back, underwent surgery in early September, right around his 31st birthday. Before that, Walker put together another solid season, posting at least 2.4 wins above replacement (WAR) for the sixth straight year, according to Baseball-Reference.com. In just 113 games, he tied a career high with 23 homers, and his 122 wRC+ was his second-highest mark.
As of now, all indications are that Walker is progressing well and should be ready to go in 2017. On the other hand, back injuries are serious business, and there could be enough uncertainty surrounding Walker that he would accept the qualifying offer. That would allow him to lock in a high salary for next season, with a chance to return to the market at full strength in '18.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.