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Brandon Moss as a qualifying offer candidate

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He isn't even a full-time starter, but for a second consecutive year, a short-term trade deadline acquisition could turn into a viable candidate for the qualifying offer.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

When the St. Louis Cardinals acquired Brandon Moss at the trade deadline last July, it was met, generally speaking, with one of two reactions. #1 was apathy. Given the availability of such major pieces as Yoenis Cespedes, Johnny Cueto, Cole Hamels, David Price, and Troy Tulowitzkithe acquisition of Moss didn't move the needle too much.

#2 was anger. In his 375 plate appearances in 2015 for the Cleveland Indians, Brandon Moss was worth -0.7 Wins Above Replacement per Baseball Reference. He was there for his bat, and he was a below league average hitter (OPS+ of 84).

Moss had been a better hitter in the past, particularly during his previous three seasons with the Oakland Athletics, but he had never been a superstar. And the Cardinals were dealing Rob Kaminsky, one of the organization's top pitching prospects.

Brandon Moss was unremarkable, though better than in Cleveland, with last year's Cardinals, and while his 2016 contract with the Cardinals is understandable given the typical cost of free agents, re-signing him was a fairly insipid move. When the team lost its top 2015 pitcher, its top 2015 position player, and then finished second in the sweepstakes for the most highly sought free agent starting pitcher, Brandon Moss seemed like an insufficient consolation prize.

And yet in 2016, Brandon Moss has had a career renaissance. Moss is hitting home runs at what is easily the highest rate of his career, and despite several marginally worse peripheral statistics (slightly higher strikeout rate, a slightly lower batting average on balls in play), his power surge has redefined his overall game.

His production is somewhat subdued by his relatively low number of plate appearances. While Moss can play three different positions, the presence of Matt Holliday, the emergence of Stephen Piscotty, and the career rebound of Matt Adams mean Brandon Moss does not need to play every day. But if you were to prorate his production to a 600 plate appearance pace, approximating a relatively healthy full-time player, he would be worth 3.5 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement.

And against all odds, Brandon Moss might merit a qualifying offer.

The qualifying offer (for those who are uninitiated to the process or need a refresher, here is one) is usually reserved for the top impending free agents in baseball. After all, if the player accepts the qualifying offer, it means he will be paid the average of the top 125 salaries in the game. In 2016, this would mean paying a player $15.8 million. In 2017, it will likely mean paying him more.

But any group is going to have tiers, and teams often extend the qualifying offer as a way to lock in a consolation prize if a player departs in free agency in the form of a first-round draft pick. In some cases, teams extend the qualifying offer and do not exert much effort to sign him beyond that: the Cardinals arguably did this with three of the four players to whom they have given the offer in Kyle Lohse, Carlos Beltran, and John Lackey.

The most important question when evaluating whether or not to offer a qualifying offer is a very simple one: "How would you feel if he accepts it?"

  1. If you would be thrilled if he accepted the qualifying offer, as the Cardinals would have been last year with Jason Heyward, you offer it. You make the offer and you try to work out a longer contract, but you have nothing to lose by offering it and a first-round draft pick to gain.
  2. If you would be at peace with him accepting it, though not necessarily thrilled, you still offer it. Think John Lackey last year. Sure, the Cardinals had five starting pitchers with whom they were comfortable already (this was before Lance Lynn's Tommy John surgery), but by Fangraphs dollar-per-WAR measures, Lackey is already worth more than $15.8 million this year. You can make room for the caliber of player you would consider giving the qualifying offer.
  3. If you'd really rather he not accept it, for whatever reason, it depends on the situation. This will probably be the case with Brandon Moss.
  4. If a player's acceptance of the qualifying offer would make you break down and cry, do not offer it. You know what's cooler than trying to get a first-round pick for not signing Jordan Walden? Not paying Jordan Walden $16 million after he absolutely accepts the qualifying offer.

Brandon Moss isn't Jason Heyward nor Justin Upton, so a comparison to one of them would be silly. So let's compare him to Michael Cuddyer.

In 2014, Cuddyer, 35, had the best offensive season of his career on a rate basis, but he only had 205 plate appearances for the Colorado Rockies. His 150 wRC+ was impressive (and also gives consideration to the fact that he played his home games in the terrific offensive environment of Coors Field), but his defense was hideous. In total, he was worth 1.4 fWAR. Brandon Moss, comparatively young as he will turn 33 in September, has already nearly equaled this.

Cuddyer's peak by fWAR was 3.1 in his age-27 season and aside from that, he never eclipsed 2.4. He was below replacement level in 2008 and 2010, and he was a below average hitter as recently as two years prior. Yet Cuddyer received a qualifying offer. And he declined it. And the New York Mets forfeited a first-round pick to sign him to a two-year contract, and they were likely happy to cut their losses after Michael Cuddyer retired following the first year of his contract.

Last season, for the first time, three players actually accepted the qualifying offer: Astros outfielder Colby Rasmus, Dodgers pitcher Brett Anderson, and Orioles catcher Matt Wieters. Their circumstances varied, but they did set a precedent (and perhaps served as a cautionary tale in contrast to Ian Desmond, who declined a qualifying offer from the Washington Nationals before signing for considerably less in March with the Texas Rangers).

Age fWAR IP/PA fWAR per 200 IP/600 PA
Brett Anderson, 2015 27 1.7 180 1/3 IP 1.9
Colby Rasmus, 2015 28 2.8 485 PA 3.5
Matt Wieters, 2015 29 1.0 282 PA 2.1
Brandon Moss, 2016 32 1.2 206 PA 3.5

Now admittedly, there are some assumptions being made here. The far-right column assumes that Brandon Moss not only can keep up his pace so far for the remainder of the season, but that he would be able to maintain it throughout a full season's workload. But even given the relatively advanced age of Moss compared to Anderson, Rasmus, and Wieters, he has high-end potential.

Compared to last offseason, next year's free agent class looks relatively thin. If Brandon Moss maintains his level of production, he could be an intriguing target, if not as a future superstar but as a high-upside backup plan.

Even if the best case scenario occurs for Brandon Moss this season, exposing the Cardinals to a potential $16 million-plus contract may be too much of a risk for the team to undergo. But if they are convinced that they would like to go forward with Moss, or perhaps if they are still not sold on Matt Adams as an everyday first baseman, it may be a risk with small enough downside that it is worth taking.