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The 2018-19 Major League Baseball offseason hasn’t gone as expected.
In particular, the free-agent market hasn’t been the lucrative bonanza that many hoped would rescue the institution from its recent deterioration. Free-agent spending is up to an average of $8.7 million per year, according to Travis Sawchik of FiveThirtyEight, but that’s still well south of the 2015-16 peak of $12.6 million.
To one extent, this is a market correction brought on by the tendency of high-priced free agents to come up short of expectations. But as demonstrated by Maury Brown of Forbes, the free-agent freeze is also a symptom of a larger slowdown of teams’ investments in players.
Not everyone has been burned by this new normal. But rather than concentrate on the Patrick Corbins and Nathan Eovaldis of the world, our focus is on players (including a couple who are still available) who had every reason to expect better from free agency.
For lack of a better term, these are the biggest losers of the MLB offseason.
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And why not? Even in “regressing” from his first three years with the Seattle Mariners, Cruz put up an .850 OPS and slugged 37 home runs. Going into the offseason, Heyman, FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors projected that Cruz would get his wish in the form of a two-year deal worth roughly $30 million.
In actuality, he signed with the Minnesota Twins for one year and $14 million. Even if his 2020 club option is picked up, his contract will max out at $26 million.
Granted, Cruz’s age didn’t do him any favors on the open market. Nor did the fact that he’s strictly a designated hitter at this point in his career.
Still, Cruz’s 203 homers since 2014 are the most of any hitter in MLB. Further, his adjusted OPS+ of 145 in this span is tied for sixth among all qualified hitters. He’s an exceptional hitter at a time in which hitting is probably more difficult than it’s ever been.
It’s a wonder why Cruz didn’t have more American League clubs line up for him. Beyond that, he’s a prime example of how adding the DH to the National League might benefit free-agent sluggers.
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Regarding the previous point about how hitting is probably more difficult now than ever before, consider that there were more strikeouts than hits for the first time in MLB history last year.
Against a backdrop like this, anyone could have expected Michael Brantley and Nick Markakis to do well in free agency. They ranked second and seventh, respectively, among qualified hitters in strikeout rate last year. Each also finished with an OPS north of .800.
The two corner outfielders were expected to do well in free agency. To wit, Jon Heyman projected them to sign multiyear deals worth a total guarantee of $67 million.
What actually happened, however, was that Brantley signed with the Houston Astros for two years and $32 million, and Markakis re-signed with the Atlanta Braves for a grand total of $6 million over one year.
It’s understandable why $6 million was the best Markakis could get. He’s 35 years old, and his 2018 season featured a second-half slump. For his part, Brantley will turn 32 on May 15, and it’s notable that injuries limited him to 101 games across 2016 and 2017.
Nevertheless, these are two players with rare skills who are coming off healthy, All-Star-caliber seasons. They shouldn’t have had to settle for so little.
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Speaking of modern offensive challenges, it’s hard to find good-hitting catchers these days. Collectively, the .678 OPS that catchers put up in 2018 was their worst since 1992.
In theory, this should have created a veritable swarm of suitors around Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Ramos. The latter put up an .845 OPS with 15 homers in 2018. The former averaged a .799 OPS and 24 homers per year from 2016 to 2018 with elite pitch-framing on defense to boot.
Accordingly, projections for Grandal’s and Ramos’ free-agent contracts leaned lucrative. MLB Trade Rumors went as far as a $100 million total haul: $64 million for Grandal and $36 million for Ramos.
They actually signed for a total of $37.25 million. Ramos accepted a two-year, $19 million deal with the New York Mets, while Grandal fell back on a one-year, $18.25 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers.
It didn’t help that the catcher-needy Washington Nationals chose to trade for Yan Gomes. Nor did it help that most other catcher-needy clubs were involved in the trade sweepstakes for Miami Marlins All-Star J.T. Realmuto, who ultimately landed with the Philadelphia Phillies.
However, there’s nary a team outside of Washington and Philadelphia that couldn’t have benefited from adding Grandal or Ramos. More certainly should have been in on them.
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And now for the part of this program where we get a little presumptuous.
Indeed, Dallas Keuchel hasn’t signed a contract yet. When he does, there’s a chance that he’ll fit within a larger trend of starting pitchers—e.g., Patrick Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi, J.A. Happ, Charlie Morton and Lance Lynn—who’ve done relatively well in free agency.
Yet the 31-year-old hinted that not everything is hunky-dory on Twitter, where he responded to a tweet about his past accomplishments by quipping that they apparently don’t “mean anything anymore.”
Teams may look at Keuchel and see a guy who peaked when he won the AL Cy Young Award in 2015 on the strength of a 2.48 ERA over 232 innings. But even if that’s true, he’s still a well-above-average starter.
To wit, he put up a 3.74 ERA in 2018, mainly by keeping ground balls and soft contact coming. He also logged 204.2 innings, thereby putting himself in an increasingly small club of 200-inning workhorses.
In many ways, Keuchel is to this winter’s market what Jake Arrieta was to last winter’s market. If he continues to fit that mold, he’ll ultimately sign a below-market contract and face the difficult task of getting in enough spring training reps to be ready for Opening Day.
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Craig Kimbrel should arguably be in a stronger position than Keuchel, yet his actual position appears to be decidedly weaker.
At the outset of the winter, Jayson Stark of The Athletic reported that Kimbrel was eyeing a six-year contract worth north of $100 million. That was always a stretch, but there was no blaming him for aiming so high. He has more saves (333) through his age-30 season than any pitcher in history. As far as more useful stats go, there’s his 1.91 career ERA and all-time-best rate of 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings.
However, Kimbrel’s warts include his frequent control problems and a 2018 postseason run that left much to be desired. At this point, indications are that he’ll be punished with a disappointing contract.
Kimbrel has two obvious suitors in the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves. But according to MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, the Braves won’t go beyond a three-year deal. Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the Red Sox might only bring Kimbrel back on a one-year pact.
If this is where Kimbrel’s market sits, then he’s not matching the $80 million-plus deals of Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. At best, he may only match Wade Davis’ three-year, $52 million contract.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Because they were heading into the free-agent market with youth and superstar track records as their top selling points, it was oh-so-easy to dream big about Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
MLB Trade Rumors, for example, went so far as to predict that the two 26-year-olds—who have 10 All-Star appearances and 359 career homers between them—would net a total of $810 million in guaranteed money. Even in going much more conservative, FanGraphs projected $586 million.
But now…well, probably not.
The San Francisco Giants appear to be Harper’s top suitor at the moment. However, Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that the Giants aren’t motivated to match the 10-year, $300 million offer from the Nationals that Harper reportedly rejected last September, according to Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post.
Reports on Machado’s sweepstakes, meanwhile, have been all over the place. But it is known that the Chicago White Sox have made him an offer, which Nightengale reported was worth “about $200 million.”
In all likelihood, neither Harper nor Machado will reset the bar for baseball contracts above Giancarlo Stanton’s record-holding $325 million deal. It’s possible neither will even touch the $300 million mark.
As much as anything, that would be a telltale sign that free-agent valuations are trending in a direction that’s not so great for players.