I’m not much of a golfer, but I’ve had the good fortune to play a few really nice tracks in my day. The famed Old White — which has not yet been renamed Okay, Boomer — at The Greenbrier, Cascata out in Las Vegas, and Torrey Pines — a public course that really dresses up nicely for TV — are among them. But the most challenging, at least in terms of understanding how it played, was The Ocean Course at Kiawa Island.
Had we not been playing with a forecaddie, I can’t tell you how poorly things would have turned out. In addition to the shifting breeze coming off the ocean, the oppressive humidity ensured that we were trying to hit the ball through soup. You’d have to club up on every shot, maybe even two clubs, then hope you gauged the wind correctly. Oh, and did I mention the ubiquitous gators and water moccasins?
As strange as you may find it on the surface, I believe this presents a perfect analogy for any predictions of the 2020 season and beyond. More specifically, it’s what the Cubs and other teams are trying to do as they look beyond just a campaign that may or may not be played this summer. Hence my hyperbole when replying to a tweet from Bryan Smith of Bleacher Nation about whether the Cubs would extend a qualifying offer to José Quintana.
If they give him a QO, I’ll quit writing.
— Evan Altman (@DEvanAltman) May 22, 2020
Quintana’s status as one of the most underrated pitchers in the game hasn’t changed as a result of his time on the North Side. If anything, he’s gone from a guy people knew was a sleeper to one whose pulse some have had to check from time to time. But while he’s far from dead and probably has a few good years left in him, there are several factors involved that I believe will conspire against Q getting a QO.
Now, to be fair, it’s possible the Cubs would extend the offer in the hopes that Quintana declines it, netting them a compensatory pick. But, and this is pretty big, the position of that pick could vary quite a bit based on what happens — or doesn’t happen — between now and the conclusion of the 2020 season. As the Cubs seek greater certainty in the face of an amorphous future, I don’t see them extending a qualifying offer to Quintana.
TL;DR: Quintana is a very good pitcher and will probably provide solid value for another 2-3 seasons, but the uncertainty of the current MLB environment and the Cubs’ need to retool means a QO is far from a sure thing.
The most unfortunate aspect of this whole thing is the near certainty that free agency will be suppressed yet again. While the misdirection of huge deals for superstars had you shocked by the escalation of baseball contracts, you may have missed the fact that the QO value — the average of the top 125 highest-paid players — actually dropped by $100,000 in 2019.
If that doesn’t seem like a big deal, think about what that means (pun intended) in the face of the record deals making all the headlines. Since it was instituted following the 2012 season, the qualifying offer had increased by at least $200,000 each season. That makes sense, right? But after two sluggish offseasons that saw players outside the top tier struggle to land what they had previously believed was fair market value, this winter figures to bring even further suppression.
Owners are already crying poor when it comes to playing games without fans and you can bet that’s going to continue through at least this next free-agent period. And that’s if they play the games at all. Missing out on postseason broadcast rights would be a huge blow to MLB’s revenues and would almost certainly mean significantly reduced offers.
Beyond just putting cement shoes on the QO, it’s reasonable to believe the Cubs or another team could sign a solid mid-level starter for significantly less than what they’d otherwise have been able to. That sucks for the players, but I just don’t think the value will be enough for the Cubs to risk paying out maybe 50-100% more in average annual value than they have to.
That’s incredibly important for a team that has pinched pennies over each of the last two offseasons and may very well do so again this winter. With Marquee Sports Network floundering in its attempts to secure broad coverage in Chicagoland, the Cubs are going to have a hard time recouping startup costs this season. Remember how Tom Ricketts said gate revenue made up 70% of the team’s total annual take? He may not have been telling the whole truth, but that could actually be the case for the time being given Marquee’s financials.
Things are even bleaker if there’s no season at all, since that means the Cubs would not have their competitive balance tax status reset and will go into 2021 “needing” to get under the threshold. It’ll be up to $210 million by then and they’ll have relief from the expiring contracts of Quintana and Jon Lester, but it’s hard to imagine them paying Q up to 70% more than the $10.5 million he’s earned over each of the last two seasons.
Those CBT factors also play a role in the Cubs’ draft pick compensation in the event that they extend a QO and Quintana signs elsewhere. Should they manage to get under the CBT this season, they’d be entitled to a pick following Competitive Balance Round B, or just before Round 3. If they have to pay luxury tax, however, that pick comes after the fourth round.
Since the draft is likely to be just 20 rounds next year, those picks are very important and might be worth the potential risk that Q takes the offer. Ah, but therein lies the bigger problem. Because those picks are so important, other teams are going to be even less likely than usual to part with them in exchange for signing Quintana. Would a team that receives revenue sharing see fit to pay Quintana as a mid-rotation starter and part with its third-highest pick? Probably not.
A likely suitor in more normal times would be a decent team looking to bolster its starting five with a reasonably-priced starter. But when you ask whether a team that isn’t in the penalty and doesn’t receive revenue sharing would be willing to forfeit its second-highest selection and $500,000 in international bonus pool money, the answer is a definitive “Hell no.”
If a team that was over the CBT signs a player who has a QO, that team forfeits its second- and fifth-highest selections as well as $1 million in pool money. That ain’t happening. When you look at the exorbitant cost to the teams that might sign Quintana, or other QO players, extending a qualifying offer this offseason will essentially be locking in that contract for a player who could probably be signed for much less.
For the Cubs in particular, those extra millions could be used to extend some of their core players like Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, the list goes on. Those talks are on hold for now, but they figure to resume once the season gets started back up. Even if that means waiting until this winter, the Cubs will have just one remaining year of control over most of their young stars and will surely prioritize those deals over a QO for a 32-year-old lefty.
Under normal circumstances, a qualifying offer for Quintana would make all kinds of sense. The guy hasn’t pitched like anything approaching the quasi-ace you’d expect in return for a pair of super-stud prospects, but he’s made at least 31 starts over each of the last seven seasons and he’s been grossly underpaid relative to his production for years. That said, he’s hovering pretty close to mediocrity and projects to remain so moving forward.
Who knows, though, the uncertain nature of this whole mess could spin things in an entirely different direction over the next few months. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to line up this tee shot.