Grading MLB Free Agent Signings So Far

This week, I’m taking a look at the most high-profile MLB free agent signings from this past offseason to see how they’re doing so far with their new teams and giving each signing a grade. As far as how deep I wanted to go, I used players from lists compiled by MLB.com’s Jim Duquette and CBS Sports’ ‘Eye on Baseball.’ The signings are listed from worst to best by grade. Obviously this is entirely subjective, so feel free to leave a comment if you think I’m terribly overrating/underrating any of these.

Alex Cobb

Pitcher, Baltimore Orioles

In his first four MLB seasons, Alex Cobb went a respectable 35-23 with a 3.21 ERA for the Tampa Bay Rays, certainly a guy any team would be happy to have as a number 2 starting pitcher (or an ace for some teams). He then missed the entire 2015 season along with most of 2016 as a result of Tommy John surgery and complications during recovery from it. In the five starts Cobb made in 2016, he posted an ERA of 8.59. However, in 2017 it looked like he was back to his old self, completing the entire season and finishing with an ERA of 3.66 and a WHIP of 1.2. This season was not enough to convince the Tampa Bay Rays to keep him around and he hit the open market, where he was picked up by the Orioles and signed a 4 year, $57 million contract.

If you’re thinking “that sounds like kind of a lot for a guy only one year removed from some serious elbow problems,” it would appear you’re right.

In nine starts for Baltimore, Cobb’s ERA has ballooned to 6.80 and he’s averaging just under two baserunners every inning (there are only seven pitchers who have also thrown at least 30 innings this season who have a worse ERA).

It’s not just Cobb, Baltimore’s pitching staff has had all sorts of problems and have the second highest team ERA in the league (Royals, White Sox, Marlins).

I’m not sure what Baltimore’s plan was this season, throw a bunch of money around and hope they can keep Manny Machado? Machado’s days on the last-place Orioles are numbered. Alex Cobb’s contract runs through the 2021 season. For both Cobb’s and Baltimore’s sakes, hopefully he improves between now and then.

F

Zack Cozart

Infielder, Los Angeles Angels

Last year was without question Zack Cozart’s best full season, as he posted career bests in almost every offensive statistical category and made his first All Star Team for Cincinnati. Understandably, he did not want to waste his talents on the sad excuse for a baseball team that is the Reds (sorry, southwest Ohio) and signed a 3 year, $38 million contract with the Angels. This season he’s been incredibly average, having one of the worst seasons of his career. Not everyone needs to be a world-beater, but Mike Trout can’t do all the work on this team. The Angels already have baseball’s largest money pit in Albert Pujols, and Cozart not producing does not help. I could go on for a while about how the Angels have failed Trout, but for now I’ll just say that Cozart is, thus far, yet another waste of money.

Cozart was in the news last weekend for complaining about the Rays using Sergio Romo as a 1-inning starter on back-to-back days, saying it was “bad for baseball.” There are other things a .232 AVG hitter should be focusing on besides opposing teams’ pitching gimmicks.

D

 

Lance Lynn

Pitcher, Minnesota Twins

Lance Lynn had been a fixture in the Cardinals rotation for this entire decade, averaging a 3.38 ERA over 6 full seasons. With Adam Wainwright clearly past his peak, you would think the Cardinals would have been sure to hang on to pitching talent like Lynn. The thing is, Lance Lynn missed all of 2016 after having Tommy John surgery. St. Louis also has plenty of young pitching talent they believed was ready to fill the gap left in the rotation. So they decided to let Lynn leave, and he signed a 1 year, $12 million deal with Minnesota.

This season, he has been a cautionary tale much like Alex Cobb. A 5.94 ERA, a WHIP of 1.82, an average of 6 BB/9 and a WAR of -0.3. Not great. The Cardinals will be patting themselves on the back, as the highest ERA on their staff is Luke Weaver’s 4.63.

The Twins are tied for second place in the AL Central, but that’s largely thanks to how bad the entire division is as the Twins are 22-27. Their goal was to push for a Wild Card spot this year; Lance Lynn isn’t helping. At least he’ll be gone next year.

D

 

Jay Bruce

Right Fielder, New York Mets

Jay Bruce finally got himself out of Cincinnati in 2016 when he was traded to the Mets (Joey Votto is still trying to figure out how to leave), but before he knew it he was on the move again the following season when Bruce and his expiring contract were loaned out to the Cleveland Indians as they searched to avenge their World Series loss from the previous season. That didn’t exactly work out, as the Indians lost in the ALDS to the Yankees, and Bruce went right back onto the market before being resigned by the Mets.

It hasn’t exactly been a happy reunion as he’s hitting just .228 with an OPS of just .649.

His contract is for 3 years at $13 million per year, and the Mets will be wondering if it was such a great idea to give that kind of money (a slight raise over his previous contract) to a 31-year-old they were willing to loan out last season.

Bruce has plenty of time to improve, and despite his struggles the Mets, like the Phillies and Braves, have been a pleasant surprise in the NL East at 26-35.

A waste of money? Maybe. A total disaster? Not really.

C

 

Yu Darvish

Pitcher, Chicago Cubs

Yu Darvish was the top pitcher available in free agency after the Dodgers took him on as a rental at the end of his contract with the Rangers. While Darvish was also strongly linked with the Dodgers and the Yankees, neither team could match the Cubs 6 year, $126 million offer and stay under the luxury tax. As all three of those teams are clearly current contenders, at that point it’s about the best offer if you’re Darvish. The Cubs signed Darvish to take Jake Arrieta’s spot in the rotation and cement a formidable top four of Lester, Darvish, Hendricks and Quintana. When Darvish signed, my thought was that this was a phenomenal short-term signing for a team looking to win now, but may not be great in the long term given that Darvish is already in his 30s and has a lot of innings on his arm (started pitching in Japan in 2005).

Darvish got off to a really, really rocky start with the Cubs, beginning with a start against the Marlins where he threw over 100 pitches in just 4 ⅓ innings and gave up 5 runs. He did recover with a strong start against Milwaukee before back-to-back losses against the Braves and Rockies, but then mercifully got to pitch against the Brewers again. He was coming off back-to-back solid starts and has his ERA down to 4.95, but has landed back on the disabled list with tendinitis in his elbow.

Right now the Cubs problems are mostly with their offense. Chatwood and Quintana have had their issues, but when you’re only around .230 with runners in scoring position as a team, you’re going to struggle to win games.

That said, Darvish improving can only be a good thing for the Cubs. For a team that’s looking to keep spending big, they can’t have $21 million/year going to waste. There’s certainly time for both Darvish and the Cubs to improve, so the jury’s still out on this one.

C+

 

Mike Moustakas

Third Baseman, Kansas City Royals

Mike Moustakas had one of the best seasons of his career last year and was an All Star. Thus, it was weird when not a single MLB team appeared interested in signing the veteran third baseman. It seemed like every team decided that they didn’t need a power-hitting veteran third baseman.

It is a little more complicated than that, as he turned down a qualifying offer of $17.4 million from the Royals, which means a few things. First, it means a team signing him would need to give draft picks to Kansas City. Second, it means he’s clearly looking for a longer term deal and a higher salary.

The problem is a lot of teams are saving their money for next year’s free agent class, which may include Manny Machado who, although he wants to play shortstop, is the most in-demand third-baseman in years (probably since A-Rod). All of this together created a less than ideal situation for Moustakas. There was talk of him signing a one-year deal with the Yankees (which honestly would have made sense for both sides) but instead he ended up back in Kansas City for $6.5 million with a $15 million mutual option for next year. In terms of winners and losers, Moustakas is unquestionable a loser here.

As for the baseball, Moustakas is doing his best to further raise his value ahead of another potential go-round. He’s having about as good a season as last year for the struggling Royals. As for what the future holds, his negotiations with the Royals should be interesting.

For the team, on the one hand they’d love to have a player like Moustakas; on the other they may trigger the full-on rebuild and decide they don’t want to be paying that kind of money to anyone. For Moustakas, $15 million is nice and all but the Royals are terrible and he should be able to get a better deal elsewhere (but that was true last year too). My guess is Moustakas is playing elsewhere this time next year. He’s doing all he can for the Royals, but it’s not like it’s going to matter much. He’s just trying to sell himself at this point.

C+

 

Eric Hosmer

First Baseman, San Diego Padres

Eric Hosmer is the second player on this list to have jumped from the sinking ship that is the Kansas City Royals for a big pay day. The difference between him and Lorenzo Cain is that Cain is being paid big money to help a team make the playoffs. Hosmer was brought in by the Padres as a key piece of their rebuild and a potential future of the franchise, signing a deal for 8-years and $144 million (Hosmer will be 36 when that deal expires). Hosmer has spent his entire career as KC’s starting first basemen, and decided (correctly) that it was best to move on. It’s too early to know if the Padres are on their way to being a contender, but I suppose this is the kind of investment you have to make. But is Hosmer worth $18 million/year? 2017 was certainly his best season, with career highs in most offensive categories as he won a Silver Slugger award in addition to a Gold Glove. Clearly, he knew he was in a contract year. For his career he’s a .781 OPS hitter and averaged a WAR of 2 over his years in KC, with his highest being 4.1 last season. While his stats so far this season may not jump off the page (he’s batting .256), he’s on pace for a WAR of about 3. He currently leads the AL with 16 doubles. I’m not sure if he’ll be winning the Silver Slugger again, but he hasn’t been a waste of money thus far.

The only concern is that it may not be a worthwhile investment by the Padres; only time will tell.

B-

 

Jake Arrieta

Pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies

You couldn’t blame the Cubs when they balked at Jake Arrieta’s agent Scott Borris for wanting an offer similar to what he had negotiated for Max Scherzer with the Nationals a year earlier. No offense to Jake Arrieta, but he was in no way worth that kind of money. Despite the Cubs free agency decisions not having worked out as well as they might have hoped, I still think this was the right decision to let Arrieta go.

While the Cubs were unwilling to pay Arrieta, that didn’t stop the Philadelphia Phillies from doing so, with whom Arrieta signed a 3 year, $75 million contract.

If you’re Arrieta, that’s a crazy amount of money and you’ll be satisfied with the contract no matter who’s giving it to you. That being said, the Phillies have been a surprising success this season at 26-18*** and second place in the NL East to the upstart Atlanta Braves.

So does the success mean spending that kind of money on an aging pitcher like Arrieta worth it?

He’s certainly doing his best to repay the faith placed in him, with a 2.45 ERA and WHIP just over 1 (nowhere near what he was doing in 2015, but pretty darn good).

He isn’t getting a whole lot of help, as he’s just 4-2 in 9 starts and has a Runs-Allowed-Per-9 (ERA if you include unearned runs) of over a run higher than his ERA. All things considered, the Phillies will be happy with what Arrieta is giving them and will tolerate what they’re paying him given how young most of the team is (he’s by-far their highest paid player and one of only two making over $10 million).

So far, everybody wins

A

 

Wade Davis

Pitcher, Colorado Rockies

Wade Davis is one of the best late-inning relief pitchers in baseball, no doubt about that. Given the way players are getting paid these days, it was honestly a bargain that the Cubs only paid him $10 million last year. The Rockies, however, had to pay up to win the race for Davis and signed him to a 3 year, $57 million contract after Greg Holland (their closer last year) turned down a $17.44 million offer. That hasn’t turned out so great for Holland, who is making $14 million with the Cardinals and has been absolutely terrible.

Davis, however, has been as good as ever and leads the MLB with 18 saves. He has his highest ERA since 2013 (2.35), but I’ll give him some benefit of the doubt due to now pitching in one of the most hitter friendly ballparks in the league. The Rockies are currently in first place in a very crowded NL West, and a shut-down closer like Davis will be key to holding on to that spot. $19 million is a lot of money for a relief pitcher, but it might be worth it.

A

 

Shohei Ohtani

Pitcher/Designated Hitter, Los Angeles Angels

The signing of Shohei Ohtani was the latest in a series of sweepstakes over the last 15 years for superstar Asian players making the move to Major League Baseball. The two-way player was being called “The Japanese Babe Ruth” after posting an .859 OPS and 2.52 ERA in five professional seasons in Japan. The 23-year-old was obviously in high demand and met with seven MLB teams: the Angels, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Padres and Rangers. Unfortunately for the Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Padres they each only had $300,000 in international bonus pool money available. Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t going to cut it. Each of the remaining three teams had over $2 million available to negotiate. The Rangers were at a disadvantage for not being on the west coach, as Ohtani preferred. That left the Angels and the Mariners. So what won it for the Angels? First of all, the Angels have Mike Trout and the Mariners do not. Second, there is limitless opportunity in the Angels rotation (no clear ace). That said, according to Ken Rosenthal it’s Angels GM Billy Eppler who deserves all the credit:

After all the dust had settled, Ohtani signed a 1 year, $545,000 contract with a $2.315 million signing bonus. Under new CBA rules, Ohtani couldn’t sign a long-term contract, but I’d say it’s safe to expect him to do so at the end of this season, if not earlier.

The Angels will certainly want to keep Ohtani around for a long time, at least if he continues playing like he has so far this season.

The plan seems to be to have Ohtani DH when he isn’t pitching, at least most of the time, and that plan is working just fine.

As a DH, he’s batting .291 with an OPS of .929 with 6 HR and 20 RBI in just 30 games. Despite being a batter in only just over half of the Angels’ games, he’s been the team’s 3rd most valuable player in terms of WAR, behind Mike Trout (the king of WAR, of course ) and Alderton Simmons.

As a pitcher, Ohtani is 4-1 with a 3.35 ERA in seven starts. He’s averaging just 3 walks and almost 12 strikeouts every 9 innings.

While everyone (the Angels, teammates, fans) should certainly be patient with the young star, all indications so far are that Ohtani has the potential to be everything that was promised.

A

 

Lorenzo Cain

Center Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers

Going into this season, I really liked what the Brewers had done to upgrade their outfield. They signed Cain as a free agent from Kansas City, understandably happy to get away from a team that currently has the third worst run differential in the MLB at -83. One of the two worse-off teams  is the Miami Marlins, with whom the Brewers traded to get Christian Yelich to round out the outfield with Cain and franchise face Ryan Braun. Cain signed a 5 year, $80 million deal with Milwaukee, a significant raise over the $8.75 million average on his last KC contract. Cain actually came up with the Brewers, appearing in 44 games in 2010 before being traded to Kansas City the following offseason as part of a deal that sent Zach Greinke the other way. The Brewers hope is that investment like this can help them compete in the crowded NL Central with the Cubs and Cardinals.

Cain has had a good season so far, playing in nearly every game and on pace to have his best power hitting numbers since his All Star season of 2015.  His OBP is currently higher than any of his previous full seasons. His 2.8 WAR through 52 games also has him on pace for his most valuable season of his career. His previous high is 7.2 in 2015, and he’s on pace for 8.7. For context, Aaron Judge had a WAR of 8.1 last year. So Cain is doing pretty darn well in Wisconsin.

Has his success been the Brewers’ success? Absolutely.

At the time of writing, they hold a 4.5 game lead over the Cubs for first place in the NL Central. While I don’t expect this to last (I’ve still got the Cubs winning the division), the Brewers are in a great position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and just the 5th time in team history. If that happens, they’ll owe a lot to Lorenzo Cain.

A+

 

J.D. Martinez

Outfielder, Boston Red Sox

Modern baseball is basically one big home run derby at this point, with players swinging for the fences and willing to strike out a lot in pursuit of more dingers. The Red Sox were a pretty good team last season, the only problem was they did not get the memo about the home runs; they finished 27th in home runs hit. They had pretty much everything else, enough even to win the division. However, it wasn’t enough to win the World Series. Between that and the fact that the Yankees are amassing as many power hitters as possible in an effort to overtake Boston, something had to be done.

That’s where J.D. Martinez comes in. Martinez was a .300 hitter over three and a half seasons in Detroit. However, given that the Tigers are a team headed in the wrong direction a player of Martinez’s caliber wasn’t going to stick around, so to make sure they got something for him the Tigers traded him to Arizona for a few prospects. It’s no wonder that Martinez was in such high demand this past offseason, as between the Tigers and D-Backs he put together a season in which he hit for a .303/.690/1.066 slash line (avg/slg/ops) with 45 HRs and 104 RBIs in just 119 games. Without question, he was the best bat on the market and is more than deserving of the $110 million, 5 year contract the Red Sox gave him.

So far this season, Martinez has lived up to. his $22 million/year price tag and then some. He’s batting .320 and slugging .650 for an OPS of 1.03 and is currently on pace for 51 HRs and 132 RBIs.

It’s all working out well for Boston, who lead the AL East and are in home runs this season (only behind the Yankees). The arms (bats?) race is truly on, and Martinez has been exactly what the Red Sox needed.

A+

 

 

***Chicago Bonus Section***

So these guys weren’t on either of the lists I referenced but I figured it would be fun (spoiler: neither of these are positive inclusions) to throw these two in here.

 

Welington Castillo

Catcher, Chicago White Sox

After trading almost anyone of value for prospects, Welington Castillo was the first notable free agent signing of the Sox rebuild. They desperately needed help at catcher after relying on platoon of lousy options last year that included Geovany Soto, Omar Narvaez and Kevin Smith.

Castillo signed a 2 year, $15 million deal with the Sox. The message there is that he was supposed to be a bridge until a time when maybe Zack Collins (currently in AA) is ready to take over the catching duties.

Castillo has been ok this season, batting .267 with 6 HR and 15 RBI. His season took an abrupt turn for the worse this week when it was announced he had failed a drug test for taking erythropoietin, which boosts red blood cell count. He’s been suspended 80 games, and is the first Chicago baseball player to be suspended for PEDs (which is hilarious for a city that was once home to Sammy Sosa).

White Sox GM Rick Hahn has said the Sox may look “outside the organization” for catching help, as Omar Narvaez is really struggling at the plate right now and Charlotte catcher Kevan Smith has an ankle injury from which he just he just came off the DL/

This is the type of situation you just can’t afford in a rebuild; hopefully the Sox can overcome it.

F

#RickysBoysDontQuit

 

Tyler Chatwood

Pitcher, Chicago Cubs

In his final season with the Rockies, Tyler Chatwood was tied for the most lossed in the NL with 15, had an ERA of 4.69 and a WHIP of 1.442. Yes, he pitched in Colorado but I was still incredibly skeptical when the Cubs signed him to a 3 year, $38 million deal. Soup of the Week’s Cubs writer, Logan Springgate, told me to “bury him with his Cubs tweets.”

From Soup of the Week’s Cubs Season Preview, talking about how Chatwood was historically much better on the road:

“[Away from Coors Field], it’s like he’s a completely different player. He only gave up a .272 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and a 3.31 ERA. The difference was even starker last year, so let’s take a minute, close your eyes, and picture what he’ll look like when he pitches at most 1 game at Coors instead of 17. Oh by the way, he’s only the 5th starter for the Cubs. There’s a very real chance that he contributes to the Cubs being the best rotation in the league.”

So far, things haven’t exactly gone as the Cubs and their fans may have hoped. Chatwood has struggled a bit compared to last season (4.10 ERA) and has had particular trouble with his command. He averages about 8.5 BB/9 and has a WHIP of 1.76. Not great. For the Cubs rotation, his ERA is only exceeded by the aforementioned Darvish.

D

 

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