The free agent market is a tricky business for clubs trying to improve their rosters. Signing a game-changing free agent to a big contract can appease fans and put up results in the short-term, but long-term contracts like Prince Fielder’s (nine years, $214 million), Albert Pujols’ (ten years, $254 million), and Robinson Cano’s (ten years, $240 million) can ultimately cripple a club’s financial future. This money continued to flow this offseason, and while some team’s prospered on the free agent market, others floundered.
Best free agent signings
Jason Heyward – eight years, $184 million from the Chicago Cubs
Heyward signed the longest contract of the offseason and was the highest paid position player for a reason.
At just 26-years-old Heyward can grow with a blossoming young Cubs roster, and provide much-needed stability both offensively and defensively. His fit in Chicago is perfect. He had an excellent 2015 campaign for the St. Louis Cardinals with 13 home runs, 60 RBI, 23 stolen bases, a .293 average, and a .359 OBP. Heyward is a legitimate 20/20 threat who doesn’t strike out much (90 Ks in 610 AB) and can get on base in multiple ways.
Defensively, the right fielder is a stud. He won his second straight Gold Glove and third of his career in 2015. Since 2010, Heyward leads all outfielders with 122 defensive runs saved (Alex Gordon is second with 94) including 22 last year. He covers a lot of ground in right and has a strong arm. The Cubs may use him in center, and there’s little doubt he can succeed there as well.
$25+ million may seem like a lot for an outfielder who doesn’t have game-changing power, but Heyward does so many things well that he’s more than worth the price tag. The Cubs could have Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and now Jason Heyward in their lineup for the foreseeable future, and if you’re a Cubs fan you should be thrilled.
Marco Estrada – two years, $26 million from the Toronto Blue Jays
There’s no doubt Estrada is going to regress in 2016, but for two years at $13 million a season, the Blue Jays got a whale of a deal.
Estrada had an unexpected breakout in 2015, posting a 13-8 record with a 3.13 ERA, throwing 181.0 innings with a 1.04 WHIP. He was expected to be a spot-starter and ended up being a diamond in the rough. He started 2015 strong, but was dynamite in the second half, becoming the Blue Jays’ ace in the middle of a playoff run.
Estrada’s 4.40 FIP suggests he was getting hit harder than his pristine stats led on, but the team did well to lock him up to a multi-year contract on a minimum risk. If he regresses, he’s not costing the club all that much as a four or five starter, but if he continues his at his 2015 rate, he’s an absolute bargain. Estrada likely won’t be a Cy Young candidate again in 2016, but his contract isn’t pressuring him to be one. It was a very reasonable deal for both sides and if it blows up, the Blue Jays aren’t screwed in the future.
Denard Span – three years, $31 million from the San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants had a great offseason, and Span might be the best signing of the bunch.
The 31-year-old outfielder battled injuries in 2015, appearing in only 61 games dealing with multiple DL trips. When he played, his numbers were solid, with five home runs, 22 RBI, 11 stolen bases and a .365 OBP. If healthy, the Giants have found themselves a solid fielding outfielder, who is speedy, makes plenty of contact and can get on base at a good rate. He fits the Giants’ mold to a tee. He could slot in at either center field or left.
San Francisco had a huge need in the outfield with solid, yet middling, results from Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco, and addressed it with a talented player who doesn’t have many weakness at a bargain price. Span’s health is certainly a risk, but the gamble could yield an impressive return.
Honorable mentions: Dioner Navarro – Chicago White Sox (one year, $4 million), Brett Anderson – Los Angeles Dodgers (one year, $15.8 million), Hisashi Iwakuma (one years, $12 million), Jeff Samardzija – San Francisco Giants (five years, $90 million), Byung Ho Park – Minnesota Twins (four years, $12 million), Wei-Yin Chen – Miami Marlins (five years, $80 million)
Worst free agent signings
Ian Kennedy – five years, $70 million from the Kansas City Royals
Kennedy’s best days are clearly behind him, but in a competitive pitching market, he somehow found a team willing to ink him to a huge five-year commitment.
The 31-year-old righty is a solid pitcher, but is more of a back-end starter than the front-line guy he’s getting paid to perform as. 2015 was solid, yet unspectacular for Kennedy, as he posted a 9-15 record with a 4.28 ERA, 4.51 FIP, and a 1.295 WHIP. None of those numbers are bad, but they’re not exactly eye-popping.
The deal includes an opt-out clause after the 2017 season and is backloaded, so the contract could come back to bite the Royals. With Johnny Cueto bolting for the Giants, Kansas City needed to do something, but the move reeks of one as desperation. If Kennedy doesn’t perform and chooses not to opt-out, Knasas City could be stuck with $49 million guaranteed from 2018-20, which would be a huge amount for a semi-budget conscious team.
Johnny Cueto – six years, $130 million from the San Francisco Giants
The 29-year-old experienced both highs and lows during the 2015 season, as he excelled with the Cincinnati Reds in 19 starts, before becoming a shell of himself in 13 starts with the Royals – and was even worse in the Postseason. Ultimately he ended up with a 11-13 record, a 3.44 ERA, and a 3.52 FIP. He’s got the potential to be an ace again, but the Giants are paying him like he’s going to be one.
The deal possesses an opt-out and Cueto can bolt after 2017. I’m betting the Giants would be OK if he did that, as the better he pitches, the chances are higher that he takes that route. However, signing a contract which will take him until he’s in his mid-30’s is risky, and pitchers, unlike wine, don’t get better with age. The Royals bump was a small sample size, but it’s his most recent sample to work with. Potentially, it’s a huge amount of cash to pay a pitcher who’s unlikely to live up to the deal.
Chase Utley – one year, $7 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers print money, so the contract isn’t going to cripple them financially, especially so considering it’s a one-year deal. But the move was one the Dodgers didn’t need to make.
The 37-year-old played 107 games split between the Philadelphia Phillies and Dodgers, and struggled to stay above the Mendoza line, finishing with eight home runs, 39 RBI, a heinous .212 average, and a .286 OBP.
It would have made sense if the Dodgers turned to 24-year-old Enrique Hernandez in 2016, who turned in a solid season as a backup infielder, but the Utley signing became redundant when the team re-signed Howie Kendrick to a two-year, $20 million deal.
The Dodgers are reportedly considering moving Utley or Kendrick to third base, but to consider playing either player at an off-position is bizarre considering Utley is clearly not the player he used to be, and L.A. is effectively paying him starter money to be a glorified backup.
The Dodgers won’t suffer because of the signing, but signing Utley for that much doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Honorable mentions: Rajai Davis – Cleveland Indians (one year, $5 million), Stephen Drew – Washington Nationals (one year, $3 million), Darren O’Day – Baltimore Orioles (four years, $31 million), Cliff Pennington – Los Angeles Angels (two years, $3.75 million), Scott Kazmir – Los Angeles Dodgers (three years, $48 million), and Chris Davis – Baltimore Orioles (seven years, $161 million)