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Which Washington Nationals free agents will receive a qualifying offer?

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Late last week, MLB set the figure for qualifying offers this offseason at $15.8 million. Which free agents will the Nats give a qualifying offer to so that they can receive draft pick compensation if they sign elsewhere?

We entered the 2015 campaign feeling pretty confident that the Nats would be extending qualifying offers to all four key free agents. Now that the season is over, we're left wondering whether they'll give QO's to two or three of those four players.
We entered the 2015 campaign feeling pretty confident that the Nats would be extending qualifying offers to all four key free agents. Now that the season is over, we're left wondering whether they'll give QO's to two or three of those four players.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Many of us will look back at 2015 and think of how it was a missed opportunity for this franchise. The most obvious reason that we're disappointed with the Nats' performance in 2015 is that they finished 83-79 with a roster that, on paper, may have been the most talented squad they've had since the franchise moved to D.C. The fact that several key players on that roster are scheduled to hit free agency makes it hurt even more because, in a sense, the band is breaking up. How the Nationals respond to losing those core players, specifically Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann, is going to be one of the defining storylines of this offseason.

Of course, the Nats do have the option of assuring themselves some sort of compensation for losing their free agents in some of these cases. With the qualifying offer system, MLB doesn't use quite the same criteria that it used when the Nats lost other high profile free agents in the past decade such as Alfonso Soriano or Adam Dunn. Back when Dunn and Soriano hit free agency, MLB still used the Type A and Type B (and no compensation) system which used Elias Rankings. Players designated Type A free agents would net their previous teams a compensation/sandwich round pick plus either a first rounder (if the signing team's draft slot was not in the top fifteen) or a second rounder (if the signing team's draft slot was in the top fifteen).

When the Nats lost Soriano, they received a compensation round pick (used on pitcher Josh Smoker, who never reached the majors and is now in the Mets system) and the third pick of the second round. Oddly enough, with the third pick of the second round, the Nats selected one of the players we're going to talk briefly about today: Jordan Zimmermann.

When the Nats lost Dunn, they received a compensation round pick (used on Brian Goodwin, who is currently on the forty man roster) and the 23rd pick of the first round. They used the 23rd pick in the first round to select Alex Meyer, who they later traded (straight up) to the Twins for the player that we'll probably talk the most about today, Denard Span.

Nowadays, the compensation system is quite a bit different. The Type A and Type B designations are gone, leaving teams with the option of either giving players a qualifying offer or allowing them to walk away without receiving compensation. The qualifying offer is a one year contract based on the average annual value (AAV) of the 125 richest contracts in baseball. It was announced late last week that this offseason, that qualifying offer will be $15.8 million.

Technically, the Nationals will enter the offseason with eight players that would be eligible to receive a qualifying offer. Let's have a look at those eight players, though we'll eliminate half of them in short order:

  • Ian Desmond
  • Doug Fister
  • Casey Janssen
  • Nate McLouth
  • Denard Span
  • Matt Thornton
  • Dan Uggla
  • Jordan Zimmermann

Let's start by eliminating those four that I said we'd eliminate in short order. Casey Janssen and Nate McLouth each have contract options for next season which come in well below the qualifying offer figure. Both are extremely unlikely to be retained for those lower figures. Matt Thornton is a 39-year-old situational reliever. Dan Uggla is a 35-year-old power hitting "second baseman" who has pretty much been limited to pinch hitting duties because of how much his skills have deteriorated over the past few seasons. The only one of these four players I could really see the Nats making an effort to retain is Thornton. Thornton's best years are likely behind him, and he's never earned more than $5.5 million in any single season.

If you believe that the disappointment of the 2015 season is over already, it's time to consider the other four players on this list. Prior to the 2015 season, we all knew that Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, Denard Span, and Jordan Zimmermann were going to be free agents after the season. It was reasonable to assume that the Nationals might not retain any of those players. However, it was also reasonable to think that all four were well on their way to being worthy of a qualifying offer.

  • Ian Desmond was coming off of three straight Silver Slugger awards and was considered one of the top five shortstops in baseball.
  • Doug Fister had amassed a 3.34 career ERA in his first five seasons and was coming off of a monster 16-6 season with a 2.41 ERA in 2014.
  • Denard Span was coming off of three straight seasons of 3.4 or more fWAR after having hit .302/.355/.416 in 2014 with a career high 31 SB.
  • Jordan Zimmermann was coming off of a 2014 campaign that saw him finish twelfth in baseball in ERA (2.68) and seventh in FIP (2.66), effectively bumping the perception that he was one of the top 25 starters in baseball to one of the top 10-15.

Of course, the 2015 season had to be played, and the perceptions on some of these players and what they'll net in free agency has changed quite a bit.

Desmond had a miserable first half, but bounced back to have a solid second half. While his season long numbers (.233/.290/.384, 19 HR, 13 SB) aren't anything to write home about, he's still going to be highly sought after this offseason. The Nats should be able to safely give him the $15.8 qualifying offer and assume he won't accept it. To be honest, the Nats should be happy if he chooses to accept the qualifying offer.

Zimmermann certainly didn't have his best season either. In fact, he finished 2015 with his worst ERA (3.66) and FIP (3.75) since his injury shortened 2010 season. Still, that's just a bit of a disappointing season, rather than a disaster. The 29-year-old righty will still hit the free agent market as one of the most sought after commodities in baseball: an ace/borderline ace in the prime of his career. At the low end, it's reasonable to think that Zimmermann will get a deal as good as James Shields (4 years/$75 guaranteed) did last winter. It would be less than shocking to see him get a nine figure deal somewhere. There's absolutely no chance that Zimmermann accepts a $15.8 million qualifying offer.

Unlike the two players above, Fister had a season which was disastrous enough to affect whether or not he should accept a qualifying offer. Fister's average fastball velocity dropped from 87.9 MPH to 86.4 MPH this season. His command went downhill. He spent a stint on the disabled list with forearm tightness which could have contributed to both of these problems, but eventually saw himself removed from the rotation even when he was healthy after posting a 4.60 ERA and 4.63 FIP in 86 innings as a starter (15 starts). While some team will undoubtedly take a stab at Fister as a starting pitcher this offseason, he's unlikely to even sniff anything that approaches the value of a one year, $15.8 million deal. If Fister were to reject a qualifying offer, he'd be even crazier than Nats management would have to be to tender him one.

At the end of the day, the Nats have just one player who they should be on the fence about. Denard Span is coming off of a disappointing 2015 season, though that's almost entirely due to injuries. When Span was in the lineup, he was terrific. In fact, the 31-year-old center fielder was better offensively than he was in 2014. He hit .301/.365/.431 with 5 HR and 11 SB in just 275 plate appearances. His defensive performance dropped off a touch for the second straight year, but defensive metrics like UZR have never really loved Span anyway.

Unfortunately, the injury that Span dealt with and (perhaps more notably) the timing of his most recent flareup play a large part here as well. Span began the 2015 season on the disabled list after having core surgery last winter. He returned to the disabled list in July when, after several "day to day" issues with back tightness, the Nats decided to shut Span down for a few weeks. A month and a half later, when Span finally returned to the lineup, he lasted just two days before opting for season ending hip surgery. His expected recovery window from that surgery is four to six months.

If, for a 31-year-old outfielder whose struggles with injuries in 2015 made it seem like they may be a chronic problem for him, that window is four to six months, it seems more logical to look at that higher number (six) than the lower one (four) when trying to figure when he'll be ready to resume baseball activities. Given that Span suffered several setbacks in his recovery from core surgery this past season, it seems overly optimistic to assume that he's going to avoid any setbacks in his recovery from hip surgery this time. Six months from the surgery (September 1) would have him ready to resume baseball activities by about March 1, or right around when Spring Training games begin... assuming the long end on his recovery time with no further setbacks. So... Maybe (hopefully) Span is ready to go for Spring Training.

While it may not seem fair, Span's injury history has to be taken into account when we're considering his earning power this offseason. His bouts with concussions earlier in his career seem to be a thing of the past, but some (most?) teams are going to be weary about offering a multi-year deal with an eight figure AAV to a 31-year-old player who is coming off of hip surgery and won't necessarily be 100% to begin the 2016 season. This begs two questions:

  1. On a three or four year deal, how much of a projected AAV is enough for Span to consider turning down a one year, $15.8 million deal?
  2. Considering that there's a chance that Span would accept the qualifying offer, is it worth it for the Nationals to risk that he'll accept it?

Let's start with that first question. Exactly zero players who have received qualifying offers in the first few years the system has been around have accepted them. There are several players who certainly should have accepted the QO when they received it, though. Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew each missed significant portions of the season after they rejected qualifying offers because no team wanted to give up a draft pick to acquire them. Drew re-signed in Boston for a pro-rated version of the qualifying offer. Morales signed with Minnesota (after the draft) for a little less than the pro-rated version of the qualifying offer. Nelson Cruz, coming off of a PED suspension, signed with Baltimore for $8 million before the 2014 season, or about $6.1 million less than he would have made had he accepted the QO from Texas. So yes.... No player has ever accepted a qualifying offer. We have a handful of guys above who show that several of them made extremely poor decisions not to take the money.

How much of an AAV would Span need to see on a deal for it to make sense to turn down a one year, $15.8 million deal? Given that he's a 31-year-old coming off of hip surgery, it's hard to see a team committing to a four (or longer) year deal to Span, so we're probably looking at three years. Is 3/30 enough? How about 3/33? 3/36? Assuming Span were to accept a one year, $15.8 million qualifying offer as a pillow contract, he'd have a difficult time not turning that into 3/33 or 3/36 if he could remain even moderately healthy in 2016.

  • If Span doesn't think he can get more than 3 years/$30 million this offseason, he'd only need to feel he can get a two year $14.2 million contract next offseason to make taking the QO worth his while.
  • If he doesn't think he can get more than 3 years/$33 million, he'd only need to feel that he can get a two year $17.2 million next offseason to make the QO worthwhile.
  • If he doesn't think he can get more than 3 years/$36 million, he'd only need to feel that he can get $20.2 million next season to make the QO worthwhile.

For a healthy Denard Span, I don't think that we're going to find anyone who thinks that he's worth less than $10 million(ish) a season for the next couple of seasons. While he'd be a year older next offseason, it's difficult to imagine that Span will hurt his earning power during the 2016 season provided that he can remain relatively healthy. Entering the free agent market while injured and coming off of a season in which he played in just 61 games due to those injuries should limit Span's earning potential this offseason, while proving he's healthy will likely earn him more next offseason.

Just spitballing, I would think that if Span were coming off of a full healthy season and had put up numbers similar to what he did last season/was on pace for in 2015, he was probably looking at a deal in the 3/39 or 4/50 range. Maybe I'm slightly over/underselling his value a touch, but it's difficult to picture too much of a variance from those figures. Span's not a player who was ever likely to get $15 million per season on the open market, so taking a $15.8 million contract to ensure that he can maximize his earning potential before hitting free agency would make sense.

Would Span be worth $15.8 million to the Nats? Given the uncertainty around Werth (age/injury concerns) and Taylor (a talented but flawed/raw player), it could make sense for the Nats to try and get Span to stick around on a pillow contract. $15.8 million is an awfully steep pillow contract for a player who is coming off of surgery and seems like a bit of a risk to be ready to begin the 2016 season, though. We can take simple WAR/$ calculations and say that if Span stays healthy, he would probably be worth that, the Nats certainly wouldn't be looking at any surplus value there. I could see attempting to bring Span back for another year being a wise move for the Nats, but I don't think that I'd feel too comfortable if they gave him $15.8 million.

At the end of the day, the Nats will certainly have two players that they tender a qualifying offer to. Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann are no-brainers. It will be fascinating to see whether or not the Nats tender Denard Span an offer or not. It may be even more fascinating to see whether Span signs the qualifying offer if the Nats extend him one.