Free-Agency Mistakes Already Hurting MLB Teams in 2014
It's common for several proven veteran players or even highly touted youngsters to begin the season with a two- or three-week slump and still end the year with solid overall numbers.
It's just more alarming when a hitter is 6-for-47 and the giant ".128 batting average" flashes on the scoreboard for all fans to view, or when a starting pitcher begins the year by allowing seven earned runs in 8.2 innings over his first two starts, the 7.29 ERA in mid-April causing fans to call for a rotation change.
When that player is new to a team—especially when the cost to acquire that player, in dollars and/or the package of players traded for his rights, was viewed as high—those numbers are magnified even further.
While it's not the end of the world and it's still way too early to call any free-agent signing a "bust" or to claim that a team's failure to sign a particular free agent was a huge mistake, it's fair to weigh a team's free-agent choice against what could've been and make a strong case for it at least hurting a team early on.
Here are some of the more notable decisions that appear to be free-agency mistakes thus far.
A.J. Burnett's Stint in Philly Off to a Rough Start
Early in free agency, all signs pointed towards A.J. Burnett (pictured) either retiring or returning to Pittsburgh, where he had resurrected his career and become one of the better starting pitchers in baseball over the past two seasons.
So within the time he finally announced he would return in late January and would be open to signing with another team besides the Pirates and the time he agreed to a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies on February 12, there wasn't even much of a chance for the baseball world to discuss the risks that came with the 37-year-old veteran and whether a new team would get the 2012-13 version (3.41 ERA, 3.0 BB/9, 8.9 K/9 in 61 starts) or the one who struggled with the New York Yankees in 2010-11 (5.20 ERA, 3.8 BB/9, 7.6 K/9).
If his first three starts are any indication, the Phillies should be very worried that they paid $16 million for the guy whom the Yankees gave to the Pirates for two non-prospects, along with $20 million of his remaining $33 million in salary.
After a solid Phillies debut in which he allowed just one earned run in six innings with two walks and three strikeouts, Burnett followed up with back-to-back six-walk games while allowing 10 runs (six earned) in 10 innings.
While a hernia, which he's been diagnosed with and will continue pitching through, may have contributed to his command struggles, Burnett is only a short-term one-year investment, and it doesn't matter if he's pitching poorly because he's hurt or because he can't handle the pressure that comes with playing in Philadelphia.
Best Fits for Stephen Drew Lacking in Infield Production
The New York Mets and New York Yankees appeared to be the best fits for Stephen Drew (pictured) as he entered the offseason as, arguably, the top free-agent infielder on the free-agent market.
Re-signing with the Boston Red Sox was also seen as an option for Drew, which would've allowed the Sox to pencil him in at shortstop and have two young and unproven players, Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks, compete at third base as opposed to handing each a starting job.
To a lesser degree, the Pittsburgh Pirates made sense, although they were a much less likely landing spot because of their much smaller payroll and a decent in-house option in Jordy Mercer.
Two weeks into the season, Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada is 8-for-41 with one double and 11 strikeouts.
The Yankees have gotten solid production out of Derek Jeter, Kelly Johnson and Yangervis Solarte, but an injury to first baseman Mark Teixeira has magnified the team's lack of depth around the diamond, and Brian Roberts' slow start (four singles in 31 at-bats) makes the team's inability or lack of interest in signing Drew a glaring mistake.
The Red Sox's loss of Middlebrooks, who is on the disabled list with a strained calf, has also exposed their lack of infield depth, while Bogaerts is off to a slow start (13-for-50, 2 2B, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 13 K). He is only 21, and he is still one of the most talented young players in the game, but the Sox are off to a 5-9 start, and fingers will have to point somewhere.
Mercer's 7-for-41 start for the Bucs can't help the perception that the team was not aggressive enough in free agency.
Top prospect Gregory Polanco is very close to claiming the starting right field job, and prior to his season-ending Tommy John surgery, top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon was thought to be very close to joining the big league rotation. They were legitimate reasons not to pursue an upgrade in either of those areas.
There is no shortstop help on the way, though, so if Mercer has a poor season, fans will be wondering why the Pirates didn't make a run at Drew.
Curtis Granderson Hasn't Lived Up to His Paycheck
The ghost of Jason Bay's four-year, $66 million contract will always haunt Mets fans as the former Pirates and Red Sox star's best days were behind him by the time he arrived in New York. The best cure would've been for the team to get good value from the next player it happened to sign to a big-money deal.
That player is Curtis Granderson (pictured), another corner outfielder who happened to have signed a similar deal (four years, $60 million) and had big expectations. Things haven't gone well thus far.
His 8-for-47 start with one homer and 16 strikeouts is a bad sign for those hoping he could return to his 40-homer form of 2011-2012 and for a Mets team in need of an offensive boost to help star third baseman David Wright.
Failure to Find Stopgap for Billy Hamilton Was a Mistake for Reds
You can't blame the Cincinnati Reds for not re-signing Shin-Soo Choo, who received a seven-year, $130 million deal from the Texas Rangers for his ages 31-37 seasons. But to just hand the starting center field and leadoff-man job over to rookie Billy Hamilton (pictured), who posted a mediocre .308 on-base percentage in Triple-A in 2013, was highly questionable.
According to Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, Grady Sizemore was close to signing in Cincinnati but opted to take a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Boston Red Sox, where he'd have a much more difficult road to a starting job with Jackie Bradley Jr. the favorite for the job.
He not only won the job over Bradley, but also is off to a terrific start (12-for-39, 2 HR, 2 2B), while the 23-year-old Hamilton is only 8-for-47 with a .220 on-base percentage and four stolen base in six attempts.
Even if Hamilton is the answer long term, the Reds should've known he wasn't quite ready after an unimpressive 2013 season. Whether it was being just a bit more aggressive to bring in Sizemore or signing Nate McLouth (two-years, $10.75 million with Washington) or Sam Fuld (minor league deal with Oakland), the Reds could've bought Hamilton a few more much-needed months in Triple-A.
Long Season Looms After D'backs Fail to Land Front-Line Starter
The way Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers was talking this offseason, it was hard to believe that the team wouldn't end up with either Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka or one of the top free-agent starters available.
Aside from a power hitter, which they did acquire in Mark Trumbo, the D'backs were clearly focused on adding a front-line starter. It never happened, though.
In the end, they settled for a reliable starter who they could pencil into the back of their rotation in Bronson Arroyo (pictured). That failure to accomplish a goal has been magnified greatly by the loss of No. 1 starter Pat Corbin and the struggles of Arroyo (9.95 ERA in three starts), Brandon McCarthy (7.78 ERA in three starts) and two others (Randall Delgado and Trevor Cahill) who have since been removed from the rotation.
Off to a 4-13 start, Towers is likely on the hot seat no matter how many homers Trumbo hits—he currently leads the league with six. The focus is more on how the pitcher traded away to acquire him, Tyler Skaggs, has been brilliant in his first two starts for the Angels and would be the best pitcher in Arizona right now.
Padres' Risky Investment Could Miss Season
Josh Johnson was once one of the top starting pitchers in the game for the Florida Marlins, where he posted a 33-12 record with a 2.90 ERA from 2008-2010. A shoulder injury cut short his 2011 season, though, and he hasn't been the same since.
If he can finally return to health at age 30, there is certainly a chance he could return to form. Since there is a good chance he probably won't given his track record over the last three seasons (two injury-plagued seasons, one very average season), the San Diego Padres were able to sign him at what was considered a reduced rate.
A "safe" one-year, $8 million deal isn't really that safe, though, for a small-market team like the Padres, who have endured several injuries to their young pitchers over the past few years.
Still, it was a move that the Padres felt could push them over the top if Johnson could give them a full season at even 75 percent of the pitcher he once was.
After a strong spring (13.1 IP, 4 ER, 10 H, 4 BB, 13 K), their investment was looking strong. But a strained forearm landed him on the disabled list to start the season, and now the latest word, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, is that he could require season-ending Tommy John surgery.
If Johnson starts less than seven games, the Padres could exercise a $4 million club option for 2015. But that's not happening if he's recovering from Tommy John surgery, which would make him questionable, at best, until the second half of next season. It's $8 million down the drain for a team that can't afford these kinds of free-agent misses.
Several Teams Will Regret Passing on Ervin Santana
Ervin Santana's asking price early in the offseason, which Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported at more than $100 million over five seasons, made him a risky investment. But it didn't drop to one-year and $14.1 million, the price the Atlanta Braves signed him for on March 12, overnight.
Somewhere in the middle—even at a price that exceeded the four-year, $50 million deals that Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez landed with the Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles, respectively—would have been well worth it for Santana (pictured), a 31-year-old who was one of the most effective starters in baseball for the Kansas City Royals in 2013.
Two starts into his Braves career (14 IP, ER, 7 H, 2 BB, 17 K), it's safe to say that 29 other teams probably regret passing on Santana as his price began to drop.
But none should be more regretful than teams that have obvious needs in their rotation, such as the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cleveland Indians, Toronto Blue Jays and the Royals, who opted to spend $32 million on a four-year deal for free-agent lefty Jason Vargas and another $4.25 million to bring back Bruce Chen for another season.
The team that could come out looking the worst, however, is the Minnesota Twins, who weren't waiting around for Santana's price to drop as they gave Ricky Nolasco (5.50 ERA in three starts) a four-year, $49 million deal; inked Phil Hughes (7.20 ERA in three starts) to a three-year, $24 million deal; and re-signed Mike Pelfrey (7.84 ERA in two starts) to a two-year, $11 million deal.
One quality start from Santana every five days wouldn't have made the Twins a contender. But it sure would've made their offseason much less of an embarrassment as it's turning out to be.
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