Even if the Red Sox had no plans to sign Marcus Stroman or Kevin Gausman this winter, the fact that both accepted qualifying offers will still impact Boston's search for pitching.
The two right-handers slotted directly behind National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer on the free agent market, but rather than test the waters, each accepted guaranteed one-year deals for $18.9 million. Stroman stayed with the Mets, while Gausman elected to remain with the Giants.
It's debatable whether the Red Sox would've pursued either of them, thanks to the draft picks attached to both by virtue of receiving a qualifying offer. But it hurts Boston's chances to upgrade one of baseball's worst rotations anyway, because it creates demand further down the free agent pool in the waters where the Red Sox projected to be swimming.
It's hard to blame either Stroman or Gausman for taking the sure payday now. The former made his first All-Star team in 2019 with the Blue Jays before sitting out the 2020 campaign due to COVID concerns. Still only 29, he will hit the market next fall with a chance to cash in at a time when baseball's revenues are more likely to be rebounding.
As for Gausman, he languished in Baltimore for seven years after being drafted fourth overall in 2012, finally emerging this season in San Francisco, where he went 3-3 with a 3.62 ERA in 10 starts and struck out a career-high 11.9 per nine.
He turns 30 in January and needn't worry about playing for his fifth team since 2018. He can instead stay in San Francisco, where he finally found success under manager Gabe Kapler, and try to build on his performance before entering free agency next fall or signing a long-term deal.
Neither can receive a qualifying offer again by rule, which means they'll be true free agents in 2021 without the risk of remaining unsigned, a fate that befell former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel and All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel two years ago when no one wanted to surrender a draft pick for either of them.
Bringing this back to the Red Sox, Bauer is the class of the free agent market after declining Cincinnati's qualifying offer. He is on the record that he intends to sign a one-year contract to maximize his annual salary, though his agent recently suggested that he's open to a long-term offer.
He doesn't fit the contention timeline of the Red Sox, however and is likely to sign elsewhere. Stroman was pretty clearly the No. 2 pitcher on the market, and Gausman might've ranked third.
That means the following pitchers will rise on other team's boards: off-injured Yankees left-hander James Paxton, New York teammate Masahiro Tanaka, Cubs left-hander Jose Quintana, Blue Jays righty Taijuan Walker, and A's lefty Mike Minor.
Someone like Walker -- a former top prospect with the Mariners whose career had been derailed by Tommy John surgery -- always made sense as a potential buy-low candidate with upside, thanks to his youth (28) and pedigree (MLB.com's No. 5 overall prospect in 2013). Now perhaps the market for his services expands.
In a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday, Bloom said he's not Nostradamus when it comes to predicting how the free-agent market will unfold. But it's pretty clear that players are more inclined to take guaranteed paydays now -- think J.D. Martinez opting in -- thanks to threats of austerity after the pandemic walloped bottom lines.
In the short term, that means two fewer arms for an already thin pitching market, making it that much harder for the Red Sox restock their woeful starting rotation.