MLB Contracts Looking Like the Biggest Steals and Biggest Ripoffs

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistAugust 10, 2020

MLB Contracts Looking Like the Biggest Steals and Biggest Ripoffs

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The 2020 MLB campaign is young. But it's not too early to begin judging the contracts that were handed out this offseason, from the multiyear mega-pacts to the short-term show-me deals.

    Specifically, which ones are looking like steals and which seem like ripoffs? 

    This is based partly on early results, but two-plus weeks of hot or cold production aren't enough to make a call, especially on a long-term deal. Other variables such as a player's age and recent output, the length and value of the contract, injuries and a dash of forward-looking speculation factored in.


    Note: We've included the original full-dollar figures for all contracts, but keep in mind that 2020 salaries are prorated for the 60-game schedule.

Steal: Nick Castellanos, OF, Cincinnati Reds

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    ContractFour years, $64 million; player opt-outs after 2020 and 2021 seasons; $20 million mutual option for 2024 with $2 million buyout


    The Cincinnati Reds made a number of moves to beef up their offense this offseason, but none are paying more dividends than the signing of Nick Castellanos.

    Between 2016 and 2019, Castellanos produced an .840 OPS, and last season he hit 27 home runs and an MLB-leading 58 doubles between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs.

    A move to hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park seemed like it might increase the 28-year-old's production, and so far that's been the case.

    In his first 15 games with the Reds, Castellanos owns a 1.171 OPS with seven home runs and 16 RBI. Those numbers should level off a bit, but Cincinnati appears to have landed an All-Star-caliber hitter still in his prime for a relative bargain.

Ripoff: Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    ContractFive years, $85 million


    Madison Bumgarner is a postseason legend and four-time All-Star. So when the Arizona Diamondbacks signed the left-hander away from the division-rival San Francisco Giants, D-backs fans had every right to be excited.

    So far, however, MadBum has struggled with the Snakes, and there are reasons to believe those struggles could continue.

    Through four starts and 17.1 innings with Arizona, Bumgarner has surrendered 20 hits, seven home runs and 18 earned runs, "good" for a 9.35 ERA. On Sunday, he lasted just two innings and gave up six runs in a 9-5 loss to the San Diego Padres.

    More troublingly, his average fastball velocity has dropped from 91.4 mph in 2019 to 88.0 mph. 

    Bumgarner is 31 years old. He's been durable throughout his career, eclipsing 200 innings in seven of nine seasons since 2011 and throwing another 102.1 playoff frames in that period. But it's possible he's wearing down.

    This deal looks questionable now, and it could look downright bad as Bumgarner enters his mid-30s.

Steal: Starlin Castro, 2B, Washington Nationals

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    ContractTwo years, $12 million


    The Washington Nationals signed multiple veteran infielders to help offset the loss of star third baseman Anthony Rendon to free agency. So far, Starlin Castro looks like the best of the bunch.

    In 11 games with the Nats, Castro is hitting .359 with an .877 OPS. The 30-year-old four-time All-Star has seen all of his action at second base, but he's also capable of playing shortstop and third base, adding "versatility" to the list of special skills on his resume.

    "I feel good," Castro told reporters of his hot start with Washington. "It's kind of like one of the things that every player is looking for—the main guy trusts you, the main guy believes in you. I've been with [manager] Davey [Martinez] with the Cubs and we have a really good relationship."

    If Castro keeps producing at a high level for a relative payroll pittance, the Nationals will surely be happy about this relationship, too.

Ripoff: Josh Donaldson, 3B, Minnesota Twins

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    ContractFour years, $92 million; $16 million club option for 2024 with $8 million buyout


    When he's right, Josh Donaldson is one of the best third basemen in the game. The 2015 American League MVP had a solid season in 2019 with the Atlanta Braves, as he hit 37 home runs with a .900 OPS and played in 155 games.

    That led to a lucrative four-year deal with the Minnesota Twins that isn't looking great thus far.

    Donaldson started the season 4-for-22 before landing on the injured list with a right calf strain. He has battled calf issues in the past and missed significant time to that injury in both legs in 2017 and 2018. He's also 34 years old.

    Donaldson could return healthy and boost an already-potent Twins lineup. But this is an ominous sign for a player his age and doesn't bode well for the coming years, when he'll be biting off a significant chunk of Minnesota's modest payroll.

Steal: Didi Gregorius, SS, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    ContractOne year, $14 million


    COVID-19 complications have limited the Philadelphia Phillies to just eight games entering play Sunday. But in that small sample, shortstop Didi Gregorius looks like an excellent pickup.

    Signed this offseason on a one-year deal after an injury-shortened 2019 season with the New York Yankees, Gregorius has gone 9-for-28 with two home runs for the Phils.

    The 30-year-old appears to be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery in October 2018 and is playing like the guy who earned down-ballot MVP votes in 2017 and 2018. He's also reportedly emerged as a clubhouse leader after reuniting with former Yankees skipper Joe Girardi.

    If Philadelphia manages to make a run in the deep National League East, Gregorius will surely be a big part of it.

Ripoff: Cole Hamels, LHP, Atlanta Braves

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    ContractOne year, $18 million


    The Atlanta Braves handed out a pair of one-year, $18 million deals this offseason. We'll get to the one that's going well so far, but first the bad news.

    When the Braves signed him, left-hander Cole Hamels was entering his age-36 season and hadn't posted a sub-4.00 FIP since 2016. But it wasn't a terrible idea to make a short-term gamble on the four-time All-Star.

    Hamels didn't pitch in the initial 2020 spring training because of a shoulder issue and was subsequently placed on the 45-day IL with a triceps injury before he could take the hill in summer camp. 

    He's been throwing from up to 120 feet and could soon toss a bullpen session, per Kelly Crull of Fox Sports South, but he won't be eligible to return to action with Atlanta until September even if everything goes well.

    That means, at best, the Braves will get a few appearances from Hamels and at worst this will be a total sunk cost.

Steal: Jose Iglesias, INF, Baltimore Orioles

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    ContractOne year, $2.5 million; $3.5 million club option for 2021 with $500,000 buyout


    The rebuilding Baltimore Orioles probably won't make the postseason in 2020 despite a surprisingly decent start.

    And Jose Iglesias almost certainly won't keep hitting .405 with a 1.005 OPS, which he has done in his first 39 plate appearances with the O's.

    But the 30-year-old veteran infielder, who was an All-Star in 2015, could continue to provide value beyond the modest sum Baltimore is paying him, both on the field and in the clubhouse.

    One of the few experienced players on a young Orioles roster, Iglesias has assumed the role of a mentor.

    "I'm very happy," Iglesias told reporters. "I take it one day at a time and do everything I can to help this team. It's very fun to see young players like Rio [Ruiz] and Austin [Hays] going up there and competing, getting better each and every day. I really love where we're at."

Ripoff: Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP, Toronto Blue Jays

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    ContractFour years, $80 million


    When the Toronto Blue Jays signed left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu this offseason, they opened their wallet wide for the reigning National League ERA leader. Points for effort.

    The deal came with significant risk, however. Ryu has never reached 200 innings in a season since arriving in the big leagues in 2013 and has battled an array of injuries that led to shoulder and elbow surgeries. 

    The 33-year-old is apparently healthy but has allowed eight earned runs, seven walks and 14 hits in 14 innings with the Jays. He threw five scoreless frames with eight strikeouts in his most recent start against the Braves, which is a promising sign.

    But given his early struggles, age and injury history, Toronto should feel less than confident about paying Ryu $20 million annually through his age-36 season.

Steal: Marcell Ozuna, OF, Atlanta Braves

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    ContractOne year, $18 million


    After rejecting a one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals, Marcell Ozuna wound up inking almost exactly the same deal with the Atlanta Braves.

    Now, the 29-year-old needs to prove he's worth a multiyear contract before reentering free agency. So far, so good.

    In 15 games with Atlanta, Ozuna owns an .867 OPS with three doubles and three home runs. And he's consistently hitting the ball hard. His 95.5 mph average exit velocity is the fourth-highest in baseball, per Statcast.

    "When the Cardinals traded for [Ozuna], the end of 2017, he was coming off an unbelievable year as a 26-year-old player," Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos told reporters. "He performed well for St. Louis, and we'd be happy with that. But we felt he could be even better than that. We'll find out by the time the year is over."

Ripoff: Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Washington Nationals

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    Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

    Contract: Seven years, $245 million


    Stephen Strasburg posted a 3.32 ERA with 251 strikeouts in 209 innings for the Nationals in 2019 and won World Series MVP honors. So Nats fans must have breathed a sigh of relief when the team promptly re-signed the right-hander after he opted out of his contract.

    There was risk involved, however. Strasburg turned 32 in July and has dealt with injuries throughout his career. In fact, 2019 was only the second out of 10 MLB seasons in which he threw 200-plus innings (the other was 2014).

    So you could almost hear the relieved sighs turn to groans when Strasburg was scratched from his first start of 2020 with a nerve issue in his throwing hand.

    He made his belated debut Sunday against the Orioles and surrendered seven hits and five earned runs with two strikeouts in 4.1 innings. Some of that can be attributed to rust. 

    But the injury is worrying, and it's far from a sure thing Strasburg will be healthy and consistently dominant as he moves deeper into his 30s.


    All statistics current entering play Sunday and courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs; contract information courtesy of Spotrac.