In roughly two weeks the Pittsburgh Pirates will have to make their first big decisions of the offseason – which pending free agents they should extend a qualifying offer (QO) to. The exact deadline will not be determined until the World Series has ended. Teams have five days after the conclusion of the World Series to make their qualifying offers. The QO this year is $15.3 million. That is no small sum for a team with a payroll budget of around $90 million like the Pirates. There are two pending free agents the Pirates will consider extending a QO. One is a no-brainer. The Pirates have already indicated they will make a qualifying offer to Russell Martin. There is no risk to doing so. He is practically guaranteed not to sign it, and if he does the Pirates will retain a player that is well worth the cost of the QO. As much as Pirate fans want Martin to be resigned the most likely scenario is he will turn down the QO from the Pirates and sign a multi-year extension with a larger market club. Under that scenario the Pirates would at least collect a draft pick in 2015 sandwiched between Rounds 1 and 2. The second player the Pirate will contemplate extending a qualifying offer to is Francisco Liriano. That decision is a little less clear cut, but I believe it is one the Pirates should make.
There is an outside chance that if the Pirates do make a QO to Liriano he might sign it. Although no player has yet to accept a QO, there were several players last offseason that probably wish they had. Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales, Ervin Santana, and Stephen Drew all found their market significantly impacted when their services were attached to the loss of a 1st round draft pick. Cruz, Morales, and Drew all signed 1 year deals for less than the qualifying offer. Santana signed a 1 year contract with the Braves for essentially the same amount as the QO. Eventually a player is going to end up just taking the QO instead of gambling on finding a longer term deal while their value is being suppressed by the signing penalty of a lost 1st round pick. Liriano profiles as the type of player that is most hurt by a QO. He is going to be 31 years old next season, he has thrown close to 1200 career innings, and he has an injury history. He also is too inconsistent to be considered a bonafide top of the rotation starting pitcher. Liriano is a better bet as a mid-rotation starter. For these reasons he likely would not fetch an enormous long term free agent contract even under the best of circumstances. He is inline for something like a 3 or 4 year deal in the $12-$14 million annual average value (AAV) range. The QO could really drag his market down further, which might make the $15.3 million 1 year salary that comes with a QO look like an attractive option to him.
If Liriano does accept a QO that isn’t such a terrible outcome for the Pirates. $15.3 million is some what of an overpay for Liriano, but it comes with no long term risk and he offers at least a fair chance at performing up to that level. Liriano can be maddeningly inconsistent at times, but he is also capable of being dominant. He is not a true ace but he is capable of pitching like one in stretches. In 2013 he pitched like an ace all season. He had some struggles in 2014, but there are signs Liriano can still be an elite pitcher. His K/9 rate of 9.70 and ground ball rate of 54.4% this season were even better than his 2013 numbers. Good luck trying to find another ground ball pitcher with those type of strikeout rates.
An even better outcome for the Pirates than Liriano outright accepting the QO is that it could lead to a discounted multi-year contract. If Liriano declines the QO the Pirates would still be in position to capitalize on his suppressed market. A 2 year/$25 million contract could be a win-win for all parties. The Pirates would retain Liriano at a lower AAV than the cost of the qualifying offer, while Liriano would get $10 million additional in guaranteed money above the QO. Either way the goal should be for the Pirates to retain Francisco Liriano. The best chance of that happening is by extending him a qualifying offer.