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Diamondbacks Free-agent Discussion, #1: Patrick Corbin

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Our best pitcher this year gets to test the free-agent market.

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MLB: Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

[As we head into the off-season, we’ll be taking a look, in alphabetical order, at each of the players Arizona will potentially lose to free-agency this winter. How did they perform thus year? Would the D-backs be interested in re-signing them? And what are the odds of that happening? Some will require considerably more discussion than others, obviously...]

It’s more than eight years ago that Patrick Corbin came to the Diamondbacks, He was traded by the Angels, along with Tyler Skaggs, Rafael Rodriguez and Joe Saunders, in exchange for Dan Haren, Despite missing all of 2014 and a chunk of 2015 after Tommy John surgery, and ending 2016 in the bullpen, Corbin is still third all-time on the franchise list for starts by a Diamondback. He sits on 154, behind only Brandon Webb and Randy Johnson. Corbin is also third for strikeouts (897), fourth for wins (56) and in the top ten for ERA (3.91) and bWAR (11.4).

Of particular note is the way he rebounded after that spell in the bullpen, when it seemed like his time as a starting pitcher might be over. He was dispatched in August 2016, after an especially brutal outing against Boston, where he faced sixteen batters and recorded only five outs. But the following year, he won fourteen games, tying Patrick’s career high, with an ERA+ of 116. And this year, he was better still. He made the All-Star team for the second time, and Corbin threw exactly two hundred innings, with an ERA+ of 137. His ERA was a career-best 3.15, and you could argue he was superior even to that, with his FIP of 2.47. That was second-best in the NL among qualifying pitchers - ahead of Max Scherzer.

Here’s his one-hit shutout of the Giants on April 17:

All of which is a long way of saying: Corbin is going to get paid this winter, in one of the biggest free-agent classes ever to hit the market. Now, that’s perhaps slightly less true on the mound than at the plate, where the likes of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will be backing their trucks up (even after Harper’s underwhelming walk year). Still, unless Clayton Kershaw opts out of the final two years of his contract with the Dodger, Corbin is likely the best pitcher available. As such, he’s going to be in high demand, and that he will still be only 29 next Opening Day helps his cause. Something like the six year, $126 million signed by last year’s top pitcher, Yu Darvish, is potentially not far off the mark.

Almost certainly, this will not be from the Diamondbacks, who got a relative bargain in Patrick this year. He produced 4.6 bWAR or 6.3 fWAR, yet cost the team only $7.5 million, in Corbin’s final year of arbitration. With a whole bunch of other players increasing in cost this winter, as discussed yesterday, there just does not appear to be any room for even a token effort at re-signing the pitcher. That doesn’t mean the D-backs cannot benefit from Corbin. This is due to the Qualifying Offer system, which gives teams a way to get compensation for losing high-end free agents, in the form of an additional draft pick the following June. Here’s how it works.

The club makes a one-year offer to the player, at a figure determined by MLB - it’s set at the average salary of the 125 highest-paid players the previous season (this year, it’s estimated to be $17.9 million). The player can accept or reject it. If they accept, the team gets their services for one year at that price. However - and this is far more likely, to the point that all nine such players did so last winter - if they reject it, they become free-agents, and any team can sign them. Their new employers must pay a penalty, in the loss of a draft pick. The exact situation is a complex set of rules, based both on the new and old team’s financial status, and the size of the contract.

Corbin would be all but a shoo-in to decline a qualifying offer from the Diamondbacks. As noted above, he’s coming off the best year of his career, and is top of the free-agent pile. So it would be VERY risky for him to go another year with Arizona. He’s most unlikely to be in a better place next winter, than he is now, with potential injury and/or ineffectiveness more likely than any significant improvement for Corbin. It seems certain that Arizona will make the gesture, Corbin becoming the first player in franchise history to receive a qualifying offer. Patrick will turn it down, and once he signs with another contending team, we’ll get compensation.

If Corbin ends up signing with the Red Sox or Nationals, as the only two teams to pass the luxury tax threshold, they would suffer the highest penalty: their second- and fifth-highest picks (plus losing $1 million from its international bonus pool money), At the other end, if it’s a team who gets revenue sharing, they lose only their third-highest pick. If the new team is in between those two categories, they lose their second-highest pick. Now the good bit. If the contract Corbin signs is worth more than $50 million, as seems likely, the D-backs would get a bonus pick, immediately after the first round. [For simplicity, the above all presumes the signing team gets only one QO free-agent]

It appears the New York Yankees could be Corbin’s top destination, all else being equal. Born and brought up in the state, He told Bob Nightengale early in the season, “It would definitely be great to play there. I grew up a Yankee fan... I know the Yankees have had some interest in the past, and there were a lot of rumors this winter that got my family excited. It would have been cool. You just want to go where you’re wanted, and every team will have an opportunity. I would love to be on a contending team for sure, but we’ll see what happens.” While he later walked back those comments somewhat, there’s no doubt that a full-time career as a Yancey’s Fancy spokesman might be in his future.

The key sentence there though is, “all else being equal,” and I’ve little doubt Corbin will see plenty of demand for his services. Mark Feisand of mlb.com reported last month that Washington, Milwaykee and Seattle are “believed to be high on Corbin.” But there’s not a team out there who wouldn’t benefit from adding a top-tier starting pitcher. Almost any franchise with aspirations of near-term contention is likely to end up making at least polite inquiries about Patrick. Feel free to make your predictions in the comments - team, length and value - about the contract you think Corbin will get.