Most of this offseason’s banter about the Diamondbacks will focus on them acquiring a starting pitcher. That’s the weakest link of a team that’s otherwise very good and should only be getting better in the short term. As we’ve explored and first stated over a year and a half ago, 2017 looks to be the pinnacle year for Arizona with 2016 and 2018 also potentially strong campaigns. After that things, will taper off as players age and get more expensive. Unfortunately, most starting pitchers who can come in and help this team during this window have been extended a qualifying offer, and that’s something that has to give the team pause.

In case you’re not familiar, here’s a very quick breakdown of how the qualifying offer (QO) works. A few years back, baseball quit assigning multiple levels of compensation to free agents. Instead, they created a system where if a team were to extend a “qualifying offer” to one of their free agents and he signed with another team, the team who let the free agent walk would be rewarded with the acquiring team’s first round draft pick (provided it wasn’t a “protected” pick – picks 1-10 in the upcoming draft). The qualifying offer would be of a dollar amount established by MLB and rise every year to keep pace with escalating salaries. This year that offer is one year for $15.8 million. Teams with free agents have doled these out regularly as every free agent who’s been extended one has turned it down to date and the team losing the free agent has received a first round pick as compensation in every case (aside from the Kenrys Morales debacle, or in instances where a team lost two free agents who had been extended QO’s – then they got a first and a second round pick).

This means that if the D-backs want to sign a pitcher who has been extended the QO, they’ll have to surrender the 13th overall pick in next June’s draft. That hurts for a team like Arizona. They need all of the cheap, cost-controlled assets they can get as they just can’t compete on dollars with a team like the Dodgers. And Dave Stewart is aware of this. From Nick Piecoro earlier in the week:

Stewart says he would prefer to go that route (signing a free agent) to augment the rotation rather than dealing away from the position player depth the organization has built. The Diamondbacks “do have a little money to spend,” Stewart said, and he sounded willing to surrender a draft pick for the right free agents.

“We’re going to go over all of those guys and see who would be more meaningful to separate us from our pick,” Stewart said. “I think we’re going to pick 13th; that’s an important pick for us, obviously. We’ve just got to see whoever we get is impactful enough that we would want to do that.”

Losing the pick isn’t a deal-breaker for Stewart, and it shouldn’t be. But making sure you get enough in return to warrant losing that pick is a careful calculation that needs to be made. You need to make sure you’re getting a quality pitcher, but you also need to be sure that you’re not being forced to sign a deal that’s that puts a large burden on the team financially. There’s a break-even point somewhere, and it doesn’t sound like the Diamondbacks have necessarily established it yet (and that’s, presumably, where the conversations with agents from Piecoro’s piece come into play).

So let’s just run a little test and see if we can find the line. Below are the ten starting pitchers who received a QO, along with their estimated contracts via MLB Trade Rumors and FanGraphs. I’ll insert their 2016 age, past three seasons of production and what Steamer projects for next season, too.

Zack Greinke, RHP, 32

  • 2013: 177.2 IP, 3.23 FIP, 3.4 WAR
  • 2014: 202.1 IP, 2.97 FIP, 4.4 WAR
  • 2015: 222.2 IP, 2.76 FIP, 5.9 WAR
  • 2016 Steamer: 206 IP, 3.39 FIP, 4.0 WAR
  • MLBTR Salary: 6 years, $26 million per season (156 million total)
  • FanGraphs Salary: 6 years, $26 million per season (156 million total)

The salary projections agree here, but this is far too rich for the D-backs. You could argue that they can afford it in the short term, but definitely not in the long term. Plus, Greinke would want even more to play for Arizona than he would for the Dodgers given he wants to win a World Series and would weigh competitiveness year in and year out heavily. Not every pitcher is in a position to do that, but Greinke is.

Jordan Zimmerman, RHP, 30

  • 2013: 213.1 IP, 3.36 FIP, 3.7 WAR
  • 2014: 199.2 IP, 2.68 FIP, 5.3 WAR
  • 2015: 201.2 IP, 3.75 FIP, 3.0 WAR
  • 2016 Steamer: 192 IP, 3.79 FIP, 2.8 WAR
  • MLBTR Salary: 6 years, $21 million per season (126 million total)
  • FanGraphs Salary: 6 years, $21 million per season (126 million total)

Again, the projections align but Zimmerman regressed in 2015 and is projected to regress further in 2016. The fastball velocity has started to trend downward and that’s troubling. $21 million per season isn’t too rich right now, but it will be in four years when he may be really going the wrong way. There’s risk here and this one has red flags all over it. The back end of this deal could look far worse than Greinke’s even considering the discount in years and total dollars.

Yovani Gallardo, RHP, 30

  • 2013: 180.2 IP, 3.89 FIP, 2.2 WAR
  • 2014: 192.1 IP, 3.94 FIP, 2.0 WAR
  • 2015: 184.1 IP, 4.00 FIP, 2.5 WAR
  • 2016 Steamer: 176 IP, 4.20 RIP, 1.7 WAR
  • MLBTR Salary: 4 years, $13 million per season ($52 million total)
  • FanGraphs Salary: 4 years, $14 million per season ($56 million total)

Things are a lot cheaper here, but Gallardo turns 30 next season and is about a 2-win pitcher if he beats the projections. Those projections have him being essentially Chase Anderson. Is that enough of an upgrade to turn the tide? Maybe not considering you could just replace Rubby De La Rosa with Aaron Blair and get some help for the league minimum.

Jeff Samardzija, RHP, 31

  • 2013: 213.2 IP, 3.77 FIP, 2.7 WAR
  • 2014: 219.2 IP, 3.20 FIP, 4.1 WAR
  • 2015: 214 IP, 4.23 FIP, 2.7 WAR
  • 2016 Steamer: 200 IP, 3.88 FIP, 2.7 WAR
  • MLBTR Salary: 5 years, $16 million per season ($80 million total)
  • FanGraphs Salary: 4 years, $16 million per season ($64 million total)

There was a time when The Shark looked poised to don Sedona Red, but after falling off last year, his market has shrunk to a large degree. He’d be an upgrade over everyone aside for Corbin, but the fifth year is probably a deal-breaker. If he’d settle for four years I think the Diamondbacks would entertain the idea. Is the upgrade large enough to justify losing the pick, however? I’m not sure it is given the dollars per season.

Wei-Yin Chen, LHP, 30

  • 2013: 137  IP, 4.04 FIP, 2.0 WAR
  • 2014: 185.2 IP, 3.89 FIP, 2.5 WAR
  • 2015: 191.1 IP, 4.16 FIP, 2.8 WAR
  • 2016 Steamer: 190 IP, 3.88 FIP, 2.6 WAR
  • MLBTR Salary: 5 years, $16 million per season ($80 million total)
  • FanGraphs Salary: 4 years, $13 million per season ($52 million total)

Maybe the fact that Chen is a lefty gives him a boost, and if he comes for the same money as Gallardo, he would surely be the preferred option. His projections are much more encouraging and he’d be better than probably every D-backs starter not named Patrick Corbin. This one might be palatable so long as it’s four years and not five. Can he get a fifth year? Something tells me someone will overspend on years here…

Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP, 35

  • 2013: 219.2 IP, 3.44 FIP, 3.8 WAR
  • 2014: 179 IP, 3.25 FIP, 3.0 WAR
  • 2015: 129.2 IP, 3.74 FIP, 1.8 WAR
  • 2016 Steamer: 178 IP, 3.45 FIP, 3.4 WAR
  • MLBTR Salary: 3 years, $15 million per season ($45 million total)
  • FanGraphs Salary: 3 years, $14 million per season ($42 million total)

Seattle desperately wants Iwakuma back and it’d be a surprise if he goes somewhere else. But, he does fit Arizona’s window very well and he’s not too expensive. He is old, however, and did miss time last season to a lat strain. Can he hold up? If he does, he’s a clear upgrade. What we don’t know is how badly he wants to head back to Seattle, which may factor in heavily. The D-backs might have to overpay to lure him to the desert.

Marco Estrada, RHP, 32

  • 2013: 128 IP, 3.86 FIP, 1.8 WAR
  • 2014: 150.2 IP, 4.88 FIP, -0.1 WAR
  • 2015: 181 IP, 4.40 FIP, 1.8 WAR
  • 2016 Steamer: 172 IP, 4.67 FIP, 0.8 WAR
  • MLBTR Salary: 3 years, $10 million per season ($30 million total)
  • FanGraphs Salary: 3 years, $12 million per season ($36 million total)

If you want a poster child for how crazy the QO is, look no further. The Blue Jays are offering one year and $15.8 million for a guy who’s been inconsistent, doesn’t project well and is turning 32. Even worse, someone might give him a three year deal worth $30 million or more. He’s not a upgrade and not worth the cash or the pick, yet the pitching market is fairly irrational, so someone’s might overspend for him. For the record, Estrada is my pick to be the first player to ever accept a qualifying offer.

Ian Kennedy, RHP, 31

  • 2013: 181.1 IP, 4.59 FIP, 0.6 WAR
  • 2014: 201 IP, 3.21 FIP, 3.5 WAR
  • 2015: 168.1 IP, 4.51 FIP, 0.8 WAR
  • 2016 Steamer: 177 IP, 4.01 FIP, 2.1 WAR
  • MLBTR Salary: 4 years, $13 million per season ($52 million total)
  • FanGraphs Salary: 3 years, $12 million per season ($36 million total)

Which Ian Kennedy is showing up to the party? The one who made the Diamondbacks look foolish for dealing him or the one that is the very definition of mediocre? He was victimized by home runs in 2015, even though he pitched in San Diego and it’s unclear if that trend will continue. The projections like him, and he has been good very recently, but on the wrong side of 30, he’s not a great bet. Plus, could the Diamondbacks sell the fan base on a return to Arizona? I doubt it.

Brett Anderson, LHP, 28

  • 2013: 44.2 IP, 3.85 FIP, 0.3 WAR
  • 2014: 43.1 IP, 2.99 FIP, 1.0 WAR
  • 2015: 180.1 IP, 3.94 FIP, 1.7 WAR
  • 2016 Steamer: 139 IP, 3.80 FIP, 2.0 WAR
  • MLBTR Salary: 3 years, $13 million per season ($39 million total)
  • FanGraphs Salary: 3 years, $11 million per season ($33 million total)

At some point, you kind of had to feel bad for Brett Anderson. He couldn’t stay healthy and many of his injuries had nothing to do with his arm. He’s been moderately effective when healthy, however, and being left-handed helps his cause. The risk here probably means the Diamondbacks don’t have interest and while he is likely to only go for three years, it’s just not concrete enough for a small/mid-market team to gamble on.

John Lackey, RHP, 37

  • 2013: 189.1 IP, 3.86 FIP, 2.4 WAR
  • 2014: 198 IP, 3.78 FIP, 2.4 WAR
  • 2015: 218 IP, 3.57 FIP, 3.6 WAR
  • 2016 Steamer: 190 IP, 3.88 FIP, 2.6 WAR
  • MLBTR Salary: 3 years, $16.6 million per season ($50 million total)
  • FanGraphs Salary: 2 years, $15 million per season ($30 million total)

There’s a big gap in the estimated contracts here which boils down to how long someone is willing to bet on a guy who’s been good but is 37-years old. There’s a fit here for Arizona, especially if they were able to keep it at two years. He could be a nice upgrade without a long contract to worry about. The problem is, he still costs a draft pick and you’d only be getting two years of production for that price. That is probably too steep for Arizona.

Welp, that’s all ten. I guess this ended up being a little longer than planned, but let’s try to create some categories:

  • Deal is too long: Greinke, Zimmerman
  • Pitcher is too unpredictable: Anderson, Estrada
  • Pitcher was chased out of Arizona: Kennedy
  • Production isn’t worth pick/money: Gallardo
  • Deal is too short: Lackey
  • Works if the dollars/years align: Iwakuma, Chen, Samardzija

There you have it, there’s our line in the sand. Iwakuma, Chen and Samardzija could work if the deals are in the 3-4 year range and their markets don’t prove too inexpensive. If one were to see his market not fully form, he could land in Arizona’s lap. And again, we’re not talking about a big boost here. These are 2.5-win guys for the most part, 3 wins if you get lucky. How much better is that than, say, Chase Anderson who looks to kind of be on the bubble? Maybe one win if thing break the right way. It’s surely better than Rubby De La Rosa and Jeremy Hellickson, but those guys shouldn’t even be considered options at this point. De La Rosa is a reliever or non-tender candidate and Hellickson should be traded or non-tendered.

Should Arizona give up it’s 13th pick and use a large chunk of its spending money on one of these three? Ultimately, the answer is maybe? Who knows what a pitcher of this caliber will do when they move to the desert. Samardzija is a fly ball guy, but not enough of a fly ball guy to be elite – I don’t like the way that looks at Chase. Chen is basically the same. Iwakuma generates a nice number of ground balls (about 50%), but you’re going to have to overpay for a 35-year old pitcher to get him. Despite the fact that this is a huge market of starting pitchers, and really quality free agents as a whole, there still aren’t a lot of viable options when you really break it down. Then again, next year’s crop of FA’s looks really weak, so maybe now’s the time to pay?

I guess I’m still undecided. Would I pay for any of these guys? Unless they go for less than what’s been predicted, I’d probably lean no, especially if I have some level of faith in Archie Bradley and Aaron Blair. Doing nothing, however, probably leaves Arizona on the outside looking in come next October. But there are other avenues: free agents without a QO (Mike Leake and Scott Kazmir), pitchers that might be able to be had via trade (Sonny Gray and Carlos Carrasco), and then there’s Kenta Maeda who hasn’t been posted yet and is a bit of unknown, at least insofar as how his game will translate to the majors. This isn’t Arizona’s only route to get better in the pitching department.

Even if this didn’t help us find a solution, it might have helped to eliminate some options and gets us closer to the answer. We’ll have to live with that for now.

3 Responses to The Qualifying Offer is a Major Impediment for the Diamondbacks

  1. Dave-Phoenix says:

    The International market looks like the D-Backs best option at this point.

    In regards to qualifying offers, I was glad to see Colby Rasmus call Houston’s bluff and accept their qualifying offer. I think this will make teams think twice before trying to get a free draft pick from a player they really don’t want to re-sign….

  2. Dave-Phoenix says:

    Stephen Drew in 2014 should have been the first player to sign a qualifying offer, but Scott Boros is his agent and he got too greedy

    When Drew rejected the Bosox $14 million qualifying offer, he couldn’t find a single team that was willing to give up a draft pick to sign him, and he eventually signed back with the Red Sox for a lot less money and not until after the season had started, resulting in a below-average year and even less money the following year.

  3. […] But now is not the time for modest moves; the ante for getting to this point was high, and is even higher due to the qualifying offer system. Over the coming weeks, we may discuss some of the other moves we considered that hit the editing […]

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