Somewhat lost in the Dodgers’ hectic start to the offseason were the qualifying offers the club extended last week to two important pieces. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Yasmani Grandal have made significant contributions to the Dodgers in recent years and each had to decide whether to play for $17.9 million next season or test the free-agent market for a long-term deal. They came to different decisions.
Although Ryu accepted the offer before Monday’s deadline, Grandal rejected it but still can re-sign with the Dodgers. If Grandal signs elsewhere, the Dodgers will receive a compensatory pick before the third round in next June’s draft.
Ryu, 31, became the sixth player to accept a qualifying offer out of the 80 players to receive it since it was implemented seven years ago. He is betting on himself to replicate the success he enjoyed when healthy in 2018 and parlay it into a more lucrative long-term contract in free agency next offseason after his age-32 season than he would have gotten this offseason.
Two years after undergoing major shoulder surgery, Ryu had a 1.97 earned-run average in 15 regular-season starts last season. He suffered a groin tear in early May that sidelined him until mid-August, but returned to post a 1.88 ERA in nine outings down the stretch and was selected over Clayton Kershaw to start Game 1 of a National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. Ryu held the Braves scoreless over seven innings, but didn’t pitch out of the fifth inning in his three final outings.
Grandal lost his starting job amid a miserable postseason for the second consecutive year but enters the free-agent fray as the top catcher on the market after another productive regular season. He was, by most measures, the second-best offensive catcher in the majors in 2018, behind the Miami Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto. He compiled the second-highest FanGraphs WAR among catchers and hit the most home runs while appearing in a career-high 140 games.
His production in recent years closely resembles what catchers Russell Martin and Brian McCann posted before garnering steep five-year deals this decade. Martin received $82 million from the Toronto Blue Jays in November 2014 and McCann got $85 million from the New York Yankees in 2013.
But more teams were more willing to invest heavily in free agency then and Grandal’s drastic streakiness and woeful playoff history complicates his resume. In 92 postseason plate appearances, Grandal has a .107 batting average and .464 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Last year, Austin Barnes seized the everyday catching duties from Grandal with a breakout season before the playoffs began. This year, the Dodgers began with Grandal as the starter as Barnes struggled, but Barnes was promoted during the NL Championship Series and started eight of the Dodgers’ final nine games.
Keibert Ruiz, the Dodgers’ top prospect, is only 20 and needs more seasoning in the high minors, but his potential could dictate how the Dodgers address catching this offseason.
The Dodgers could look for a veteran stop-gap in free agency from a pool that includes Robinson Chirinos, Martin Maldonado, Jonathan Lucroy and Nick Hundley. Without Grandal, the Dodgers have Barnes, Kyle Farmer and Rocky Gale as internal catching options with major league experience. Prospect Will Smith, who spent September with the team but not on the roster, is also in the mix for next season. The 23-year-old batted .233 with a .776 OPS in 98 games between double-A Tulsa and triple-A Oklahoma City.
“He is someone that we’re extremely high on,” Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers president of baseball operations, said last week. “We feel like there’s real potential with the bat. We think he has a chance to be elite behind the plate. We really like the way his mind works.”
Ryu’s return gives the Dodgers 39 players on the 40-man roster. They have about $144 million committed for next season’s payroll, which doesn’t include their 13 arbitration-eligible players. The competitive balance tax threshold for 2019 is $206 million. The Dodgers would pay a 20% tax for each dollar spent over the line after dipping under threshold last season and resetting the penalty.