The qualifying offer has been both a good thing and bad thing for the Indians. When the new rules for the qualifying offer were instituted after the 2012 season, teams could offer their own free agents a one-year deal for around $14 million. If the player were to decline the offer, their team would then be tied to draft pick compensation (which had been around for awhile at that point). The new wrinkle was that if a team wanted to sign a player tied to a qualifying offer, it would have to surrender its first-round pick (unless it fell in the first 10 picks). Teams needed to decide if certain free agents were worth giving up a first round pick. The Indians exploited this advantage prior to the 2013 season, signing both Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to deals. Since the Indians had the fifth pick in the draft, they were forced to give up a 2nd and 3rd round pick.
Many fans thought the Indians were done spending after the Swisher signing, but just a few weeks before spring training, the Indians signed Michael Bourn for a deal much lower than his asking price (Bourn was originally looking for a deal in the $75 million range) at just four years and $48 million guaranteed. The other big player in the Bourn free agency was the New York Mets, who owned the 11th pick in the draft, but decided that the 11th pick was too valuable to give up.
The other good that came from the qualifying offer was the Orioles signing Ubaldo Jimenez. With Jimenez on the market until mid-February, many Indians fans thought the Tribe would be able to bring back the tall and wild righty. Since it was the Indians who made a qualifying offer to Jimenez, they would not have to give up their pick. But the Orioles made a move, signing Jimenez for four years and $48 million while also surrendering the 17th pick in the draft. The Indians were then awarded the 31st pick in the first round, which they used to draft a left-handed, high school pitcher, named Justus Sheffield.
While the Swisher and Bourn signings certainly look terrible now, they were both pivotal in helping the Indians win 92 games and host the AL Wild Card game. Combined, they posted a 5.9 WAR in 2013 which was miles ahead of the 2012 Indians, who had Casey Kotchman and his .229 batting average at first base, and the out-of-position Michael Brantley in center field. As for letting Ubaldo go, that was clearly the right move, as they not only shed his potential future salary, they also added a pitcher in the draft with high upside in Sheffield. Meanwhile, Jimenez has gone on to post a 4.39 ERA for the Orioles, who still have two years and $26.5 million to pay out.
Then there’s the bad. While the qualifying offer has been great for the Indians when they’ve had a top-10 pick, the past few years they have avoided anyone tied to one. Since using the qualifying offer advantage to sign Swisher and Bourn, the Indians have held the 21st (2014) and 17th (2015) picks in the draft. And the Indians, being a small market team (7th smallest market in terms of population), can’t afford to give up those types of draft picks. Which brings us to today’s remaining qualifying offer free agents still on the market: Dexter Fowler, Ian Desmond, and Yovani Gallardo.
Clearly, the Indians are not in need of a middle infielder, so Desmond is off the board. Ditto for starting pitching: the Josh Tomlin extension basically said the Indians have decided on a fifth starter. Dexter Fowler is the intriguing name. The Indians are in desperate need of an everyday centerfielder. No matter what you hear, Abraham Almonte/Rajai Davis/Michael Brantley are not the answer to the question. Almonte was a career minor league player until he had an average 51 games for the Tribe in 2015. Rajai Davis, despite possessing good speed, hasn’t played centerfield consistently since 2011. And while Brantley’s bat may look good in center, his defensive metrics have said he is a below average fielder in center field.
If the Indians could somehow get Fowler on a one-year, re-establish your value contract at around $10-$15 million, then they will have a bridge until both Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier are ready to step in for the 2017 season. Fowler will be 30 come the 2016 season, which is why I would only be willing to go one year on his contract. But, you know what you’re getting with him. Over his seven full major league seasons, he has posted a WAR right around 2.0 per season. The biggest knock is despite having the athletic ability, he isn’t the greatest fielder at his position, being about seven runs worse than the average centerfielder. At the plate, you can expect an on-base percentage around .350 with average power and speed on the base path. And while you would lose a draft pick to sign him, you could always place the qualifying offer on him next off-season.
Some other free agents the Indians have been linked to who do not have a qualifying offer attached to them are Juan Uribe, David Freese, and Austin Jackson. Both Uribe and Freese would come in and platoon with Giovanny Urshela at third base. And both would represent an upgrade at the plate over Urshela. That being said, Uribe and Freese will be 37 and 33 come the 2016 season. If I had to choose, my vote would go to Freese, where a platoon with Urshela makes more sense. In 2015, Freese hit .272 against right-handed pitchers, while Urshela hit .275 against left-handed pitchers. Austin Jackson is more of a target for the Indians than Dexter Fowler, mainly because his price is significantly lower and he is not tied to a qualifying offer. Jackson would present the best option in terms of defense and has shown his bat can be a plus when put in the right situation. His righty-lefty splits are a marked upgrade over Almonte. The group of Uribe, Freese, and Jackson are probably priced within the $3-$7 million range but expect only one addition to the Tribe here.
The front office has expressed that it could be still in play for one of the options above if the price is right. If a move is going to happen it will happen soon, pitchers and catchers report February 17th.
**Coming in next week’s column: 2016 AL player rankings**
— Chris Sladoje (@The_Doje)
Photo credit: David Zalubowski, AP