The qualifying offer has come under heavy scrutiny this offseason. As the system in place forces teams to forfeit draft picks in order to sign players that have been tendered a qualifying offer, many veteran free agents have seen their markets dry up. While elite players like Zack Greinke and Jason Heyward have had no problem selling their services despite the connected punishment, the system has severely hampered the interest in many middle tier free agents.
Due to their ties to draft pick compensation, solid veterans such as Dexter Fowler, Howie Kendrick, Yovani Gallardo, and Ian Desmond have all signed surprisingly light contracts in recent months. Given what we know now about how the Yankees' offseason, and the league offseason as a whole has played out, it is tempting to ask: Should the Yankees have been more aggressive in pursuing a potential free agent bargain?
For this exercise, the crowd-sourcing project hosted by FanGraphs will be used as a guide (take note that the FanGraphs crowd predictions actually tend to skew a few million dollars lower in most cases).
FanGraphs crowd-sourced prediction: four years, $56 million
Actual contract: two years, $22 million
Gallardo has struggled through a strange offseason. Coming off his best season (in terms of run prevention) in several years, Gallardo was generally expected to sign for more than twice the guarantee that he actually received (his contract with the Orioles did also include a $13 million team option for 2018). It's easy to see why; despite lackluster peripherals, he's combined durability (376.2 innings across 2014 and 2015) with quality (a 3.46 ERA over the same span). Yet, he still was forced to sign a short deal with Baltimore, even after the Orioles nearly yanked the rug out from under him.
The Yankees also could use more starting pitching since Ivan Nova is the most dependable arm in waiting if/when injury strikes the starting rotation. The Yankees probably were prudent to stay away from Gallardo in a search for pitching depth. His strikeout rate of 15.3% was below league average and represented a career-low, as did his 91.55 mph average fastball velocity. Those factors likely explain why Gallardo was only projected for 1.0 WARP by PECOTA. Even at such a low price, it would have been unwise for New York to add Gallardo to a rotation that already had several superior options.
FanGraphs crowd-sourced prediction: 4 years, $56 million
Actual contract: one year, $8 million
After a dalliance with the Orioles, Fowler elected to not join Gallardo in Baltimore, and instead re-signed with the Cubs. His deal included a $9 million mutual option with a $5 million buyout. Fowler has established himself as a close to league average outfielder, coupling a solid bat (a 107 OPS+ last year) with below-average center field defense by most metrics.
Since he profiles essentially as an average player, Fowler likely would not have fit in New York. While he perhaps would be an upgrade over Carlos Beltran in right field, the Yankees already have three highly paid outfielders slated to start on opening day. It's difficult to envision a scenario in which Fowler would find a clear role in an outfield that already includes Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Aaron Hicks.
FanGraphs crowd-sourced prediction: four years, $60 million
Actual contract: one year, $8 million
Entering the 2014 season, the Nationals thought highly enough of Desmond to offer him a seven year, $107 million contract extension two years prior to his free agency, but he declined. Two years later, Desmond was coming off the worst season of his career when he posted a dismal 83 wRC+. Desmond ended up signing with the Rangers for a tiny fraction of what Washington offered two years before. Quite an unfortunate turn of events for a player that just last year was regarded as one of the game's best shortstops.
Didi Gregorius has solidified himself as the shortstop of the present in New York, but the Yankees did have a clear hole at second base heading into the offseason. It seems feasible that, on a paltry one-year deal, New York could have asked Desmond to slide over to second base (Desmond has already acquiesced to the Rangers' request that he play left field this year). However, recent research by Russell Carlton at Baseball Prospectus indicated that moving shortstops to easier positions is not seamless, and that the transition requires time. Asking Desmond, a quality defensive shortstop, to play second sounds like a solid idea, but it may have been more problematic in actuality.
FanGraphs crowd-sourced prediction: four years, $52 million
Actual Contract: two years, $20 million
Kendrick has been one of the most dependable second basemen in baseball for several years. He did begin to show his age (he's now entering his age-32 season) in 2015, notching his lowest plate appearance total since 2009, and dipping slightly on defense according to defensive metrics. Still, over the past five years, he ranks seventh among second basemen by wRC+, and ranks eighth in total games played. He is getting older, so he looks more like an average player moving forward, but he clearly still has value.
Kendrick appears like the free agent bargain that could have fit the Yankees best. Signing Kendrick to a short term deal would have given the Yankees some time to truly figure out how they feel about Rob Refsnyder's defense, at second base or at third. In such a scenario, New York would not have had to trade quality depth piece Adam Warren in order to acquire Starlin Castro. With Warren still in the bullpen, the Yankees may have even decided to save themselves a headache and not trade for Aroldis Chapman. The loss of a draft pick in signing Kendrick could be mostly, or totally, offset by the money and prospects saved by not doing the Chapman deal.
It obviously takes the benefit of hindsight to say this. Back in December, when the Yankees were making the bulk of their moves, it was difficult to foresee Kendrick's market being so light. The front office saw trades that they thought provided value a few months ago, and they pounced. However, given that the Yankees are the Yankees, and that they have not signed a single major league free agent, watching fine players sign for relative pennies is disappointing. Instead of exploring if these free agent bargains were a fit, Hal Steinbrenner has been grandstanding about cutting payroll. Frustrating times, indeed.