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Orioles dreams of draft picks from qualifying offer free agents may not be coming true

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The Orioles were poised to reap draft picks galore in the 2015-16 offseason with three or more qualifying offers. Is that prospect disappearing?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It is, of course, early to be writing about the offseason.  This post does not mean that the Orioles' 2015 campaign is by any means over.  It's way too early to say any such thing.  But I was looking over the roster, and I noticed that the Orioles face an odd problem: some of the players who have struggled (or been absent) early on are the very pending free agents to whom the club could extend qualifying offers this offseason.

A primer on the MLB qualifying offer system, for the uninitiated: When a club has a pending free agent, they may opt to offer that player a one-year contract for a fixed amount, known as a qualifying offer.  Last year, the amount was set at $15.3M, but it changes based on the top-valued contracts in the league.  If the player rejects that offer, and signs with another club, the signing club forfeits its top draft pick the following year (or its second round pick, if it has a top-ten pick), and the losing club gains a compensatory pick in between the first and second rounds.

This is all an attempt by MLB to bring more parity into the league, compensating small-market clubs who lose top-tier players and penalizing big spenders in free agency.  It has softened the market for some of the players who have declined offers (no free agent has accepted one yet), in particular players at the bottom end of the QO pool (such as, in recent years, Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew); the Orioles netted Nelson Cruz on a one-year deal last year because of this system.

The Orioles, with a slew of free agents at the end of the current season, looked to be poised to reap a lot of extra draft picks in 2016 for players that they would probably be unable to re-sign.  A number of the club's pending free agents (such as Steve Pearce, Delmon Young, Brian Matusz and Darren O'Day) don't merit qualifying offers, but it was expected that at least three of them would.  Here's how the top four candidates stack up at this point in the season.

Wei-Yin Chen

The Orioles have gotten impressive value from Chen's contract, a mostly unheralded international free agent deal.  For four years and $16M, the Orioles have gotten 7 WAR (so far) from the lefty starter, without a single season with a below average ERA.  Pretty impressive stuff, even more so considering the offensive environment that Chen has pitched in.  Working against Chen is some minor injury history; working for him is the fact that he pitches with his left arm, and has succeeded even as a fly ball pitcher in a hitter's park.  Barring a late-season major injury or regression, Chen is on track to get a QO.

Verdict: Receives a QO

Chris Davis

After a brutal 2014 campaign, Davis is showing some signs of life this year, not getting back to his 53-homer 2013 pace, but at least looking a bit more like the guy who hit 33 dingers in 2012.  He's still striking out a ton (even more so, in fact), and his cold stretches bring to mind the polar vortex, but there is going to be a big, multi-year market for a 30-year-old first baseman with adequate defense and the kind of pop that Davis has shown in the recent past.  Barring a post-All Star Break collapse to 2014 levels, Davis has a good chance of receiving a QO, but his recent struggles keep it from being a sure thing.

Verdict: Likely to receive a QO, but not guaranteed

Matt Wieters

Even though Wieters has never fulfilled the promise of his mega-hype prospect fame (oh, how foolish those memes look today), he looked to be a surefire qualifying offer heading into 2015.  A former first-round pick; a switch-hitting catcher with experience managing a pitching staff that outperformed its peripherals; a guy with easy power even if his contact skills lacked at times.  But Wieters' Tommy John surgery changed all of that, and his slow and seemingly ever-delayed return from that surgery has made the prospect even dicier.  There's a pretty good chance that Wieters will be looking for a value-building deal for 2016, to really hit the market the following offseason.  A qualifying offer would be an easy out to do exactly that, which will probably make the Orioles hesitate to extend one, unless Wieters comes back in early June and sets the world on fire.

Verdict: Unlikely to receive a QO, but not out of the question.

Bud Norris

Look, I just have to write this part, OK?  Norris looked like he'd really turned a corner in 2014, getting lefties out better than he ever had in his career and going through two separate stretches where he looked like an ace, even if he still struggled at a few points in the season.  For teams looking at him as a 31-year-old free agent, he could've been a tempting target, if 2015 had stayed on track.  Well, it's already pretty safe to say that 2015 is off track.  Before recently hitting the DL with bronchitis, Norris was getting rocked to the tune of a 9.88 ERA.  That's not a guy you offer $15M+ to, even if he comes back and rounds into better form.

Verdict: Will not receive a QO.