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Blue Jays’ Morales embodies complicated fairness of qualifying offers

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Aug 5, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals player Kendrys Morales (25) prior to the game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 5, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals player Kendrys Morales (25) prior to the game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Blue Jays are positioned to gain two picks in the 2017 MLB amateur draft

Major League Baseball’s qualifying offer system is intended to create and maintain parity, but as recent Toronto Blue Jays’ signing Kendrys Morales knows all too well, fairness isn’t always the end result for the players.

Following the 2013 season, Morales was coming off back-to-back years of 20-plus home runs with 70-plus RBI. While his value was still limited to his bat alone, the Seattle Mariners still issued Morales a qualifying offer worth $14.1 million which he and agent Scott Boras chose to decline.

Unfortunately for Morales, his market never developed.

Morales’ free agency lasted through the winter and spring training, by which point teams preferred to hold off until after the MLB amateur draft in June. After that point, the team that signed Morales (eventually the Minnesota Twins) would no longer be required to forfeit a draft choice due to his declined qualifying offer.

Shortstop Stephen Drew, another Boras client, had a similar experience that off-season. With a declined qualifying offer of his own, the draft pick attached to Drew’s name forced him to open the season without a team.

Drew signed with Boston in May, struggled mightily with an average south of .200, and was dealt to the New York Yankees for Kelly Johnson at the MLB trade deadline. By the time Morales signed in Minnesota that June, he scuffled to a .584 OPS over 39 games with the Twins before being shipped back to Seattle where his numbers only marginally improved.

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In both cases, the player was forced to catch up to MLB-level pitching that was already reaching mid-season form. While both players clearly misjudged the market that awaited them, their on-field performance and earning potential were both negatively impacted by qualifying offers, which were only issued to them initially due to their strong play in 2013.

This will become particularly prominent for players later in their careers, especially if short-term contracts result in them receiving a qualifying offer more than once.

“If I’m one of these players, I’m not on the train to free agency — I’m on the Ferris wheel of multiple qualifying offers,” Boras told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick in 2014. “It is circular. There is no escape hatch to the system.”

Under the new CBA, which is currently being negotiated, it’s possible that players will not be eligible for offers in back-to-back seasons or that the qualifying offer could be eliminated altogether.

An experience like Morales’ factors in heavily when a mid-level free agent receives a qualifying offer. Mets’ second-baseman Neil Walker and Phillies’ starter Jeremy Hellickson accepted their qualifying offers on Monday, one year after Colby Rasmus of the Astros became the first player to accept one in the four-year history of the system.

Hellickson told MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki that he was leaning towards declining but decided to accept the offer after speaking with his agent, who was told by teams that they were “reluctant to give up a draft pick.”

His agent? Scott Boras. Lesson learned, perhaps.

For players of this calibre, just on the fringes of accepting or declining a qualifying offer, the draft pick attached to their name can quickly turn a four-year deal into a three-year deal with a lesser annual value.

Next: Jays rumours: Club reportedly interested in Bruce. Again.

On the other hand, these compensation picks will soften the blow when one or both of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion depart in free agency this winter.

With the potential for three picks in the first round of next June’s draft, the Blue Jays can quickly add some serious stock to a farm system that has already seen quiet growth in the past twelve months. It also creates added flexibility to sign a free agent with a declined qualifying offer of their own — say, Dexter Fowler or Ian Desmond — without the lost pick robbing them of their only shot at first-round talent.

The qualifying offer also worked in Toronto’s favour last November, as the Blue Jays were able to lock up starter Marco Estrada to a two-year, $26 million deal that prevented him from testing the open market with a compensatory pick attached to him.

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