Elijah Dukes is in trouble again. Which makes me sad, though not for him.

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It’s not major trouble by his standards — he’d have to be accused of robbing a moving train or sedition or something in order for this to really register on the Elijah Dukes scale — but the former Ray and Nat was arrested again, this time for failing to pay court-ordered child support payments. Like, a lot of them.

My point of bringing this up is not to pile on Dukes. God knows the poor sod has had enough of that.  But to remind us that, as the offseason gets underway, we’re soon going to be reintroduced to baseball’s version of magical thinking.  The fantasy tales that are the lifeblood of the hot stove season. From the very minor — hey, did you hear that Joe Shlabotnik is in the best shape of his life? — to the desperate — Why, yes, Johnny Elbow is on the comeback trail! — to the downright sad — Did you hear that Joe Outfielder has finally faced down his demons and turned his life around? — the winter is the time when everyone seems to check their skepticism at the door and allows themselves to believe that things can change.

And sometimes they do change. But for every Josh Hamilton story, there are ten Elijah Dukes stories.  Of young men with great talent either throwing it away or having it taken away from them due to injury or circumstance. And never coming back.

Elijah Dukes is never going to play Major League Baseball again.  Most of us never figured he would, and we certainly won’t miss him.  But there are others we will miss if they don’t return. And, as we read that feature story about long workouts in the dead of winter or long months in rehab of one sort or another, we’ll trick ourselves into thinking that they will overcome those odds and will come back. But, sadly, most of the time they won’t.

Baseball is a tough game. There is always someone waiting to take an open job. There aren’t many real opportunities for comebacks. Certainly not for a good-but-not-great nutcase like Elijah Dukes. But not for a more pleasant brand of outcast either.

Six of seven players decline $17.9 million qualifying offers

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Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu was the only one of seven eligible players to accept his $17.9 million qualifying offer. Bryce Harper, A.J. Pollock, Craig Kimbrel, Patrick Corbin, Yasmani Grandal, and Dallas Keuchel each rejected his, officially making them free agents. Teams that had their QO’s rejected will recoup a draft pick once the player signs elsewhere.

That Harper rejected his QO comes as no surprise, as he is expected to strike perhaps the largest free agent contract in baseball history. Though the free agent market has been less lucrative lately than in previous years, the combination of Harper’s elite talent and his age — he’s only 26 years old — makes him a primary target for more than a handful of teams. Harper reportedly turned down a 10-year, $300 million contract extension offer from the Nationals, so that would seem to be a baseline.

It is also not surprising that Kimbrel, 30, turned down his QO from the Red Sox. Despite a so-so showing during a championship run, Kimbrel is still young and talented enough to land another lucrative contract on the free agent market.

Keuchel bet on himself in turning down the Astros’ QO. He’s been solid since winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2015, owning a 3.77 ERA across 83 starts over the last three seasons. However, he turns 31 years old at the beginning of 2019, and his already mediocre strikeout rate declined even further this past season, so there may be some skepticism about his ability to perform over the course of a multi-year deal. Keuchel will still get one eventually, but his market may be slower to develop.

Pollock, soon 31 as well, will be the outfielder most coveted once Harper is off the market. When he’s healthy, he’s a dynamic five-tool player. However, Pollock hasn’t played in more than 113 games in a season since 2015, so that may be a red flag. Pollock ended 2018 batting .257/.316/.484 with 21 home runs, 65 RBI, 61 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases in 460 plate appearances while playing above-average defense according to various defensive metrics.

Grandal, 30, could’ve gone either way with his QO, but ultimately chose to decline. He had a disappointing postseason, both offensively and defensively. Given how humans are prone to recency bias, it stood to reason that his October performance could have hurt his market. The catching position, however, is rather weak and Grandal stands out in a market that is otherwise focused on Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto. Grandal did swat 24 home runs with an .815 OPS in 140 games for the Dodgers this past season.

Corbin, 29, was the most obvious QO decline after Harper. The lefty is coming off of a career year, finishing with a 3.15 ERA and a 246/48 K/BB ratio in exactly 200 innings. Corbin is the best free agent pitcher on the market this offseason. The Yankees have been seriously linked with Corbin even before the season ended.

Ryu likely chose to accept his QO because of his age and injury history. It would have been a gamble to pursue a multi-year deal. He did, however, make 15 starts during the regular season to the tune of a 1.97 ERA with 89 strikeouts and 15 walks in 82 1/3 innings. Those are great numbers. And most clubs would have been smart enough to look beyond his 5.21 ERA in the postseason, which has more to do with a leaky bullpen than his own personal failings. Still, it’s hard to fault Ryu for playing it safe and taking the guaranteed $17.9 million for one year.