Among the first decisions the Pirates must make this offseason will be whether to extend qualifying offers to Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. The Pirates were unwilling to extend an offer to A.J. Burnett last year, and they've said they would prefer not to risk having one player occupy too great a percentage of their payroll. (A qualifying offer this year is $15.3 million.)
The Pirates' decisions this year should be easier. There is virtually no chance Martin will accept a qualifying offer, so it would be silly not to extend one -- it's an obvious decision that doesn't require a 500-word explanation. And I don't think Liriano will accept one either.
Burnett had previously said he intended to play for the Pirates or retire, so accepting a qualifying offer would have made sense for him. Liriano isn't in that position. In fact, at 31 in October and coming off two straight good seasons, this offseason probably represents his best shot at a big multi-year deal. As Mike Petriello points out, Ubaldo Jimenez rejected a qualifying offer last offseason, and he still got a $50 million contract. Even with a qualifying offer attached, and even given Liriano's erratic history, he should be able to get at least a three-year deal. If he accepts the Pirates' qualifying offer and then has a bad season, he might not get another chance at that kind of contract.
Okay, but let's say the Pirates extend Liriano the qualifying offer and he accepts. The only possible negative outcome, from the Pirates' perspective, is that he accepts it. That wouldn't be so bad.
$15.3 million is not at all an unreasonable price to pay a good starting pitcher, and if the Pirates again claim that the qualifying offer represents too great a percentage of their payroll, that's unacceptable. The Pirates don't need to be the Yankees, but they do need to be willing to pay the going rate for a good ballplayer every so often.
But let's assume for a second that $15.3 million for a good player really is a hardship for them. The Pirates currently have only Gerrit Cole, Vance Worley and Jeff Locke as sure bets for their April rotation right now. They're going to need to get more pitching this offseason anyway. If $15.3 million really were a problem, at least the Pirates could save the $5 million (or whatever) on whoever their fifth starter would have been. And after this season, of course, Liriano would be a free agent again, and the Pirates could take him off their books if they wanted. That's the worst-case scenario.
There is a reasonable argument to be made that Liriano isn't worth $15.3 million per year. He isn't an innings eater, he's had his fair share of terrible seasons, and he's getting older. But it's close, given Liriano's performance with the Pirates and given his second half this year. And, obviously, Liriano might not -- no, probably would not -- accept the $15.3 million even if the Pirates offered it. In which case, of course, they'd wind up with a free draft pick. The risk here is minimal, and the upside more than justifies it.