It's a lot of money. In some respects, it's hard to imagine that a player could walk away from a one-year, $14.1 million offer without batting an eye.
After all, 15 years ago, Mike Piazza set a record by agreeing with the Mets to a $13 million a year salary. Then, the $14.1 million that represented a qualifying offer to the top tier of this winter's free agents would have been a landmark occurrence, a standard-setting, head-turning experience.
But that was in 1998. Now, 15 seasons of salary inflation meant that $14.1 million merely represented the AVERAGE of the top 125 salaries in all of baseball in 2013 -- and that was before this coming winter, as every team prepares for an anticipated windfall of $25 million in national TV revenue. Put another way: The $14.1 million qualifying offer that represented the AVERAGE of the top 125 salaries in all of baseball in 2013 almost certainly will fall well short of that standard next offseason.
Salaries are inflating. For players coming off strong seasons in 2013, it is a spectacular time to be a free agent -- particularly at a time when fewer and fewer elite players are reaching free agency.
In that context, it came as little surprise that the trio of free agents to whom the Red Sox extended qualifying offers -- Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli and Stephen Drew -- turned down those one-year, $14.1 million offers.
The dollars might have been short of what the market will bear. The years were certainly short of what the market might bear.
Here's a closer look at the context for each player's decision:
This one, of course, requires little explanation. As a player who turned 30 in September, Ellsbury is in the middle of his prime years. His 2013 line: .298/.355/.426, nine homers, 52 steals (in 56 attempts), elite defense in center field. His career line: .297/.350/.439, 15 homers per 162 games, 55 steals per 162 games. In other words, he looked a lot like the game-changing middle-of-the-field leadoff hitter he's been throughout his career (when healthy).
By way of comparison, when Carl Crawford reached fee agency in 2010, he was a career .296/.337/.444 hitter with 14 homers and 54 steals per 162 games. He was a year younger (29) than Ellsbury entering free agency, he'd been more durable and a case could be made that he'd been the better defender (even if at a less impactful position in left).
Still, the similarities are sufficiently compelling that Ellsbury is well within his rights -- at a time when there is a lot more money in baseball, and when there's a far greater scarcity of elite free agents -- to use that contract as a baseline, particularly given that Ellsbury can point to his 2011 season as an indicator that he can travel in a stratosphere that is typically reserved for Mike Trout and Mike Trout alone.
After a 2012 season in which Mike Napoli hit .227 with a .343 OBP and .469 slugging mark while playing in 108 games, the Red Sox were prepared to pay the slugger $39 million over three years following the worst year of his career to play a position where he'd never performed on an everyday basis. Even before Napoli was diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition following that agreement with Boston (resulting in the lengthy period of renegotiation that ultimately yielded a one-year, $5 million deal), there was considerable uncertainty surrounding what kind of players teams were acquiring. The question marks became more prominent as a result of the diagnosis of avascular necrosis, with curiosity about whether Napoli might be able to remain healthy through one season, let alone three.
One year later, Napoli is in a far better position than he was not only when he finalized his one-year pact with the Sox (in which he earned a total of $13 million by meeting every playing time incentive in the deal), but arguably, than he was when he reached his initial three-year agreement.
His case includes:
Performance: Napoli had a batter year in 2013 (.259/.360/.482 with 23 homers and 63 extra-base hits) than he did in 2012 (.227/.343/.469 with 24 homers and 35 extra-base hits), one that was much more in line with his career norms (.259/.357/.502) as a player with a hard-to-find offensive combination of power and patience who saw tons of pitches.
Health: It's worth remembering that Napoli's ability to stay on the field was a relevant question/concern for teams that talked to him in free agency last year. In parts of seven big league seasons, he'd played more than 114 games just once, while being limited to 108 contests in 2012, his free agent year.
And so, despite being diagnosed with a degenerative longterm condition, in some respects, Napoli countered some of the questions surrounding his durability by playing in 139 games, the second highest total of his career. As an everyday first baseman, he encountered some health issues -- including plantar fasciitis in his foot -- but he remained on the field with regularity throughout the year, including throughout the postseason.
"The most important thing I think is he played a full year and had no issues," Red Sox GM Ben Cherington told reporters in Orlando on Monday. "We don't have any reason to have any more concern than we did last winter. We absolutely have interest in having him back and we'll keep talking to him."
Napoli's hip condition will remain a significant concern of any team that talks with him. Still, the fact that he a) was believed to have had his condition diagnosed at its earliest stages; b) proved capable of playing a full season without his hips being an impediment; and c) a recent MRI showed no signs that the condition has worsened all suggest that a condition that initially appeared to have the potential to be career-threatening does not present the same imminent risks of last December. After all, Brett Favre was diagnosed before being traded from the Falcons to the Packers in 1992 with the same hip condition. He went on to play 19 more seasons.
Defense: This is perhaps the most significant change from a year ago. In the 2012-13 offseason, Napoli was widely viewed as an offense-first option at either catcher or first whose bat might overcome the deficiencies of his glove.
In 2013, he not only made the transition to first base, but he did so in somewhat startling fashion. Most defensive metrics (including the one that counted for 25 percent of the Gold Glove vote) suggested Napoli was far and away the best defensive first baseman in the American League last year.
Now viewed as a potential two-way contributor to a team's offense and defense, Napoli's market outlook should benefit from his new standing as an above-average first baseman. In tandem with the fact that he can serve as a middle-of-the-order hitter whose reputation as a positive clubhouse influence gained national traction, the veteran -- who turned 32 the day after the World Series -- is in as good a position for free agency as he's been at any time in his career.
Overall: Napoli was comfortable sharing risk with the Red Sox last year, understanding that his medical condition represented a sufficient exercise in the unknown to suggest that a low base salary with playing time incentives represented a fair means of navigating a situation without a clear path forward. This year is different. He has an opportunity to take advantage of his market position in a way that he'd been hoping to do last year, with a better performance behind him. In other words, his baseline is likely above the three-year, $39 million pact to which he initially agreed last winter. The fact that the Sox extended a qualifying offer to him -- thus requiring any team that wants to sign him to give up a top draft pick -- will serve as a drag, but the scarcity of power bats, particularly power bats who can also field their positions, will overcome that.
A year ago, Drew had just completed a half-season after missing roughly a year in 2011 and 2012 with a gruesome ankle fracture. He hit .223 with a .309 OBP and .348 slugging mark in 79 contests with the Diamondbacks and Athletics in 2012 -- with his numbers creeping up to .250/.326/.382 with the A's after the deal -- showing just enough to net $9.5 million on a one-year deal with the Sox.
Drew wanted to re-establish his value in 2013 to position himself for a better deal in his next trip to free agency.
"It's going to change, definitely," Drew explained in September of his willingness to take a one-year deal last offseason. "Just one of those things, I understood the one-year deal coming off of that injury, teams not knowing how I would respond. The good thing is, going out and playing everyday, I haven't had any problems with that ankle at all, it's a good feeling. I worked very hard to get back to where I was at. It could have been a career-ending injury."
It was not. Instead, he played at something close to his career norms, hitting .253/.333/.443 with 13 homers, similar to his .264/.329/.435 career line. Moreover, he showed more than enough defense to handle shortstop. At a position where the average line last year was .256/.309/.373, Drew performed to the level (in the eyes of one AL evaluator) of a top-10 shortstop in the big leagues. Among the 24 shortstops with 400 or more plate appearances, Drew finished sixth in OBP and fifth in slugging. Against right-handed pitchers, meanwhile, he was a standout, hitting .284/.377/.498, huge numbers given his position.
Certainly, Drew could have had a better final springboard into free agency than his largely woeful offensive performance in the postseason. Still, even with his struggles at the plate, the Sox remained convinced that his glove made them a better team regardless of what he did with the bat. Moreover, the narrative that he reversed his struggles as soon as he (reportedly) got fitted with contacts for Game 6 may help obviate some of the concerns about his year-ending offensive slump.
No player wants to endure free agency for three straight years. And so, at 30 and still with some good years ahead of him, Drew recognized his all-around performance in 2013 as being one that offered a fine springboard into his return to free agency. There is at least a chance (though far from a certainty) that he will come up short of a $14.1 million per year salary. Still, given the likelihood that, in a world of scant shortstop production, Drew is well-positioned for a multi-year deal in at least that qualifying offer ballpark made the decision to turn down the Sox' offer a fairly obvious one.
As with Napoli, the fact that he received a qualifying offer (and will thus require the sacrifice of a draft pick) will impact his market to some degree, but the scarcity of shortstops who can make a two-way impact once again should mean that he won't lack for suitors.