How the recent history of big-ticket free-agent signings show it’s not easy to get what you pay for

I asked the same question of the heads of baseball operations for the Giants (Farhan Zaidi) and the Red Sox (Chaim Bloom) before this season:

Basically, if there was a dispersal draft and I had the first pick and took Logan Webb off the Giants and Rafael Devers off the Red Sox, who would each executive take next off of their roster.

Zaidi pondered and eventually wondered if it would be Michael Conforto, who didn’t play last season and was new to San Francisco. Bloom (who was relieved of his duties last week) did not name a player but suggested that the club had several up-and-comers who he anticipated being above-average players.

This was essentially a question to underscore what I perceived — that there was an extreme dropoff from their best player to their second-best player not befitting large-market clubs. As things stand currently, Webb does indeed lead San Francisco in Wins Above Replacement (Baseball Reference) and Devers the same for Boston.

Second on the Giants through Sunday was LaMonte Wade Jr., a nice supplementary player but a supplementary player nonetheless (Conforto was seventh after another season of injury-touched, league-average-ish production). Second on the Red Sox was Chris Martin, an outstanding two-year sign, but also a 37-year-old journeyman reliever.

The Giants and Red Sox are going to miss the playoffs in somewhat similar fashion. They both had moments during the year in which they looked as if a strong run to October was possible, but both faded late, looking as if they will finish under .500.

Stating pitcher Logan Webb #62 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the fourth inning of the MLB game at Chase Field on September 20, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Logan Webb helped propel the Giants into the playoff race, but he’ll need help, especially on the offensive side, if the Giants are to make it back to the postseason with their current core.
Getty Images

Both would point to the young players they broke in. Boston did have a nice layer of players arriving, as Bloom indicated, notably Brayan Bello, Triston Casas and Jarren Duran. Interestingly, those were all leftovers from a Dave Dombrowski tenure criticized for gutting the farm system and dismissing the future.

But ultimately both teams fell short because they lacked aircraft carriers — the type that carry a team all season. The lack of urgency to do more than to prioritize the future cost Bloom his job as Red Sox upper management — in their now familiar Wilpon-ian way — made sure the blood splattered on an outgoing executive to try to avoid the responsibility that begins at the top.

Webb and Devers are homegrown, meaning these two organizations likely will have to go outside to find difference-makers — unless they truly believe shortstop prospects Marco Luciano (Giants) and Marcelo Mayer (Red Sox) are capable of instant impacts in 2024. But that is a problematic place to be. The free-agent market is not efficient, yet is the place to find stars.

The one big significant outside free-agent that Bloom invested in — the six-year, $140 million deal for Trevor Story — has been a disaster. The five-year, $90 million pact for Masataka Yoshida was fine in his rookie introduction, though Boston manager Alex Cora hardly was lavish with praise when asked recently about Yoshida on “The Show with Joel Sherman and Jon Heyman” podcast.

Zaidi tried to sign Aaron Judge and, when that failed, Carlos Correa last offseason, and was particularly fortunate they failed Correa on medical review. The Giants are not going to win the NL West, but they can see neither are the Padres, who led with their wallet to try to track down the Dodgers and instead have been among the most disappointing clubs in the sport, even after investing big in free agency last year on Xander Bogaerts (11 years, $280 million).

Farhan Zaidi, President of Baseball Operations for the San Francisco Giants, speaks to the media during the Spring Training Cactus League Media Day at Arizona Biltmore on Wednesday, February 15, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Giants president Farhan Zaidi tried to make Aaron Judge the Giants’ offensive hub with a $360 million offer the star outfielder spirned to return to the Yankees.
MLB Photos via Getty Images

When contracts like the one with Bogaerts or the nine-year, $360 million accord between Judge and the Yankees are reached, the teams recognize the back ends of those deals likely will be anywhere from problematic to disasters. But they do these deals for two reasons: 1. By stretching the money longer, they lower the annual value, which — among other items — could help with luxury tax issues. 2. They are asserting the present over the future.

So when the Yankees do not capitalize on Year 1 of Judge or the Padres with Bogaerts or the Mets with Edwin Diaz, it’s particularly discouraging because all the years of the contract are not created equal to the franchise. It is something I weighed as I decided to give grades for the top 10 free-agent deals done last offseason. Those agreements were all done with the idea of winning now.

And as you look at how these deals have gone, you’ll understand why the Giants and Red Sox have to find difference-making players, but also why this is so perilous (the grades reflect this season in particular and are grades for the teams, not the players):

Judge, Yankees: He was on pace to have similar stats to his record-breaking 2022 season when he slammed his foot into the Dodger Stadium wall in early June, leading to eight missed weeks and a player who was physically compromised when he did return. It was the biggest moment of this Yankees season by far. His presence might have further camouflaged all the Yankees’ underlying issues. Still, freak injury or not, the Yankees invested in Judge to try to end their title-less drought since 2009 and, thus, the best grade I can offer is a B-minus.

Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees crashes through the outfield fence as he makes a catch for an out of J.D. Martinez #28 of the Los Angeles Dodgers during the eighth inning at Dodger Stadium on June 03, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Aaron Judge’s highlight-worthy, wall-crashing catch in Dodger Stadium helped preserve a Yankees win but may have cost the club a shot at the playoffs in the long run.

Trea Turner, Phillies, 11 years, $300 million: He spent most of the first four months among the biggest disappointments in the game. The light switch went on in early August and he became an impact player as the Phillies galvanized their position as the NL’s top wild-card team. Still, it has been an uneven season that included an 0-for-21 stretch that ended Sunday. Grade: B-minus.

Bogaerts, Padres: He sandwiched a brilliant first and last month around a blah middle of the season when the Padres fell out of the race. Like Turner, the final numbers will look fine. But the idea of teaming Bogaerts with Manny Machado, Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. was to win now. Grade: C.

Correa, Twins, six years, $200 million: Minnesota was the landing spot after failing medical reviews with the Giants and Mets on deals for more than $300 million. His defense was down a grade, his offense was down two grades for (among other issues) hitting into an MLB-high 30 double plays and he is finishing the season on the IL with plantar fasciitis, which clouds what he might offer the AL Central champs in the playoffs. Grade: D.

Jacob deGrom, Rangers, five years, $185 million: He lasted six starts before needing Tommy John surgery for a second time. He will not return before the second half next season. His injury put more pressure on the Rangers to use prospects to trade for Jordan Montgomery and Max Scherzer at the deadline. Scherzer is dealing with injury, too, and is an uncertainty even if Texas gets into the playoffs. Grade: F.

Dansby Swanson, Cubs, seven years, $177 million: The Cubs have received exactly what they paid for — league-average offense buoyed by power, superb defense and leadership. Grade: A.

Dansby Swanson #7 of the Chicago Cubs flips the ball to Nico Hoerner #2 to turn a double play during the fifth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Wrigley Field on September 22, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.
Dansby Swanson has helped push a Cubs team still building toward its future to the edge of an NL playoff berth.
Getty Images

Carlos Rodon, Yankees, six years, $162 million: The Yankees needed to improve their offense and spent their big money on a pitcher. They thought teaming him with Gerrit Cole would help them beat Houston in October. Of course, you have to get to October first, and through injury and poor pitching, Rodon helped make sure that wouldn’t happen for the 2023 Yankees. Grade: F.

Brandon Nimmo, Mets, eight years, $162 million: As important as anything he’s done is that he seems to have found a routine to stay healthy. He reached his familiar .800-plus OPS, this time with a career-high in homers, but also strikeouts. For all that went wrong with the Mets, two of their free-agent signings, Nimmo and Kodai Senga (five years, $75 million) deserve a grade of: A.

Diaz, Mets, five years, $102 million: Would this Mets season have been different if Diaz did not rupture a patellar tendon at the World Baseball Classic? Again, these are “now” contracts and there was (to begin the season) no more “now” team than the Mets, who between payroll and luxury tax were going to approach $500 million. Diaz will return in 2024 to a roster that Steve Cohen expects not to be viewed as top contenders like this year. So the best grade that can be given here is: Incomplete. But for where the Mets were this year, this is an F.

Yoshida, Red Sox: He was fine. Good on offense (though Cora seemed to want more impact) and below-average on defense. Do the Red Sox want “fine” for $90 million? Grade: C.

In fact, for this week’s “Got my attention,” I would ask this of the top 10 free-agent investments from last offseason: If the signing team were given permission to amnesty the remaining contract — in other words, with this year of knowledge, just cut the player without owing them the rest of the contract and also not getting anything in return — how many would do it?

Masataka Yoshida #7 of the Boston Red Sox hits an RBI single during the third inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field on September 19, 2023 in Arlington, Texas.
Masatak Yoshida hasn’t failed to deliver on his $90 million deal with the Red Sox, but he hasn’t exactly met the expectations of the deal either.
Getty Images

Would the Padres, overburdened with long-term obligations, do so with Bogaerts? I think the Twins with Correa, the Rangers with deGrom and the Yankees with Rodon definitely would. Would the Mets do so with the last four years of Diaz after such a traumatic injury and with shifting plans? I think the Red Sox would redirect their money elsewhere rather than pay Yoshida.

Roster stuff maybe only I notice

This began simply enough with a segment I was doing at MLB Network on “MLB Now.” The host, Brian Kenny, was speaking about the Rays’ call-up of touted infield prospect Junior Caminero. He noted that Caminero had come in a minor 2021 deal with the Guardians for Tobias Myers.

Then Brian also cited that the Guardians, so in need of offense, had also made what now look like losing deals last offseason of Nolan Jones to the Rockies (for shortstop prospect Juan Brito) and Will Benson to the Reds (for outfield prospect Justin Boyd and pitching prospect Steve Hajjar) — of course, more time is needed for final grades since, for example, Brito is considered a good prospect.

In response to Brian, I upped the ante by pointing out that Yainer Diaz, Yandy Diaz and Anthony Santander also count the Guardians as their original organization.

It is no surprise that Cleveland has players throughout the sport. At the end of the weekend, 64 players they had signed to their initial pro contracts had played in the majors this season — that was four more than the runner-up Dodgers. That included 14 players making their debuts, which tied the Pirates and Mariners for the most.

September 24: Tampa Bay Rays Infielder Junior Caminero (1) at bat during the MLB regular season game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays on August 12, 2023, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL.
Junior Caminero arrives as one of the most promising prospects in the game, and one an offense-hungry team like Cleveland probably regrets trading to Tampa Bay.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Three of those debuts were by Logan Allen, Tanner Bibee and Gavin Williams, who all pitched encouragingly for the Guardians in their maiden seasons. This is the area in which Cleveland excels — notably drafting and developing starters, which also includes Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie, who both spent much of this season on the injured list. Not long ago, Clevleand was identifying untapped pitching gems from outside, acquiring them and refining them — think pitchers such as Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco.

They have done so well developing their own pitching now, that they traded Aaron Civale at the deadline to the Rays for touted first base prospect Kyle Manzardo. They need a deal like that to begin to show offensive output next year. Because while the Guardians have developed so many position players internally, they have not done a great job of either maximizing them within their organization or in deals, beyond perhaps Francisco Lindor, who netted Cleveland (among others) Andres Gimenez. Their great success story who they have kept is Jose Ramirez.

Here is a team of players whose first pro contract was with the Guardians and no longer are with the organization: C-Yainier Diaz. 1b-Yandy Diaz. 2b-Willi Castro. SS-Lindor. 3b-Gio Urshela. LF-Jones. CF-Benson. RF-Santander. DH-Francisco Mejia.

My totally made-up trade

Cleveland trades Bieber to the Cardinals for Willson Contreras. I would describe this as one team acknowledging that it waited too long to trade an asset (Bieber) to a team that probably wishes it had never signed a player (Contreras) last offseason.

Cleveland Guardians starting pitcher Shane Bieber (57) delivers a pitch to the plate during the first inning of the Major League Baseball game between the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Guardians on September 22, 2023, at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH.
The fact that Shane Bieber suffered another injury and was a lot more hittable than he was in the past may not make it easy for Cleveland to get much value for him in a trade this winter.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bieber made his first start of the second half on Friday when he allowed five runs (four earned) in five innings against the Orioles. The 2020 AL Cy Young winner is the kind of pitcher that the Guardians either get out ahead of by signing to a team-friendly long-term deal or trade.

But a lot of Bieber’s trade value has now been drained. The 2024 season is his walk year, so he has just one more year of club control before free agency. And it is not just that he had an arm injury this season, but his stuff was not as dominant earlier in the first half before he went to the IL.

The Cardinals, though, have talked about the need to add at least two, and possibly three, starters in reaction to their first losing season since 2007. It will be hard to just find answers in free agency.

If the free-agent list that leads this column went one spot further, Contreras at five years at $87.5 million would have been next. St. Louis had spent two decades relying on the pitch whisperer, defense-first catching of Yadier Molina and was pretty much always a contender with that set-up. Then he retired and the Cardinals signed a catcher who they faced 19 times a year within the NL Central (Contreras was a Cub), so there should have been no surprise that Contreras’ carrying tool was his bat over his defense.

Members of a whiny pitching staff blamed Contreras for early season problems and he temporarily lost his starting job. Ultimately, Contreras had a season that looked like all of his others. He hit 22 homers with a 126 OPS-plus in his final Cubs season. He has 20 homers with a 125 OPS-plus as a Cardinal.

Cleveland could toggle him between catching and DH as a way to maximize his bat. The sticking point is that Contreras has four years at $77.5 million left. Would St. Louis have to eat some of that to make a deal amenable?

St. Louis catcher Willson Contreras (40) hits a home run during the MLB game between the St Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves on September 6th, 2023 at Truist Park in Atlanta, GA.
After a rocky start to the season, Willson Contreras produced the kind of numbers for the Cardinals that he had for years with the Cubs.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Or do the Guardians have to gamble and go into next season with Bieber, hope he is all the way back and then make him available at the trade deadline? The strength of the team is young pitching. They have the arms to cover for it if they move Bieber. They have to find bats. The Cardinals must find pitching.

Whose career do you got?

I was trying to think of someone who Houston’s Kyle Tucker reminds me of and I came up with Carlos Beltran.

It is far from perfect. Beltran was a switch-hitting center fielder. Tucker is a lefty-swinging right fielder. But the skill sets — power, speed, defense — have kinship.

Consider that in the Live Ball ERA (since 1920), there are only four players who have in both their age 25 and 26 seasons exceeded 100 RBIs and 25 steals. That would be Darryl Strawberry in 1987-88, Barry Bonds in 1990-91 (it is lost to time and a swollen body what a great all-around player Bonds was in the first half of his career), Beltran in 2002-03 and Tucker the last two seasons.

Tucker became a full-time player in his age-24 season and his age 24-26 seasons have undertones of Beltran’s 24-26 seasons.

Beltan was worth 16.7 WAR (Baseball Reference) in those three seasons, Tucker was at 15.9 and counting. Tucker had the edge in homers 88-79 and Beltran in steals 107-68. Beltran’s slash line in that period: .295/.365/.512; Tucker is at .277/.352/.514. Beltran did not win his first of three Gold Gloves until he was a Met in 2006. Tucker won a Gold Glove last year and has a shot again this year.

Kyle Tucker #30 of the Houston Astros hits an RBI triple during the sixth inning against the San Diego Padres at Minute Maid Park on September 10, 2023 in Houston, Texas.
In only his third full season, Kyle Tucker is putting together the kind of career that could make him a strong contender for Cooperstown.
Getty Images

Tucker has been good in the postseason with eight homers and a .748 OPS in 51 games. Beltan, though, is among the best playoff performers ever with 16 homers and a 1.021 OPS in 65 games.

It is why Beltran made a strong showing in his first year on the Hall-of-Fame ballot with 46.5 percent of the vote. He has a good chance to get in at some point.

Tucker has a long way to go from here to there, but this is a talented all-around player who has begun to construct a fascinating career.

Last licks

Is it possible that Brandon Nimmo is the best active position player who has yet to make an All-Star team?

I limited the competition to only those with 2,500 career plate appearances, so that they have some years and substance to their careers. I think the main competition to Nimmo would be Willy Adames, Kole Calhoun, Brandon Drury, Wilmer Flores, Randal Grichuk, Yuli Gurriel, Enrique Hernandez, Max Kepler, Kevin Kiermaier, Martin Maldonado, Ryan McMahon, Yoan Moncada, Rougned Odor, Tommy Pham, Miguel Rojas, Hunter Renfroe, Amed Rosario, Eddie Rosario, Christian Walker and Kolten Wong.

When I look at that list, I do think the right answer is Nimmo.

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