One of the nifty changes to the CBA a year ago was the change regarding how teams handle their impending free-agents. Prior to the current CBA, baseball used a system of Type-A and Type-B free-agents and assigned compensation based on offering arbitration. For Type-A free-agents, the FA's prior team received the new team's earliest pick and a supplemental round pick between the first and second rounds, and for Type-B free-agents, the former team received a supplemental pick. The new CBA did away with the Type-A and -B free-agents, and teams must now make a qualifying offer of about $14 million - changes every year but will probably increase from the $13.2 million offer last season. Doing so will get the former team a supplemental round pick - NOT the new team's first pick - if the free-agent signs elsewhere.
The Braves have 3 players headed toward free-agency - Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, and Paul Maholm - and while it's too early to be making any definitive conclusions, it's time to start considering these offers now that everyone is healthy. It's especially important as the emergence of Evan Gattis and the return of Brandon Beachy have begun to suggest trading each of these players. Trading them will not only remove them from the team. It will take away the possibility of a draft pick, and the receiving team wouldn't have the possibility of getting this compensation after the season - the new rule stipulates the free-agent must be on the team for a full season in order to get a draft pick.
This should be a no-brainer. With McCann appearing to be fully healthy and productive, he is at least a 3-4 win player, which is worth about $15-20 million on the open market. Miguel Montero and Yadier Molina have recently received between $12-15 million for their free-agent seasons, but they signed extensions, not free-agent contracts. McCann would be the most appetizing option on the free-agent market, and entering his age-30 season, he would likely command a 4-5 year contract worth something in the $12-15 range for each season. If the Braves make a qualifying offer, McCann would likely turn it down and take one of the contracts with more guaranteed money. Even if he accepts, teams would line up to take an All-Star catcher on a one-year/$14M deal from the Braves. There's little risk as long as McCann stays healthy and produces around his career norms. Either the Braves keep an All-Star caliber player, or they trade him to one of the many teams who could use a starting catcher.
This one should be a no-brainer as well, though from the opposite perspective. Hudson probably hasn't actually pitched as bad as his 4.41 ERA suggest - his K and BB rates are the best of his career, but his groundball rate and HR rate have increased - but he doesn't merit $14 million. He's been a 2-3 win pitcher for the past 5 years, and he'll probably perform similarly this season. On the open market, that's probably worth $10-15 million, though probably toward the low-end for Hudson. The issue then becomes Hudson's age. He will be 38-going-on-39 at the beginning of next season, and even if he "recovers" in the next two-thirds of the season, he's still becoming more and more likely to "fall off the cliff". The Braves don't need to spend $14 million on a pitcher like this - they were only willing to spend $9 million on him this season - and teams won't line up to take him off the Braves' hands. None of this is to say I wouldn't mind having Huddy back next season, but $14 million is entirely too much.
This is the tricky case. Over the past two-plus seasons, Maholm's ERAs have been 3.66 (2011), 3.67 (2012), and 3.65 (this season), and with peripherals and FIPs that suggest these are fairly "legitimate", Maholm has been worth 2 wins or so during those seasons. Again, the market suggests that would pay out approximately $10-12 million, and Maholm doesn't come with the same age concerns as Hudson - will be 30-going-on-31 next season. Kyle Lohse signed a 3-year/$33 million contract with the Brewers just before this season, and while he was a bit better than Maholm currently is, Maholm is also 4 years younger.
So here's the question. Do the Braves tender a qualifying offer knowing the $14 million is probably a little too expensive for Maholm but risk it for the draft pick? Or do they play it safe? Teams are always looking for pitchers, and a one-year deal - even an expensive one - comes with relatively little risk compared to a multi-year deal. The Braves wouldn't get much back when trading Maholm (should he accept), but they get absolutely nothing if they refuse to offer him a qualifying offer.
Of course, this also depends on Maholm. Let's say you and your agent figured you could match Lohse's 3/33 contract. Do you take the additional $19 million in guaranteed money, or do you take the larger 2013 figure and hope for the 3/33 next winter? You could potentially make more money in 2014 while getting a guaranteed contract that also covers 2017 - signing a 3-year deal this winter would be signing through 2016 - but you take the risk that you get injured or under-perform as your velocity continues to decline, which gets you nowhere near the same contract you hoped.
It's not an easy decision for either side. If I was the Braves, I might take the gamble, though. Maholm will be in an odd situation becomes of the compensation pick, but while Lohse had problems getting a contract last winter, he still received a healthy contract - not to mention the reports he was demanding 4 or 5 years even in January and February. Maholm would likely decline the qualifying offer if he and his agent believed a Lohse-type offer would exist because it's nearly $20 million more guaranteed than the $10-15 million more he might gain by taking his chances in accepting and performing well again in 2014. Buuuut stranger things have happened.
How This Affects Trade Scenarios
Each of these players has been named in trade ... we'll say suggestions over the past few weeks. Gattis' emergence has made everyone feel a bit better about the future of the catching situation, but teams don't usually trade impact bats away from their team at the deadline.
The production Gattis has given the team is worth noting, but I'm not sure a team with title aspirations should be trading away the best player at a position, risking the team being really depleted should a late injury happen to Gattis or Laird. McCann could probably net a decent return at the deadline as his injury risk is pretty low over two months, but there is real value in bettering your odds of going further in the playoffs, specifically financial. If they traded McCann, it would probably return someone of immediate impact in another area of need.
Trading Hudson would remove an obstacle from the impending, albeit good, problem Beachy's return will cause, but he won't bring back much in a return. He also isn't a candidate for a qualifying offer, so nothing is a low bar to clear. The same logic from above, however, counts here. You don't simply trade away depth and leave the last two months to chance. The counter-argument is that the Braves don't need 5 spots in the rotation in the playoffs, and it seems somewhat likely that they could use Sean Gilmartin, Alex Wood, or J.R. Graham to help stumble into the post-season. They could always trade for another starter if they needed to. Trading Hudson might not be a terrible idea.
Trading Maholm would be a bit trickier. He would bring back a decent-ish prospect in return, but it wouldn't likely be a lot. It would remove some of the stress from Beachy's return, but the possible first-round pick is probably a better value than whatever trading Maholm now would return. If you feel like the Braves shouldn't extend him a qualifying offer, he'd be a better trade chip than Hudson.
I'd hold on to McCann and Maholm, at least, and hope for 3 first-round/supplemental picks next season.