Barber: Could Will Smith, Madison Bumgarner accept Giants' offers?

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Tuesday, 10 impending Major League Baseball free agents received qualifying offers from their teams. Two of those players, pitchers Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith, happened to be San Francisco Giants.

The Giants didn’t surprise anyone with those moves. No, the surprise is that at least one of the players might accept his offer.

First, a little background on qualifying offers. Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if you are well versed on the subject.

Under the current collective bargaining agreement, MLB teams can offer most of their new free agents a one-year contract based on the average of the leagues’ top 125 salaries. There are exceptions. You can’t tender a player if he has received such an offer in the past, or if he was an in-season acquisition the previous year. The qualifying price this time around is $17.8 million.

A player has 10 days to accept or reject the offer. If he rejects it, he is free to sign with any team, including the one that made him the offer, for any amount of time and money. But if he does, the club that signs him must forfeit one or two draft picks, depending on the team’s payroll; these can include the team’s second- or third-highest available pick, so the cost is significant. International bonus pool money also might be at stake. Meanwhile, the team victimized by the player’s move gains a compensatory pick, also based on payroll.

It’s a complicated system. And before revisiting the Giants, allow me a moment to state how backward it is. The general idea of professional sports allows a player to explore his or her full market value when his/her contract expires. MLB’s qualifying-offer process stymies player movement by penalizing teams hoping to lure free agents. In effect, it creates a disincentive.

We saw the effect of that last offseason, when two prominent free agents, starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel and reliever Craig Kimbrel, rejected their qualifying offers (from Houston and Boston, respectively), then languished for months on the open market. Maybe they were asking too much. Certainly, the compensatory draft picks were part of the equation.

Keuchel signed with the Braves on June 7, the same day Kimbrel joined the Cubs. They had to wait until after the draft, when their qualifying offers expired. How did the players’ union ever agree to this?

OK, back to the Giants. At first glance, you would expect Bumgarner and Smith to reject their offers, for the simple fact that almost everyone does. Since 2012, 80 MLB players have received qualifying offers; 74 have rejected them. The past two offseasons, just one of 16 guys (Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu) has said yes.

Only top-level players get such offers. Most of them believe they can draw bigger deals on the open market.

Will Smith might be a rare exception.

Different positions command different dollar figures, and though this is in many ways the Era of the Relief Pitcher, non-starters rarely attract huge money. That $17.8 million figure, the average of baseball’s top 125 players? Only three relievers will exceed it in 2020. The gold standard is the $22 million Miami will pay Wei-Yin Chen.

Smith, who is 30, made $4.225 million in 2019, his highest salary ever. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Henry Schulman reported that when he informed Smith of the qualifying-offer figure for 2020, “his eyes lit up and he said, ‘That’s a lot of money.’” It is for a relief pitcher.

Don’t get me wrong, Smith is one of the best closers in the game. Last year he had 34 saves and blew just four of those opportunities. His WHIP (walks + hits per inning pitch) since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2018 is 1.006. His strikeout-to-walk ratio in that time is 4.64. Those are great numbers. If he hits free agency, Smith will be the top closer candidate on the market.

Does that mean he will command more than $17.8 million? Probably. Maybe. But it isn’t guaranteed.

Bumgarner is a different sort of player. He’s actually 22 days younger than Smith, but has accomplished a lot more. Some would call Bumgarner the greatest pitcher in World Series history. He is definitely one of the last surviving icons of the Giants’ Series run of the early 2010s. Bumgarner had a nice bounce-back year in 2019, too: 207⅔ innings, a 9-9 record for a sub-.500 team, a solid 3.90 ERA, a WHIP of 1.127 and a K/BB ratio of 4.72.

Everyone expects Bumgarner to reject the Giants’ qualifying offer. That includes people who know the team best, so I expect him to do it, too. For one thing, despite his hero status here, Bumgarner might not want to stay in San Francisco.

And yet … something tells me it’s not impossible that he would accept the offer.

Bumgarner is a workhorse with a legendary track record. He also is part of a free-agent class that includes some great pitchers, including the two men who most dominated the 2019 postseason — Washington’s Stephen Strasburg and Houston’s Gerrit Cole. Bumgarner is also competing with Zack Wheeler, Jake Odorizzi, Ryu, Kuechel and Cole Hamels for potential slices of the salary cap.

Most of those guys don’t have Bumgarner’s place in history. But most of them have been better than he has lately. And if he isn’t even third or fourth on the wish list, can Bumgarner assume he’ll get a long-term contract offer that he likes? Consider that Keuchel was 12-11 with a 3.74 ERA and 1.314 WHIP over 204⅔ innings in 2018, after which he rejected the Astros’ qualifying offer. Pretty comparable to 2019 Bumgarner. Keuchel’s WAR (wins above replacement) in 2018 was 2.6. Bumgarner’s in 2019 was 2.4.

There’s another reason for Giants fans to retain hope of MadBum signing that tender. While he was a B+ or A- pitcher in 2019, his grade was Incomplete in each of the two preceding seasons. That could be a turnoff to some potential suitors. Yet neither of the injuries that took him off the field, a motorcycle accident and a broken hand caused by a line drive, is indicative of any long-term arm troubles.

Would it be crazy for Bumgarner to accept the $17.8 million for 2020, believing one more strong season will improve his long-term value? Or that he might, you know, get shipped to a contender at next year’s trade deadline, providing a chance to update his postseason magnificence? Then hit the market when he’s not competing with the likes of Cole and Strasburg?

It’s probably all wishful thinking. But that’s what baseball’s all about, right? Especially this time of year.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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