The deadline to extend qualifying offers is 5pm this afternoon

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While free agents can’t sign with other teams until midnight tonight, free agency season truly begins at 5pm this afternoon. That’s the deadline for teams to decide whether to extend a one-year, $15.8 million contract offer to their impending free agents. This offer, known as the Qualifying Offer, will give players a choice: accept it and take that $15.8 million or reject it, become free agents and then force any team which signs them to surrender its top unprotected (i.e. non-top-10) draft pick. Players have a week to decide.

Those draft picks are often called “compensation picks,” but they should be called “punishment picks,” as they are, in reality, designed to impede the market for players’ services by punishing teams who sign free agents and depressing the salaries of most of the players to whom those picks are attached. No player, since the advent of the qualifying offer, has accepted one. A handful have taken a hit when going to sign contracts with other teams, as their value has been discounted by the cost of a pick.

Anyway, that’s what you’ll be hearing about this afternoon, as players either are given or not given qualifying offers. Then at midnight tonight any free agent — those with qualifying offers and those without — can begin negotiating with any other team. Unlike in football and the NBA, baseball free agents don’t tend to sign in a land rush, all on the first day. It often takes some time, which is part of why hot stove season is so fun. Expect moves and deals between tonight and early February, really.