Ranking the 2016-17 MLB Offseason's 15 Largest Contracts from Worst to Best
OK, so the 2016-2017 MLB offseason hasn't been the wild spending bonanza that last winter's offseason was. But as evidence that it hasn't been all bad, I submit 15 contracts worth at least $20 million.
How about we pass the time by ranking them?
Let's go from the worst to the best. Or, put another way, from the biggest bust to the biggest steal. This is going to require weighing a multitude of factors, but they can be boiled down to a couple of basic questions:
- How much did each player cost relative to his apparent value?
- How does each player fit into his new team's plans?
We're not about to begrudge any players for accepting too much or too little. We're looking at things from a team-building perspective. The ideal contract is a low cost for a good player who fills a need and propels the signing team toward contention.
Fairly unscientific, but it's an easy gist to get. So, let's get to it.
15. Edinson Volquez to the Marlins: Two Years, $22 Million
Edinson Volquez pitched 189.1 innings in 2016, which is good. But he also posted a 5.37 ERA, which is bad. After that, nobody figured to be pining for him this winter.
At least not until the Miami Marlins accepted the challenge.
In their defense, they had to sign somebody for their starting rotation. It was wildly mediocre in an 82-loss season in 2016 even before their best starter tragically died. And in signing the 33-year-old Volquez, at least they're getting something of a proven commodity.
"With Edinson, you have an experienced All-Star who's been a world champion," president of baseball operations Mike Hill said, via Andre C. Fernandez of the Miami Herald. "I think he'll fit in nicely on our staff and gives us another proven starter that logs innings and can have a really good year."
The innings should be there. Volquez has averaged over 190 per year since 2014. But banking on them to be good innings? That's a stretch. He's fallen far as a strikeout artist while continuing to struggle with walks. And after experiencing a home run spike at Kauffman Stadium, Marlins Park may not save him.
The Marlins might have been rewarded for being patient rather than jumping on Volquez. Ivan Nova, a younger and better pitcher, just signed for only $26 million. They also could have rescued the perception of Volquez's deal by signing one of the market's elite relievers. Instead, they whiffed on all three.
Thus, good money for Volquez doesn't look like such a good deal for the Marlins.
14. Kendrys Morales to the Blue Jays: Three Years, $33 Million
Kendrys Morales' contract looks suspiciously like the three-year, $30 million contract that Billy Butler signed with the Oakland A's in 2014.
To this end, it's more than a defensible deal for the Toronto Blue Jays. Morales is older now (33) than Butler was then (28). But he's also coming off a much better season. Whereas Butler OPS'd just .702 for the Royals in 2014, Morales OPS'd .795 for the Royals in 2016.
If Morales could do that while playing half his games at Kauffman Stadium, the Blue Jays can be optimistic about what he could do at the Rogers Centre. The two parks are typically on opposite ends of the hitter-friendliness spectrum.
However, signing Morales did effectively take the Blue Jays out of the running for incumbent slugger Edwin Encarnacion. And after watching him sign for a reasonable $60 million, one wonders if the Blue Jays overestimated Encarnacion's market when they quickly pivoted to Morales in November.
Further, Nick Ashbourne of Sportsnet.ca covered how signing Morales doesn't help Toronto's roster flexibility. He's strictly a DH, so the position is no longer available as a place to rotate veteran hitters. One of the effects of that is making the Blue Jays less of an obvious fit for Jose Bautista, whose market would otherwise be pushing him back to a comfortable landing in Toronto.
Morales' contract is thus a rarity: a solid deal that could nonetheless do more harm than good to an established contender.
13. Jason Castro to the Twins: Three Years, $24.5 Million
The Minnesota Twins had some bad pitching in 2016, but that's nothing new. The team's 4.61 ERA since 2011 is easily the worst among American League clubs.
He may not be a pitcher, but Jason Castro should be able to help.
The 29-year-old's best quality is his ability to frame pitches. Per Baseball Prospectus, he was fifth in MLB with 12.8 framing runs in 2016. That's music to the ears of a Twins team that dealt with subpar framing from all its catchers.
"The whole idea of signing Jason Castro, a lot of it was measured on the impact of catching on a staff," manager Paul Molitor said, via Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com. "As we've learned more about how to quantify that, it's probably been a little bit of an undervalued position for guys that handle some of those types of things better than others. We thought that was a big piece in trying to at least start off a way of trying to figure out a way to pitch better."
Castro's weakness is his bat. The lefty swinger has managed just a .660 OPS since 2014, and he's only getting worse against left-handed pitching.
But this doesn't make his contract unreasonable. It's not too dissimilar to the three-year, $31 million extension that Francisco Cervelli, a fellow framing savant, signed in 2016. If that's the going rate for an elite framer with an OK bat, then a contract for an elite framer with a bad bat would look like Castro's.
Of course, Castro alone isn't going to turn the Twins from a 103-loss team into a contender. But since that's out of the question anyway, it's nice to see them taking steps to solve their pitching problem.
12. Aroldis Chapman to the Yankees: Five Years, $86 Million
Until this winter, Jonathan Papelbon's $50 million contract was the largest ever for a relief pitcher. Aroldis Chapman's $86 million deal from the New York Yankees tops that by a whopping $36 million.
This makes sense on some levels. Five years have passed since Papelbon signed his deal, and elite relief pitching is valued more now than it was then. To that end, Chapman's 1.84 ERA and rate of 15.7 strikeouts per nine innings since 2012 are tops among all relievers. It's also an important distinction that he was not tied to draft-pick compensation.
Nonetheless, we are talking about a monster contract for a guy who will pitch one inning at a time. And the risk going forward is palpable.
Chapman's defining characteristic has been his triple-digit heat. But with 383 career appearances in his past and his age-29 season in his immediate future, the velocity he's had to this point may be running short on staying power. Even if an injury doesn't take it all in one fell swoop, it could decline gradually.
This would be an acceptable risk if the Yankees were in a position to win now. But they're still in rebuilding mode after gutting their roster throughout an 84-win season in 2016. They don't figure to get back into win-now mode until 2018 or 2019. On the off chance Chapman isn't a shell of his old self by then, he could use his opt-out to abandon ship after 2019.
11. Ian Desmond to the Rockies: Five Years, $70 Million
If nothing else, Ian Desmond's $70 million contract with the Colorado Rockies makes for a heartwarming story.
This is the same guy who once turned down a $100 million contract offer. After that came a disastrous 2015 that killed his value. Then came a 2016 that re-established it, as he OPS'd .782 with 22 homers and 21 steals while making a smooth transition from shortstop to the outfield.
So, here he is. And $70 million isn't an outrageous price in a vacuum. Desmond basically got Alex Gordon money, which is fair given their similar ages (Desmond is 31, Gordon was 31 last year) and sets of skills.
The catch is the Rockies' plan to stash Desmond at first base. This is a waste of Desmond's athleticism. It's also a bad place to put a bat that, while good, is nothing special by the position's high standards.
It's also hard to view Desmond as a missing link. The Rockies had the National League's most productive offense in 2016 and still lost 87 games. Their goal needs to be stockpiling pitching, not hitting.
The good news is that the Rockies do have some exciting arms in their farm system. The bad news is that they punted a major chance to add another when they signed Desmond. His ties to draft-pick compensation cost them the No. 11 pick in the 2017 draft.
In essence, the Rockies have paid a big price to take a small step forward.
10. Brett Cecil to the Cardinals: Four Years, $30.5 Million
Did the St. Louis Cardinals really give four years and $30.5 million to a left-handed specialist?
On the surface, yes. But in reality, perhaps not.
Based on what Brett Cecil did between 2013 and 2015, the Cardinals signed a good reliever, period. Across 189 appearances in those three seasons, he put up a 2.67 ERA and struck out 11.5 batters per nine innings. He notably suppressed both right-handed (.205 AVG) and left-handed batters (.206 AVG).
Cecil's age-29/30 season in 2016 was less impressive. He was limited to 54 appearances by an arm injury and put up a modest 3.93 ERA. He also permitted a .275 average to righties.
But even in counting that, FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan noted that Cecil compared favorably to Darren O'Day, who got a four-year, $31 million contract last winter. As such, Cecil's contract was actually defensible at the time he signed it in late November.
With several relievers signing for tens of millions more in the ensuing weeks, Cecil's deal now looks downright petty. It also added depth to a Cardinals bullpen that struggled with that in an 86-win 2016 season and without blocking the team from making another significant signing.
On balance, this once silly-seeming contract isn't too bad.
9. Josh Reddick to the Astros: Four Years, $52 Million
Josh Reddick entered the offseason as a platoon outfielder who didn't help his value with a rough stint on a contending team to close out the 2016 season.
That made Gerardo Parra an easy comp, seemingly putting Reddick in line for something like three years and $30 million. He obviously got quite a bit more than that, so...What's the deal?
Well, Reddick's overall track record is quite good. The 29-year-old has put up a solid .766 OPS since 2014, including an .847 OPS against right-handed pitching. Having a left-handed hitter who can do that is a nice piece for a Houston Astros lineup that skewed right-handed in 2016.
"Pitchers are not going to have too many soft spots in our lineup, day in and day out," general manager Jeff Luhnow said, via Richard Dean of MLB.com. "We've seen him in the division a bit in the past few years. We've seen him burn us with his arm and with his bat, so it's great to have him on our side."
Reddick gives the Astros a quality defensive outfielder next to center fielder George Springer. His contract also didn't bar them from signing Carlos Beltran and Charlie Morton and trading for Brian McCann. In all, a team that won 84 games in 2016 is primed to be a lot better going forward.
This doesn't completely erase the sense that the Astros gave Reddick more money than they had to. But they are getting a solid player for their money, and they might not have been able to make additional moves had they splurged for Yoenis Cespedes, Dexter Fowler or Ian Desmond instead.
Not a steal, but a good enough deal.
8. Kenley Jansen to the Dodgers: Five Years, $80 Million
Once Chapman signed for $86 million, it was apparent even in the far reaches of space that Kenley Jansen would sign for something similar.
Thus, there was a lot of head nodding when the Los Angeles Dodgers brought him back on an $80 million contract. With a 2.22 ERA and 13.6 K/9 since 2012, Jansen is one of few relievers who can claim to have been close to Chapman's level over the last five years. If not on his level.
Having just turned 29, Jansen is also basically the same age as Chapman. He's also worked in just 26 more games. Hence, the similarity of their contracts.
Jansen's advantage, though, is in how he figures to age.
Because he didn't start pitching professionally until 2009, Jansen's arm was spared a lot of early wear and tear. He also has a signature pitch that's not dependent on velocity to be effective. He goes right at hitters with a filthy cutter, an approach that worked for Mariano Rivera for a long time.
There's also the difference in where the Dodgers are compared to where the Yankees are. The Dodgers are in win-now mode after a fourth straight NL West title in 2016. Once Chapman and Mark Melancon were off the board, they had no choice but to re-sign Jansen to stabilize an otherwise shaky bullpen.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that $80 million is still a lot of money for a one-inning reliever. But of the two such contracts that have been signed this winter, this one makes a lot more sense.
7. Mark Melancon to the Giants: Four Years, $62 Million
Nobody went into the winter thinking that Mark Melancon would have as much earning power as Chapman or Jansen.
But once Cecil signed his eyebrow-raising contract, it was clear Melancon would have more earning power than anticipated. It thus wasn't surprising when he exceeded Papelbon's record contract by $12 million.
It also wasn't surprising that the money came from the San Francisco Giants.
The Giants had everything except a reliable closer in 2016, and it cost them. Had it not been for an MLB-high 30 blown saves, they would have won more than 87 games in the regular season and might have upset the Chicago Cubs in the postseason.
The gripe here is that Melancon doesn't fix the velocity shortage the Giants have in their bullpen. He only sits in the low 90s with his cutter. But he hasn't needed to light up radar guns to be effective. Movement and location make him an excellent contact manager, as evidenced by his recent soft-contact mastery. In all, he has a 1.80 ERA since 2013—the lowest of any pitcher who's appeared in over 100 games.
Look at him squarely from that perspective, and the Giants filled their biggest need by signing the actual best reliever for significantly less than the supposed best relievers got. And they didn't even have to give up a draft pick, either.
6. Ivan Nova to the Pirates: Three Years, $26 Million
The Pittsburgh Pirates entered the winter in a tight spot after winning just 78 games in 2016.
They had the foundation to contend but needed to add more. To their rotation, specifically. It's a tough assignment in this winter more than most, and one made tougher by the club's limited resources.
All this should have blocked them from re-signing Ivan Nova. As for how they brought him back for just $26 million, my guess would be hypnosis.
In November, Jim Bowden of ESPN and MLB Network Radio reported that Nova was fielding offers similar to the three-year, $36 million contract that J.A. Happ landed last winter. That seemed fair enough. Happ landed his contract after turning his career around in a short stint in Pittsburgh. Nova did the same thing, going from a career 4.41 ERA with the Yankees to a 3.06 ERA in 11 starts for the Pirates.
Relative to the offers he was supposedly fielding, getting Nova for just $26 million is a steal for the Pirates. And more so than any other team that might have signed him at that price, they now have a chance to turn it into a major steal.
Nova will get to keep working with Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, who is responsible for fixing the 29-year-old in the first place. If he can keep working his magic on Nova, the Pirates will get the reliable arm their rotation sorely needed behind Gerrit Cole.
5. Rich Hill to the Dodgers: Three Years, $48 Million
- Clayton Kershaw: 1.96
- Rich Hill: 2.00
Want another heartwarming story? How about a 36-year-old who signed for five times his career earnings to date.
Rich Hill earned it. Injuries and ineffectiveness seemed to have killed his career for good when he found himself pitching in independent ball in 2015. But he reinvented himself, forging a path back to the majors and making the most of it. Here are the league's top ERAs since 2015:
The caveat is that Hill has logged only 139.1 innings in 24 starts. He made only four starts in 2015 and was limited by injuries to 20 in 2016. At his age and with his track record of injuries, the Dodgers can't count on him carrying a big workload.
But then, they don't need to. They just need Hill to dominate when he can pitch. When he can't, they can lean on their considerable depth.
“We feel like with his quality, we’re probably less reliant on the quantity than some other teams might be, because of our upper-level pitching prospects that got some experience last year,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said, via Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times.
Even if the Dodgers only get 100 innings per year out of Hill, look at it this way: He has the talent to dominate in those innings and could thus provide more dominant innings than Chapman, Jansen and Melancon at a much cheaper rate.
4. Dexter Fowler to the Cardinals: Five Years, $82.5 Million
As much as the Cardinals needed a reliever, they needed a center fielder more.
The lineup the Cardinals had in 2016 could definitely hit, finishing third in the NL in runs and OPS. But their starting nine was less proficient at catching the ball. What didn't help that was asking Randal Grichuk to fake being a center fielder in 106 games.
On the other side of the ball, Fowler is a switch-hitter with a career .366 on-base percentage. The Cardinals will deepen their lineup by stashing him in the leadoff spot and moving Matt Carpenter into the middle of their order.
Fowler's red flag is durability. He's averaged just 129 games per season since 2013, and that's not improving now that he's past the age of 30. Between paying Fowler $82.5 million and sacrificing the No. 19 pick in the 2017 draft, the Cardinals are making a sizable bet on no sure thing.
In context, however, this is defensible. Fowler's market got a boost after Reddick and Desmond signed for big digits. The Cardinals could have either backed away from Fowler after that or bit the bullet and filled their biggest need. Kudos to them for doing the latter.
Mind you, catching the Cubs will be a tall order. But at least the Cardinals now have a fighting chance.
3. Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets: Four Years, $110 Million
The big negative of the New York Mets re-signing Yoenis Cespedes is so obvious that we might as well get right to it.
With Cespedes back in the fold, an outfield that would have been overcrowded with corner outfielder types anyway is now even more overcrowded with corner outfield types. Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, Jay Bruce and Michael Conforto are all worthy of playing time. That's three guys for four spots, and the awkwardness is heightened by the reality that none can do a decent impression of a center fielder.
On the bright side, this isn't exactly a new problem for the Mets.
They had an awkward outfield depth chart in 2016 too, and it didn't stop them from winning 87 games. They had the strengths to overcome it, most notably a strikeout-happy pitching staff and an offense that hit a lot of home runs.
Cespedes led the way in the former with a team-high 31 dingers. The Mets would have been in deep trouble if they let those go. By bringing Cespedes back, they've essentially retained all the qualities that made them one of the NL East's top teams.
The cost, meanwhile, is no more than what the Mets could have been expected to pay. They responded to Cespedes' huge 2015 season by paying him $27.5 million for 2016. He ended up having a similarly productive year, so a multi-year contract worth $27.5 million per year adds up.
2. Edwin Encarnacion to the Indians: Three Years, $60 Million
When Edwin Encarnacion signed for $60 million, seemingly everyone had the same reaction: "Is that it?"
He was supposed to go for more than that. Nelson Cruz's (four years, $57 million) and Victor Martinez's (four years, $68 million) contracts seemed like good places to start in negotiations. Experts like those at MLB Trade Rumors figured Encarnacion would land closer to $100 million.
That Encarnacion fell well short could be a sign of the times. His main attraction is power that's produced 193 home runs since 2012. But after home runs have come roaring back in the last two seasons, his main attraction isn't that attractive anymore.
Regardless, Encarnacion's power is a terrific fit for a Cleveland Indians club that needed to fill Mike Napoli's shoes. Their $60 million has bought them a significant upgrade. Napoli was basically a league-average hitter in 2016. Encarnacion ranks among the league's best since 2012.
Granted, $60 million is still more than Cleveland has ever paid any other free agent. They also lost the No. 25 draft pick to sign Encarnacion.
But now's no time for the Indians to be frugal. They just went to the World Series and darn near won it. They had most of the pieces they needed to get the job done sometime in the immediate future.
They just needed the last piece. They got it at a very good price.
1. Justin Turner to the Dodgers: Four Years, $64 Million
Looking at his $64 million contract, I wonder if Justin Turner neglected to mention that he was arguably the best free agent on this winter's market.
According to FanGraphs, Turner has racked up just 0.4 fewer wins above replacement than Cespedes since 2014 despite playing in 57 fewer games. He's been an excellent two-way player, posting an .856 OPS on offense and rating as easily above average on defense.
Coming off his age-31 season, Turner did have the age question hanging over his head. But he also didn't become an everyday player until 2014, making him well-preserved for a guy his age. That plus his recent track record should have resulted in one of the winter's richest contracts.
Not exactly, as it turns out. And considering that he's arguably a better player than Desmond, Jansen, Fowler, Chapman and Cespedes, his deal looks even more like a steal when viewed in context.
Making it even sweeter for the Dodgers is that they got this steal in the one area where they had the least negotiating leverage. They had other free-agent options for their rotation and bullpen outside of Hill and Jansen. There weren't any other free-agent options for their hole at third base. They would have been in a bind if they hadn't been able to lure Turner back.
But, they did. And in so doing, they returned a major piece to their lineup and positioned themselves for more NL West titles.