The union doesn’t have a problem with Cliff Lee’s deal

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There has been some debate about just how much one can characterize Cliff Lee’s deal with the Phillies as one in which he “left money on the table.”  On the one hand, there is the potential there for him to make more money with Philly than he made in New York. On the other hand, there was more money guaranteed in New York than Philly. On the third hand — stay with me; more than one hand is OK — we’re learning now that the first year or two of Lee’s deal will be at lower dollars before it jacks up past $20 million. The upshot: there are a lot of moving parts to this deal, and while it’s clear that he took some form of a financial hit to come back to the Phillies, it wasn’t terribly large.

But the whole affair has had a lot of people wondering about what the player’s union thinks about a top free agent at least appearing to take less money than the market would bear.  Jon Heyman asked union head Mike Weiner about whether the union put any pressure on Lee to take the best deal, and this is what Weiner said:

“Absolutely not. That’s just not our approach. We want players to make the best use of their right under the Basic Agreement … As long as a player makes an informed decision, we’re happy. There are non-economic considerations. The fact that Cliff took a deal that wasn’t top dollar isn’t a problem for us.”

I agree with Heyman on this: good for the union if what Weiner says is true. Which I believe it to be.

Which isn’t to say that there still isn’t some form of pressure working on free agents. I just don’t think it’s direct. It’s probably more cultural than anything. Players grok the dynamics of the free agent market pretty early in their careers. They know that what one guy makes will impact them. This is driven home to them in their arbitration years when a player’s worth is explicitly determined by direct comparisons to other players, by name.  They are certainly aware once they hit free agency that, in some important ways, they’re not just setting their own salary, but helping set the salaries for others.  And that’s not even taking into account the subtle pressure an agent and family members may exert.

Put differently: even if the union doesn’t send memos to players on the subject, there’s a passive pressure on guys to take the best deal.

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.