Major League Baseball’s qualifying offer system is a sham.
In theory, the purpose of the qualifying offer is to help teams whose best players leave in free agency to pursue greater riches to recoup some of the loss of said player. A small market team drafts and develops a player who is eventually worthy of becoming a high-price free agent, the team gives the player a short-term offer because the financial constraints of their market prohibit anything more, the player signs with a more financially lucrative team, and the original team receives a draft pick as a consolation prize.
The big winners in the signing of Lynn to a one-year, $12 million contract were the Minnesota Twins. The Twins, who entered Saturday with Kyle Gibson, whose earned-run average has been 5.07 in each of the last two seasons, listed as their #4 starter, now have Lance Lynn, a top thirty starting pitcher in baseball since becoming a full-time starter in 2012.
Granted, Lynn had a solid 3.43 ERA in 2017, his first season back from Tommy John surgery, but his fielding-independent pitching was easily the worst of his career—Lynn’s FIP stood at 4.82, after his strikeout rate decreased, his walk rate increased, and his home run rate skyrocketed (even out of proportion with increasing home run rates across baseball). By FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, the more FIP-leaning variant of WAR, he was worth 1.4 WAR, his worst full-time season in the Majors. According to FanGraphs, he was worth $10.8 million. In a down season. If Lynn manages his ZiPS projection of 2.1 fWAR, he will be worth over $16 million.
Unlike the Cardinals, the Twins have back-end (and front-end) starters whose value is close-ish to actually being replacement level—they had a pressing need for a starting pitcher that the Cardinals do not. ZiPS likes three Cardinals pitchers more than Lynn (Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver), two Cardinals pitchers with the same zWAR but fewer innings (Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright), another pitcher (Miles Mikolas) as having slightly fewer Wins Above Replacement but slightly better on a per-inning basis, and yet another potential starting pitcher projected for far higher value on a rate basis (Alex Reyes). The Cardinals’ internal projections probably don’t mirror ZiPS precisely, but by one respected system, Lynn would be projected, essentially, as the eighth best starter on the St. Louis Cardinals. As much as I love Lance Lynn, it is totally understandable why the Cardinals wouldn’t have much use for him.
Yet the Cardinals did offer Lance Lynn a contract. We know this. They offered him $17.4 million in the form of the qualifying offer in November, and Lynn turned it down in hopes that he could receive a more lucrative, longer-term contract via free agency. In retrospect, Lynn probably should have accepted the offer, but who could have known that he wouldn’t sign until the afternoon of March 10 and that this would still be earlier than Jake Arrieta or Alex Cobb?
The secondary winner today is the Cardinals, who received a late-second round pick as compensation for losing a player they probably didn’t want in the first place. The Cardinals profited by virtue of a player with career earnings just under $24 million who has been worth, by FanGraphs calculations, $111.3 million in his MLB career not accurately gauging the market. The Cardinals are not a small market that simply couldn’t afford Lance Lynn—they’re a team with an above-average payroll who gamed the system to earn an additional draft pick from a lower-spending team.
To be clear, this made business sense for the Cardinals to do. A draft pick is a draft pick and the Cardinals knew that Lynn probably wasn’t going to accept the qualifying offer (and even if he did, $17.4 million wasn’t going to be so costly that it would cripple the team). I could begrudge the Cardinals for hampering the value of a likable veteran, but just this week, Lynn wasn’t the free agent most dramatically affected by having the loss of a draft pick attached to his name. The Cardinals may not look saintly through all of this, but focusing on the Cardinals for this ignores the 29 other teams that would have done the exact same thing.
The loser today is Lance Lynn. It isn’t even close. Lance Lynn deserves better.
Saying Lance Lynn’s value was crushed by the qualifying offer isn’t completely fair—it was also crushed by his troubling 2017 and a system in which middle-class free agents, the kinds of players who can be semi-easily be replaced by somebody making league minimum unlike, say, a Yu Darvish, continue to suffer. But the qualifying offer was just one more obstacle standing in the way of Lance Lynn earning the vaunted long-term deal as a free agent which is so often cited as light at the end of the tunnel after players are substantially underpaid during the six years of club control which come at the beginning of their careers.
The qualifying offer is supposed to be about competitive balance—offering a consolation prize for teams losing a free agent, not rewarding them for it. The Cardinals have routinely benefited from offering the qualifying offer to players whom they had no real intention of re-signing: Kyle Lohse, Carlos Beltran, John Lackey, and now Lance Lynn. In each of these cases, the signing team had to weigh the loss of a draft pick and in each of these cases, it cost the player money. The qualifying offer, perhaps not by design but certainly in practice, is a salary suppressant. The qualifying offer is unfair.