Biggest Potential Busts of the 2020-21 MLB Free-Agency Class

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IFebruary 18, 2021

Biggest Potential Busts of the 2020-21 MLB Free-Agency Class

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The 2020-21 MLB offseason is winding down, with pitchers and catchers reporting this week and spring training on the horizon. 

    A number of players are still hoping for employment, though the visions of teams around the league are evident at this stage. In any event, players who have signed contracts enter the new season with something to prove—some more than others. 

    The following is an analysis of the free agents who might turn into busts. Typically, the term is used in association with star acquisitions. That's not necessarily the case here, as not all our selections are on that level.

    We're using the term "bust" to assess players who might fail to live up to expectations or match the value of their contract. We will also consider their capacities—or lack thereof—to fill vital roles, among other things.

    Starting pitching carries a heavy emphasis, considering the aggressive nature of that market this offseason. Let's get to it.

Trevor Bauer

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Anyone signing a contract worth up to $85 million over the first two years carries incredibly high expectations. This is especially true of an outspoken star like Trevor Bauer.

    The newest Los Angeles Dodger and reigning National League Cy Young winner will be under a microscope all season and could be hard-pressed to live up to his contract. 

    According to FanGraphs' "Dollars" metric—which roughly converts WAR to a dollar value—Bauer has been worth over $40 million just once. That was in 2018, when he went 12-6 with a 2.21 ERA and American League-best 2.44 FIP. Bauer's "Dollars" worth was $46.6 million that year, only $1.6 million more than he could make in 2022.

    The 30-year-old has seemingly advanced. He added over 350 revolutions per minute (RPM) to his four-seam fastball, resulting in an extra two inches of vertical movement in 2020. Bauer struck out a career-high 12.3 batters per nine innings, and his 2.1 walks per nine was also a personal best. He captured Cy Young honors after leading the NL in ERA (1.73), ERA+ (273) and WHIP (0.80).

    The increased spin and movement on the fastball, paired with wipeout breaking balls, helped Bauer achieve tremendous success. He displayed more command in conjunction with dominant stuff. But the question will be whether he can repeat that success.

    Perhaps Dodgers fans will be satisfied if Bauer merely pitches well and helps the club to another World Series title or two. But the rest of the baseball world will surely have a high bar for him. Can he replicate the successes of 2018 and 2020, or will he be chastised for any form of regression?

George Springer

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    George Springer won't be a bust in the near future. However, his contract may be regarded as a bust in retrospect.

    The Toronto Blue Jays signee is coming off a season in which he hit 14 homers with an .899 OPS, just one year after he clubbedd 39 round-trippers with a career-high .974 OPS. Springer is one of the most dangerous leadoff men in baseball and should be an enormous upgrade over Randal Grichuk in center field.

    But his inclusion is more about how his six-year, $150 million contract will age.

    Toronto made an aggressive offer to Springer not only for his offensive prowess, but also because he plays plus defense at a premium position. This is one of the reasons he received an additional two seasons and $8.75 million more in annual average than Marcell Ozuna, a corner outfielder who—despite offensive excellence—is a minus with the glove.

    However, what happens if Springer's durability issues force him to one of the corner spots, or even into a designated hitter role?

    Springer has not played more than 140 games since 2016. He played just 122 in 2019 and then dealt with a wrist injury in 2020. The health issues are stacking up for the 31-year-old, so it's fair to wonder what kind of physical limitations he will encounter.

    For now, those issues are somewhat inconsequential. Springer's sprint speed has mostly been the same despite the injuries, and he ranked in the 69th percentile in outs above average (OAA) in 2020.

    If the injuries persist, that contract might start to look shaky.

James McCann

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    The New York Mets might have struck out on both Bauer and Springer, but they were quick to sign catcher James McCann to a four-year, $40.6 million deal in December.

    On the surface, McCann is a good get. He addresses a critical need behind the dish and costs nearly $75 million less (in guaranteed money) than J.T. Realmuto. McCann hit .289 with seven homers and an .896 OPS in 31 games with the Chicago White Sox in 2020, one year after being named to the AL All-Star team.

    Yet, Mets fans might end up wondering why the team was so quick to set aside negotiations with Realmuto.

    McCann's 2020 numbers might not be surprising, given he has been a fast starter in recent seasons. Indeed, the California native hit .316 with an .873 OPS before the 2019 All-Star break. But he severely tapered off in the second half, hitting just .226 with a .695 OPS.

    Can McCann sustain success for a full season? He had just a .653 OPS in four years as the primary backstop for the Detroit Tigers. Although McCann appears more dialed in at the plate, he doesn't walk a lot and strikes out quite a bit.

    What about behind the plate? Here's where the contract gets even more confusing.

    The 30-year-old ranked ninth in pitch-framing this past season. But McCann was dead last among qualified catchers in the same metric in 2019. He had also ranked toward the bottom of the list in 2017.

    Now, it's possible McCann is much improved as a framer. New York's crop of starters might also make it easier on him. Still, the inconsistencies are a bit troubling.

    McCann could be an improvement over Wilson Ramos. But he might also leave Mets fans wondering why the franchise did not pursue Realmuto with more ferocity.

Drew Smyly

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    It came as little surprise general manager Alex Anthopoulos and the Atlanta Braves signed veteran right-hander Charlie Morton to a one-year deal in November. But the Drew Smyly pact just over a week before  provided ample intrigue.

    The Braves inked Smyly to a one-year, $11 million contract to bolster the back end of the starting rotation. Smyly was coming off a 2020 in which he had a 3.42 ERA and 2.01 FIP in 26.1 innings, and the upside was apparent.

    The 31-year-old struck out 14.4 hitters per nine innings. He gave up just two homers, an immensely positive sign considering the long ball has plagued the left-hander in past seasons. Smyly ranked in the 89th percentile in whiff rate, working opponents with his cutter and a curveball that yielded a 50 percent whiff rate.

    But this deal carries a lot of potential drawbacks.

    Smyly has a lengthy injury history, including undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2017. He missed all of that season and made just one minor league appearance in 2018. Smyly then pitched to a 6.24 ERA in 114 innings in 2019 and, despite his effectiveness in 2020, dealt with more injury issues this past season. 

    Additionally, hitters made hard contact against the Arkansas native. Smyly ranked in the bottom 13 percent in both average exit velocity and hard-hit rate in 2020, also ranking in the bottom 4 percent in barrel rate.

    Fortunately, the Braves have ample starting depth. But if Smyly struggles to stay healthy or experiences regression, Atlanta might be wishing it had spent that $11 million on the bullpen.

Corey Kluber

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    Louis DeLuca/Associated Press

    Corey Kluber was one of the best pitchers of the last decade. He is also entering his age-35 season and has a recent history of injuries.

    The former Cleveland ace ranked fourth in FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) from 2013 to 2018, winning AL Cy Young Awards in 2014 and 2017. He was a workhorse during that six-year run, throwing the second-most innings in the majors.

    Have those innings begun to catch up with Kluber?

    The right-hander made just seven starts in 2019 because of a broken arm. Cleveland then dealt Kluber to the Texas Rangers, who shut him down because of a muscle tear in his shoulder after he threw just one inning in his first start of 2020.

    Still, the recent issues did not prevent teams from flocking to Kluber's mid-January workout, nor did they prevent clubs from extending strong offers. Kluber signed with the New York Yankees for one year and $11 million in pursuit of his first World Series title.

    The Yankees desperately needed starting pitching this offseason and opted for a high-risk, high-reward play in Kluber. If the veteran stays healthy and regains his old form, it could be the signing of the offseason. But if Kluber is sidelined, Yankees fans could be upset the team did not make a stronger push to re-sign Masahiro Tanaka or an innings-eater such as Jose Quintana.

Garrett Richards

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Much like their hated rival, the Boston Red Sox were another AL East club in dire need of starting pitching. And, also like the Yankees, the Red Sox are placing their faith in a guy with injury question marks.

    Boston signed right-hander Garrett Richards to a one-year, $10 million deal after he had a 4.03 ERA in 51.1 innings with the San Diego Padres in 2020. The 32-year-old joins a rotation that will include Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, Martin Perez and, eventually, Chris Sale.

    Richards has shown signs of a breakthrough. He ranked in the 97th percentile or higher in both fastball and curveball spin in 2020, and we have seen how increased spin rates helped guys like Bauer this past season. Richards can work his fastball in the mid-90s, and his slider has typically been excellent. 

    Moreover, Richards had decent success in 2020 despite pitching just 147.1 innings from 2016 to 2019 because of injury. Last summer might have been the first step in his rediscovering the form that made him one of the promising arms in baseball in his earlier years with the Los Angeles Angels. But again, those injuries loom large. 

    Richards has undergone Tommy John surgery and has a history of biceps issues. In 2019, he dealt with shoulder discomfort. There has been a lot of wear and tear in spite of a relative lack of innings, with Richards throwing 804.2 frames in his 10 years in the majors.

    This past season marked a clean bill of health, and it is possible he is finally getting stronger following his 2018 TJ surgery. But it will be telling whether Richards can pitch well and stay in the rotation for a 162-game season.

Robbie Ray

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Toronto Blue Jays are placing a lot of faith in left-hander Robbie Ray's ability to be the All-Star-caliber pitcher of old.

    Toronto acquired Ray from the Arizona Diamondbacks before this past summer's deadline and re-signed him to a one-year, $8 million deal in November. The Blue Jays entered the offseason with starting pitching needs, but jumping to give Ray $8 million could backfire.

    He saw big hikes in spin rates in 2020, but the results did not follow, mostly because he struggled with command. The left-hander had a 6.62 ERA in 51.2 innings, leading the majors with 45 walks. He was more effective in Toronto, pitching to a 4.79 ERA. But Ray still had a 5.32 FIP, giving up four homers and walking 14 batters in 20.2 innings.

    The rise both in free passes and homers has plagued Ray tremendously in recent seasons. He went 15-5 with a 2.89 ERA in 28 starts in 2017, leading the NL with 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings. But his walk rate rose to 5.1 per nine innings in 2018 and, after a slight drop in 2019, spiked to 7.8 per nine innings in 2020. The homer rate, meanwhile, has gone up in each of the last five seasons.

    These are extremely concerning trends. Sure, Ray only just turned 29 in October, and he still ranked in the 84th percentile in whiff rate in 2020. But he also ranked in the bottom 10 percent in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and barrel percentage, and the barrel percentage has risen in each of the last three seasons.

    Although $8 million is hardly a fortune, it is a lot of money to invest in a starter coming off a career-worst year, especially for a Blue Jays team whose only other noteworthy add in the rotation has been another question mark in Tyler Chatwood.

Adam Eaton

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    Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

    The Chicago White Sox brought a familiar face back to the South Side when they signed veteran outfielder Adam Eaton to a one-year deal in December that's worth $8 million guaranteed.

    Eaton was excellent last time he was in Chicago, racking up 13.5 fWAR from 2014 to 2016. But his numbers have declined in the last couple of years, and his defensive numbers have been lacking.

    The 32-year-old had a 123 wRC+ in 95 games with the Washington Nationals in 2018. But that number fell to 108 in 2019 and plummeted to 75 in 2020 when Eaton slashed .226/.285/.384. 

    Moreover, he has been worth a combined minus-14 DRS in the last three seasons, including minus-6 DRS in 2020. Other metrics reach a similar determination, as Eaton was worth minus-6 outs above average in the last three seasons.

    Granted, the White Sox are not counting on Eaton to be an everyday player. He should platoon with Adam Engel in right field. But if Chicago wanted an offensive upgrade and did not care about defense, why not pony up the extra cash for Michael Brantley?

    Maybe signing Ozuna would have been out of Jerry Reinsdorf's comfort zone. But Brantley—who took two years and $32 million to return to Houston—would have been more affordable and would have given the White Sox one of the more savvy left-handed bats in baseball. 

    Ozuna and Brantley aside, other guys might have been better options than Eaton. Robbie Grossman had an .826 OPS and stole eight bases for the Oakland Athletics last season and then signed with the Tigers for just $5 million annually. Eddie Rosario got all of $8 million from Cleveland.

    If Eaton produces closer to his 2019 self, he will have satisfied the value of his contract. But his signing reflects what feels like a missed opportunity for the South Siders.

Jake Arrieta

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Another former Chicago player returned to the Windy City. This time, we turn to the North Side.

    Jake Arrieta is heading back to the Cubs after signing a one-year, $6 million deal last week. The 2015 NL Cy Young was a dominant force in Chicago, going 68-31 with a 2.73 ERA in his first stint with the Cubs and stringing together arguably the greatest single half of pitching ever after the 2015 All-Star break.

    But, sentimentality aside, we are talking about a much different guy.

    Arrieta struck out 8.9 hitters per nine during his first Cubs stint. He struck out just 7.1 opponents per nine in three years with the Philadelphia Phillies. His sinker is down over three miles per hour from 2015, and he has ranked in the bottom 10 percent in whiff rate in each of the last three seasons.

    On a more positive note, Arrieta rediscovered success with the slider last season, posting a minus-6 run value with the pitch. He has also shown an increasing level of confidence in throwing the changeup, with decent effectiveness, and can still deploy the curveball to keep hitters off balance.

    Still, opponents are teeing off on the hard stuff, hitting .402 against the sinker in 2020 and .304 against it in 2019. It could be hard for a guy like Arrieta—who is used to being a power pitcher—to get to his secondary offerings if he struggles to throw the sinker effectively, and that has proved difficult. 

    The Cubs are not thinking of Arrieta as much more than a mid- to back-end rotation type. But they passed on other, cheaper arms in the same category, like veteran left-handers Rich Hill and Brett Anderson.

    Both guys signed for $2.5 million, with Anderson reportedly agreeing to terms to return to the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday. Or, if Chicago wanted to spend a few extra million and bank on upside, it could have gone after James Paxton.

    Arrieta might recapture some of the magic at his old stomping grounds. But this could well be a misappropriation of funds for a Cubs team trying to exploit a weaker NL Central.

Marcus Semien

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    The regression monster came after Marcus Semien hard in 2020, but he still earned a one-year, $18 million deal with the Blue Jays, joining an infield that includes youngsters Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio.

    Toronto will hope the 30-year-old's production more closely resembles his 2019 campaign. Semien finished third in the AL MVP voting that year after hitting .285 with 33 homers and an .892 OPS. He was incredibly productive in the middle of a deep Oakland Athletics lineup, also posting 12 DRS and a 6.7 ultimate zone rating.

    But signs pointed to regression. For starters, he had never posted an OPS+ higher than 99 before 2019. That number ballooned to 139, despite the fact that Semien ranked below the 50th percentile in both average exit velocity and hard-hit rate.

    The San Francisco native came back to earth in 2020, hitting just .223 with a .679 OPS. Semien dealt with nagging injuries and, as Kaitlyn McGrath of The Athletic detailed, couldn't go through his usual pregame routines. But the reality is his 2020 was more in line with the remainder of his career than 2019, which remains an outlier.

    Semien will also likely move to second base to accommodate Bichette. His athleticism should allow him to thrive just about anywhere in the infield, but it is an adjustment nonetheless.

    An opportunity cost also exists. For example, might the Blue Jays just have given Justin Turner a multiyear deal? Turner is the superior hitter, and while his defense has declined, he was perhaps the simpler fit at the hot corner if Vladdy Jr. were to stay at first base in 2021. Plus, Turner could have moved into a DH role eventually.

    A healthier Semien could regain some of his power, and his run prevention in the field might be more important for a Blue Jays team somewhat lacking in quality pitching depth. But he has been worth at least $18 million just twice in his career, per the "Dollars" metric, and will have a lot to prove in Toronto.


    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, FanGraphs or Baseball Savant unless otherwise noted.