Jason Grilli inked a two-year contract in December and has dramatically exceeded expectations.
As teams have started to realize, Major League Baseball rewards the thrifty and well-researched. The following free agents and team-controlled players signed modest contracts this past winter, but they have been dramatically outperforming them in 2013.
This list includes several unheralded veterans who were available, including James Loney and Marlon Byrd, as well as long-term building blocks like Allen Craig and Chris Sale.
Just as you would expect, the front offices who complete more team-friendly deals and spend wisely elsewhere generally find themselves in contention.
*Contract information from Baseball Prospectus.
Carlos Gomez of the Milwaukee Brewers.
We only considered players with new contracts that have already taken effect.
That means no Paul Goldschmidt (Arizona Diamondbacks) or Carlos Gomez (Milwaukee Brewers). Their preseason extensions cover the 2014 season and beyond.
Also, because April is not part of the baseball winter, late-signing closers Kevin Gregg (Chicago Cubs) and Francisco Rodriguez (Brewers) don't fit either.
If it's any consolation, each of these four is a potential NL All-Star.
New contract: one year, $1 million
Francisco Liriano suffered a really tough break during the holiday season.
Literally, tweets Mike Sanserino of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. While "trying to startle his kids" on Christmas, the erratic left-hander fractured his non-pitching arm, costing him $11.75 million in guaranteed money.
He settled into the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation on May 11 and has pitched to one of the sport's highest strikeout rates ever since. Coming off a mediocre season, Liriano's walk rate is even better than his career average. The 29-year-old also provides at least five innings every outing.
Per Baseball Prospectus, the 2014 option on his contract will vest at $6 million—rather than $8 million—because of time already spent on the disabled list.
New contract: one year, $2 million
A mid-June slump weakened James Loney's case for an All-Star selection, but this is still shaping up to be his strongest season since 2007.
The former top prospect will never hit for power. Now that's he's 29 years old, we must accept this.
However, he has finally compensated for that flaw in 2013 by pulverizing left-handed pitching after perennially posting ugly platoon splits.
Loney will inevitably cash in on the full $1 million of performance bonuses that the Tampa Bay Rays wrote into his contract. Still, the $3 million total won't match the earnings from any of his arbitration years ($3.1 million in 2010, $4.9 million in 2011 and $6.4 million in 2012).
He is all but assured a raise next winter.
New contract: one year, $2.25 million
With ESPN Insider Buster Olney reporting that the Chicago Cubs have begun listening to trade offers (subscription required) for their "buffet of talent," a Nate Schierholtz move seems inevitable.
The right fielder has obliterated right-handed pitching in 2013 (29 XBH in 186 PA). That should make him a target for several potential contenders.
Because of the reputation of Schierholtz's throwing arm, opposing baserunners hesitate to take extra bases. That alone could be worth whatever is left of his $2.25 salary.
Hard to believe that the Philadelphia Philiies non-tendered him with another year of arbitration eligibility remaining.
New contract: five years, $31 million
Though Allen Craig enters June 22 with only six home runs on the season, he has been justifying his middle-of-the-order placement in other ways.
His video game-like .446/.476/.635 batting line with runners in scoring position contributes to one of the National League's highest RBI totals. Craig is even better with two outs and RISP (.486/.537/.703).
The St. Louis Cardinals use him as an outfielder once or twice a week, and he actually does a decent job there.
According to FanGraphs, Craig's .303 career batting average through more than 1,000 plate appearances puts him in pretty exclusive company. Only 18 other active players sit above .300 after so much major league experience.
New contract: one year, $700,000
Marlon Byrd boasts the third-best OPS on the New York Mets. He has settled into the clean-up spot following the team's most recent roster shake-up.
Though Byrd is striking out nearly once every three plate appearances, he compensates with above-average defense in right field.
The lack of interest in him around the league had a lot to do with the awkward end to his 2012 campaign. Shortly after being released by the Boston Red Sox in June, Major League Baseball suspended him 50 games for violating its drug policy.
New contract: two years, $11.6 million
Early this past winter, Troy Renck of the Denver Post was tweeting about the market for Dexter Fowler and which teams the Colorado Rockies would consider moving him to.
This contract—which bought out his second and third years of arbitration—turned out to be the smartest option.
Fowler is virtually duplicating his stellar batting line from 2012, and he's also filling up the stat sheet in other ways. His 12 stolen bases already match last year's total, and 10 home runs entering June 22 puts him in a tie with Shin-Soo Choo for second among NL center fielders.
He's arguably the third best player on the Rockies, and there's no shame in that when you're teammates with Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki.
New contract: one year, $2 million
At this rate, the Baltimore Orioles will wind up paying an extra $0.5 million in performance bonuses. They'll happily cough up that money to Nate McLouth, who has improved from an already solid 2012 stint.
Rarely do you come across a longtime major league starter stealing the most bases of his career at age 31. Around the American League, only Jacoby Ellsbury has succeeded on more attempted thefts.
McLouth is seeing the ball incredibly well, boasting a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Miguel Cabrera or Albert Pujols. Moreover, FanGraphs reveals that the veteran outfielder swings at fewer pitches outside the strike zone than all other AL batters and that his swinging-strike percentage is the lowest in the league.
Think of him as the anti-Josh Hamilton.
Despite a comparable slash line to Hamilton last September (.280/.355/.456 vs .245/.330/.543) and the same birth year (1981), McLouth signed for $123 million less guaranteed in free agency.
New contract: five years, $32.5 million
The biggest difference between 2012 Chris Sale and 2013 Chris Sale is the run support each received from the Chicago White Sox lineup. This season, he has had an average of 2.79 runs to work with (never more than five).
The fact that the White Sox have a winning record on days Sale starts attests to his immense talent.
To spare the bullpen, he has provided about seven innings per start while striking out the opposition just as often as last year. A handful of MLB pitchers have thrown multiple complete games in 2013, and Sale is one of them.
Of all the American League rotation guys under legitimate All-Star consideration, he's the only ace still making six figures ($850,000 salary).
New contract: two years, $14 million
During his 16 starts in 2012, Hisashi Iwakuma went 8-4 with a 2.65 ERA and 78 K/28 BB in 95.0 IP. Performing at that level under the terms of the above contract would have been a sweet deal in the eyes of the Seattle Mariners.
Little did they know that the Japanese right-hander had even more potential.
It's no small task, but Iwakuma has out-pitched wealthy rotation leader—and former AL Cy Young Award winner—Felix Hernandez. You see his name on virtually all of Baseball-Reference.com's leaderboards. The 32-year-old is first in the American League in WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio, and he trails only injured Clay Buchholz in WAR and earned run average.
Without Iwakuma, the M's would probably be looking up at the Houston Astros from the AL West cellar.
New contract: two years, $6.75 million
Player-turned-agent Gary Sheffield still has a few things to learn about the business of baseball.
Negotiating on Jason Grilli's behalf, he attracted "nearly a dozen suitors," according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, yet only completed the underwhelming deal shown above. No performance-based bonuses or option year either.
In terms of strikeout-to-walk ratio, batting average against and utter dominance, the 36-year-old is having a campaign that rivals Craig Kimbrel's 2012. The main difference is that while the Atlanta Braves were over-protective of their star (63 appearances), Grilli has been taking the mound every other day.
The single-season saves record is totally meaningless, but if anyone is going to hold it, shouldn't it be Grilli? With 26 of them through the first 74 Pittsburgh Pirates games, he's not far off Francisco Rodriguez's pace.