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Monday night, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli and Stephen Drew all declined their qualifying offers from the Red Sox. In doing so, they forfeited a guaranteed 1-year $14.1 million deal to test the market. This does not mean these players will not be on the Opening Day roster next year, but it does somewhat clarify the Red Sox’s offseason plan. Since this is only the second offseason in which the qualifying offer rule has been in play, it is probably best to understand what this rule does.
Up until late November of 2011 there were three types of free agents: Type A, Type B, and everyone else. Under this system, if the Red Sox offered arbitration to their Type A free agent and that player signed elsewhere, the Red Sox would gain the other team’s first round draft pick and a compensatory pick. For Type B free agents the Red Sox would only receive a compensatory pick.
Qualifying offers have drastically changed this system. Instead of players having “types,” teams can decide to offer a contract that is the average of the 125 richest contracts in baseball (this year it is $14.1 million). If the players decline the offer and sign with another team, that team forfeits their first round pick while the original team gains a compensatory pick at the end of the first round.
Ben Cherington and the rest of the front office have many options going forward. There is almost no chance that all three players find their way back to Boston next season, as a result, the Red Sox can “trade” one of their draft picks. If they were to sign someone like Carlos Beltran or Brain McCann, they would forfeit their first round draft pick but would regain a compensatory pick if they lost Ellsbury, Napoli, or Drew. After tying for the best record in baseball, the Sox have the 30th pick in the draft, so the difference between first round and compensatory round is a push.
There is another route that could be taken as well. If Cherington were to stockpile his trade picks, he would then have the ability to perhaps make a package of prospects to offer the Marlins for Giancarlo Stanton and replenish the farm system with the draft. All speculation of course, but that is the beauty of the baseball offseason.
With the ambiguity of the offseason there is no foolproof way to know one way or the other. At the moment, Jacoby Ellsbury seems to be the most likely to leave. He is a great fit on the Red Sox, but Cherington should give Ellsbury’s über-agent Scott Boras a hard line at 5 years and $90 million. One of the other 29 teams will almost certainly surpass that number, but the Red Sox should let Ellsbury go as they have been bruned by longterm deals in the past (Carl Crawford anyone?).
It is a different story with Napoli as he seems to be in line for a contract that is more palatable for the Red Sox, and he has routinely expressed desires to return to Boston. According to Jeff Passan on Twitter, Napoli has received a multiyear offer from Boston, but is interested in shopping around. Seeing as beyond Napoli there aren’t many options at first base, it would seem the Red Sox should do their best to sign him. A contract ranging from two to three years at around 15 million dollars annually is not out of the question and should be amiable to both sides.
What will happen with Drew is far more up in the air compared to the others. There is a valid case that he should stay at shortstop and that Xander Bogaerts be pushed to third base. In this scenario two things could happen to Will Middlebrooks, he could be traded as a part of a larger package or shift to first if Napoli leaves. The other side of the argument is that Napoli and Middlebrooks are more important to the Red Sox future and Drew is allowed to walk. In the end, signing Drew and trading Middlebrooks may be in the best interest of Boston. A 2 year 20 million dollar deal with a mutual option may be enough to bring him back.
With the General Manager Meetings underway and the Winter Meetings around the corner, baseball’s offseason is just getting started. As team front offices start to understand this year’s market they’ll slowly start to make moves. As options become thinner and February draws closer the sprinkling of moves will become a flurry and Spring Training will start before anyone sees it coming.