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

This past offseason was the great shortstop extravaganza: Five All-Star shortstops hit free agency in the prime of their careers. Despite the MLB 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 83 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 lead 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 are 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.

Author: Lucy Green