Have these free-agent signings been worth their deals? Ranking MLB’s new faces in new places

Have these free-agent signings been worth their deals? Ranking MLB’s new faces in new places post thumbnail image

This past offseason was the great shortstop extravaganza: Five All-Star shortstops hit free agency in the prime of their careers. Despite the lockout that put a winter freeze on spending, they all received deals worth more than $100 million, part of the record-breaking haul of some $3.3 billion that teams spent in free agency.

That being said, this is a little awkward.

For the most part, it has not gone well for the five players — Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Javier Baez, Trevor Story and Carlos Correa — although Seager has hit better in May and Story just raised his OPS 135 points over the weekend by homering five times in a four-game series against the Mariners. In about a full season’s worth of 671 at-bats, the group is hitting a combined .224 with 20 home runs and 73 RBIs. In 2021, prorated over the same number of at-bats, the group averaged .271 with 37 home runs and 107 RBIs.

So they’re hitting for a lower average, with much less power, and driving in fewer runs. Semien has been the big disappointment. Moved to second base to accommodate Seager to form a new double-play combination for the Rangers, he has remarkably yet to hit a home run in 154 at-bats after slugging 45 last season for the Blue Jays.

Even after adjusting for the overall decline in offense across the league, all five players are hitting below their career norms.

The good news is we’re only about a quarter of the way through the season, so plenty of time remains for all these players to turn things around. We’re going to rank how all the top free agents are doing, but the slow starts from these players get to a general question here: Are these kinds of starts typical, perhaps with the pressure that comes with a new, nine-figure contract?

Obviously, each individual case is different, but I went back to 2000 and found players who signed contracts of $100 million-plus as free agents with a new team, were traded and signed an extension of at least $100 million (such as Francisco Lindor last season), or were traded early in a $100 million contract (such as Nolan Arenado). This gave us 32 players, excluding Mookie Betts and Anthony Rendon since their new deals came ahead of the shortened 2020 season.

I checked each player’s OPS over his first 35 games (where we were in the season when I did the research) compared to his overall season OPS: 25 of the 32 players performed better the rest of the season — many significantly so. The 32 players averaged a .794 OPS in their first 35 games compared to .847 for the entire season.

OK … sure, the colder weather early in the season is a factor here, but only a small one. From 2000 to 2019, the league-average OPS through 35 games was .738 compared to .743 overall, so the cold weather represents approximately only five points of that 53-point difference in OPS (and the improvement is actually larger, since the first 35 games is built into the overall figure).

So, in general, there does seem to be some sort of “big contract” pressure that affects players early in their first season with their new clubs.

Remember Albert Pujols with the Angels? He put up a meager .510 OPS through his first 35 games in 2012 (he hit .197 with one home run), but managed to rally and finished with an .859 OPS and 30 home runs. Just last season, Lindor struggled with a .570 OPS through 35 games and finished at .734

Still, as we check in on how some of the new faces in new places are doing so far, none of the shortstops is near the list of best signings of the offseason.

Ranking the nine-figure free-agent signings

1. Kevin Gausman (P), Blue Jays

The Blue Jays are off to a disappointing start, but don’t blame Gausman. He’s 3-3, but with a 2.52 ERA and 57 strikeouts against just three walks. He’s the new Curt Schilling (well, minus the other stuff). Later in his career, Schilling morphed almost exclusively into a pitcher who threw his four-seam fastball up in the zone with a devastating splitter, while also deciding to basically eliminate walks. Schilling led his league in strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2001, ’02, ’03, ’04 and ’06.

That’s what Gausman has become: a four-seamer/splitter guy (he does mix in a slider) who isn’t going to beat himself with free passes. Oh, he has allowed just one home run in 50 innings. That’ll work.

Batters are trying to figure out how to attack Gausman. Because he throws so many strikes, he actually has the highest swing rate against him of any qualified starter (58.4%). The splitter in particular, however, is so dominant that he also has the sixth-highest miss rate (30.7%). Basically, Gausman made the same calculus as Schilling: Maybe you give up a few extra by throwing more strikes, but throwing more strikes also gets you into more two-pitch counts. As with Schilling, it’s an approach that should allow Gausman to remain effective into his mid-30s — and make his five-year deal a bargain for the Blue Jays.

2. Max Scherzer (P), Mets

Exactly what the Mets needed, at least until he landed on the injured list with an oblique strain that will sideline him for another six to seven weeks. An intense competitor, staff leader and a man so dedicated to his craft that he didn’t let Japanese ambassador Mikio Mori throw out the first pitch before a recent start — because Mori was late to the mound and Scherzer had already started his warm-up tosses.

The injury is hopefully only a temporary setback — although we have to note he’s 37 and the Mets gave him $130 million for a three-year contract, so it’s imperative he remains healthy to earn that deal. The injury will knock him out of the Cy Young picture, but he was performing at that level (5-1, 2.54 ERA, 59 strikeouts in 49.2 innings).

3. Freddie Freeman (1B), Dodgers

He has played every game, and while the L.A. offense hasn’t been the dominant force many expected, the Dodgers do lead the majors in runs per game — with Freeman hitting .301/.391/.464, good for an adjusted OPS that is still higher than his career mark or his 2021 number. His slugging percentage is below .500, which hasn’t happened since 2015, but that’s much how offense has declined so far in 2022.

4. Corey Seager (SS), Rangers

He has been fine and probably better than the raw numbers indicate. As with many hitters, Seager’s expected batting average and slugging are much lower than expected via Statcast measurements (which are based on previous year’s data) — .245 and .430 compared to expected marks of .291 and .560. Thank you, mushy baseball.

Seager has also hit into some bad luck, with a .254 average on balls in play compared to a .331 lifetime mark. That’s not only because of the baseball, as he is hitting more fly balls, so getting back to more line drives like in 2019 when he led the NL with 44 doubles will help get the average back up (that might be happening, as he hit three doubles this past week after hitting just one all season previously).

Odd note: All eight of his home runs have come at home, so despite Globe Field’s reputation as a pitchers’ park, it hasn’t bothered Seager much.

5. Nick Castellanos (OF), Phillies

As expected, he’s mostly doing Nick Castellanos things at the plate, only the numbers don’t look quite so fancy as 2021 and he has slumped a little in May with a .225 average and two home runs. Due to Bryce Harper‘s sore elbow, Castellanos has had to spend more time in right field than the Phillies envisioned — and that has also gone about as well as expected, which means not well.

6. Trevor Story (2B), Red Sox

Story went 26 games before his first home run, fired his agents, got booed, had some problems adjusting to second base and saw his new team plummet to an awful start. He turned his season around with his recent series against the Mariners in which he hit .400 with five home runs and 13 RBIs, including a three-homer, seven-RBI game. Maybe the four-game sweep will get the Red Sox on a roll.

7. Robbie Ray (P), Mariners

It looks like Ray has pitched much worse than his Cy Young-winning 2021 season, since his ERA has risen from 2.84 to 4.77. But, his batting average allowed isn’t much higher, at .223 versus .210 in 2021, and neither is his slugging percentage (.411 versus .401). Of course, the overall offensive environment is lower, so the extra two runs per nine innings is noticeably worse. That ERA might also be even higher if fly balls were leaving the park at the same rate as last season.

Indeed, there is concern that the Mariners are paying for merely an old-fashioned innings eater rather than, say, a No. 2 starter. Ray’s fastball velocity has dropped from 94.8 to 93.0 and his strikeout rate has dipped from 32.1% to 25.8%. To be fair, Ray wasn’t likely to repeat as Cy Young winner again and a key reason for his success in 2021 was holding batters to a .161 average with runners in scoring position. Still, the Mariners would like a sub-4.00 ERA at the minimum from a pitcher they gave $115 million.

8. Carlos Correa (SS), Twins

He got off to a terrible start — .167 through his first 16 games — and then hit .412 over his next eight games before going on the IL after getting hit in the finger with a pitch. He’s back now and hitting .269 with two home runs in 108 at-bats. Correa’s offense has been all over the place in recent seasons — great in 2019 and 2021, but a below-average hitter in 2018 and 2020. So, who knows where he’ll end up at season’s end and how that will affect his decision on whether or not to opt out of the remaining two years of his contract.

9. Javier Baez (SS), Tigers

The good news is his strikeout rate is lower than it’s been since 2018. The bad news is that it hasn’t translated into better offensive production. He’s hitting .207/.244/.331 with three home runs in 31 games and ranks near the bottom of the majors in both chase rate and whiff rate. When you’re swinging at pitches out of the zone and the ball isn’t carrying — yeah, that’s a really bad combination. The defense has been solid as expected, but the Tigers are already way out of first place even in the mediocre AL Central and rank as one of the early disappointments.

10. Kris Bryant (OF), Rockies

He played 15 games, didn’t homer and then landed on the injured list with a lower back strain — not exactly how you want to begin the first month of a seven-year, $182 million deal that was widely criticized before he even played a game for the Rockies. He returned this weekend but is still in search of his first home run.

11. Marcus Semien (2B), Rangers

There’s no way to dance around this start: It’s appallingly awful, even aside from the $175 million contract. Despite hitting 45 home runs a season ago, Semien has never been a player who lived on crushing the ball; his 52nd percentile ranking in hard-hit rate in 2021 was easily a career high. This year he’s in the 5th percentile — what you might expect from somebody hitting .182 with no home runs. He’s just not squaring anything up at all.

If there’s a glimmer of hope for the rest of 2022, it’s that his strikeout rate is actually lower than last season, so contact hasn’t been the problem. He just needs to barrel up some baseballs.

The $40 million tier

1. Carlos Rodon (P), Giants

The Cardinals lit him up for 10 hits and eight runs two starts ago (raising his ERA from 1.80 to 3.49), but he otherwise has dominated with his fastball/slider combo, ranking third among qualified starters in strikeout rate and proving last year’s comeback was no fluke. The Giants got him on a two-year deal, but with an opt-out after 2022. If Rodon stays healthy and keeps pitching well, he’ll certainly exercise that option and head back to free agency.

2. Starling Marte (OF), Mets

Everyone thought the Mets signed Marte to play center field, but instead Buck Showalter has him in right field — where he might win the Gold Glove. He has been OK on offense, hitting .270/.312/.419, below what he hit a season ago but more in line with his career norms. He hasn’t been a threat on the bases like in 2021 (when he swiped 47 bases in 52 attempts), as he’s just 5-for-9 in 2022.

3. Kyle Schwarber (OF), Phillies

He’s hitting .203 with 10 home runs and has failed to match the superlative strikeout-to-walk ratio he put up in his 41 games with the Red Sox last year. With the low-level offense, we have to adjust our standards — Schwarber has been better than league average, but way below what we saw in 2021, when he posted a career-best 149 OPS+.

4. Eduardo Rodriguez (P), Tigers

He has had a tough slate of opponents, which helps explain just one win in eight starts, and his strikeout rate-minus-walk rate is 10% worse than last season — with a whiff rate that’s in just the 6th percentile. This is the first year of a five-year deal and he’s missing many bats, so pay close attention to that whiff rate. If he’s not generating swings and misses and doesn’t improve, what happens in the future?

5. Marcus Stroman (P), Cubs

He started off slow, beat the Brewers with seven scoreless innings on May 1 and then missed 18 days while on the COVID-19 IL. He returned late last week.

6. Jon Gray (P), Rangers

Five of his six starts (he missed a little time with a knee sprain) have come on the road against the Blue Jays, Mariners, Phillies, Yankees and Astros, and his one start at home came against the Angels, so he hasn’t really faced a terrible offense yet. Still, a 5.14 ERA is a 5.14 ERA. He just finished six innings for the first time, so let’s see if the Rangers cut him loose a little to see if he can go deeper into games.

7. Avisail Garcia (OF), Marlins

The Marlins gave him $56 million, which … good for the Marlins, but this always felt like a move that could go south in a hurry given Garcia’s inconsistent performances in the past and a questionable approach. Well, he’s at 41 strikeouts with three walks, leading to a .533 OPS. Frankly, if he wasn’t on a $56 million deal, he’d otherwise be on the bench or the waiver wire with that strikeout-to-walk ratio.

8. Steven Matz (P), Cardinals

Matz wasn’t pitching as poorly as his 6.03 ERA indicated, but then he left Sunday’s start after four pitches with left shoulder stiffness. Matz had indicated some stiffness before the start but wanted to pick up a pitching staff that had taxed its bullpen as of late. But, when he topped out at 91 mph, the Cards quickly removed him from the game. Stay tuned for an injury update.

As for other players around the league…

Best of the rest: Anthony Rizzo (1B), Yankees

It almost felt like both sides reluctantly agreed to a two-year, $32 million deal, but it has paid huge dividends early on as Rizzo homered nine times in his first 20 games. One thing for sure: He loves hitting at Yankee Stadium, where he has slugged seven of his 10 home runs and has an OPS over 1.000.

So far, so … OK: Noah Syndergaard (P), Angels

He had a terrible outing last Monday, when he threw 42 pitches and couldn’t get out of the first inning, but he had a 2.45 ERA before that and had pitched into the sixth inning in each of his starts. The six-man rotation seems to be benefiting the entire staff as well, as the Angels rank fourth in starters’ ERA.

On the other hand, Syndergaard hasn’t exactly dominated, with just 22 K’s in 30 innings, ranking in just the 18th percentile in strikeout rate (50th percentile in swing-and-miss rate). He still throws 94, but for now, Syndergaard has morphed into more of a pitch-to-contact guy, and we’ll see if he can make that work.

Best ex-Phillies reliever: Hector Neris (P), Astros

Neris had his moments in Philadelphia, but his 3.83 ERA over the past four seasons — plus 33 home runs allowed in 211.1 innings — doesn’t scream elite reliever. The Astros somewhat surprisingly gave him two years and $17 million, and maybe all he needed to do was to get out of Philly. He has appeared in a league-leading 20 games, allowed a .179 batting average (just one home run) and helped stabilize the bullpen while Ryan Pressly was out with an injury.

Bargain basement find: Jose Quintana (P), Pirates

The former All-Star had a rough go of it the past couple of seasons, pitching just 10 innings in 2020 and posting a 6.43 ERA in 2021. The Pirates signed him for $2 million and he has a 2.43 ERA through eight starts. There’s a lot of “he should be giving up more hits than he is” milked into his metrics, and he has benefited from facing mostly weak lineups so far, other than one start against the Dodgers — and he tossed six scoreless innings against them.

As with all these evaluations, the mushy ball has made the first 43 games of action difficult to evaluate.

Home runs are at their lowest levels since 2014, the league-wide batting average of .236 remains 8 points below last season and 19 points below where it was in 2016 and 2017. Offense has finally been ticking back up over the past 10 days, however, so we’ll see if the cold hitters remain cold and the hot pitchers remain hot … and whether Semien will hit a home run.

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