Grading the Top Free-Agent Signings of MLB's Wild 2021-22 Offseason
- Did the team fill a need with the player it signed?
- If so, how much did said team help its contention chances in the immediate and distant future?
If you didn't have a chance to catch your breath amid a frantic few days on Major League Baseball's free-agent market, go ahead and do so now.
With that done, we can now move on to discussing and grading the top 11 signings of the winter.
For this, we set the cutoff at $50 million guaranteed and then asked two questions:
Let's begin with three contracts in the $50 million range and then go one by one for the eight richest contracts of the 2021-22 offseason so far.
Justin Verlander (HOU), Avisail Garcia (MIA) and Jon Gray (TEX)
11. RHP Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
The Deal: 2 years, $50 million
Though starting pitching wasn't a huge need for the Astros at the start of the offseason, it's probably better that they re-signed Verlander instead of fellow future Hall of Famer Zack Greinke.
That "probably" is necessary, however, because even though Verlander is a two-time Cy Young Award winner and MVP, he's also pushing 39 and he's made only one start since 2019 because of Tommy John surgery.
10. RF Avisail Garcia, Miami Marlins
The Deal: 4 years, $53 million
The Marlins offense ranked dead last in the majors in OPS+ this season, so they definitely needed an impact bat. If Garcia is his 2017, 2019 or 2021 version of himself, he'll be that guy. If he's the 2018 or 2020 version, he won't be.
Though upside is nice and all, a team as desperate for offense as the Marlins can and should do better.
9. RHP Jon Gray, Texas Rangers
The Deal: 4 years, $56 million
Speaking of obvious shortcomings, Rangers starting pitchers were worth minus-0.1 rWAR in 2021.
But even if Gray's 1.6 rWAR would have helped the Rangers in 2021, they're surely hoping he'll tap into the upside that made him a No. 3 overall pick in 2013. Specifically because of how flat his fastball is, that might not be as simple as removing him from Coors Field and waiting for magic to happen.
8. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez, Detroit Tigers
The Deal: 5 years, $77 million
Starting pitching was neither a strength nor a weakness for the Detroit Tigers in 2021. Their starters produced 10.5 rWAR, which placed almost exactly in the middle of the pack.
Now, into this mix comes a guy who's hard to get a read on.
At worst, Eduardo Rodriguez is the kind of starter who should give the Tigers 30-plus starts on an annual basis. At best, he'll carry over the solid three true outcome rates—walks, strikeouts and home runs—that he was hiding under his 4.74 ERA in 2021, and thus pitch like a top-of-the-rotation starter.
But since the latter possibility is ultimately a sizable "if," it's hard not to wonder if the Tigers would have been better off splurging for a higher-profile arm. Say, a Kevin Gausman or a Robbie Ray.
And while the $77 million they spent on E-Rod isn't an outrageous sum on its own, it does mean the team has less money to upgrade an offense that ranked toward the bottom in on-base and slugging amid the team's 85-loss effort in 2021.
7. CF Starling Marte, New York Mets
The Deal: 4 years, $78 million
There's an angle from which the Starling Marte signing looks like less of a necessity and more of a luxury for the New York Mets.
Marte is a center fielder who profiles as a leadoff guy, neither of which are things that the Mets lacked in 2021. Brandon Nimmo was largely responsible for the 2.9 rWAR that New York got out of center field, as well as the fifth-ranked .354 OBP it got from the leadoff spot.
But if nothing else, the Mets badly needed Marte's speed. He stole 47 bases in 2021, or just seven fewer than the Mets had as a collective.
Marte will also deepen New York's lineup by moving Nimmo to right field, from which the Mets got just 0.6 rWAR in 2021. It's also likely that Francisco Lindor will move down from the No. 2 spot to No. 3, which has typically suited him better.
Since Marte is 33, there is some worry that the twilight of his career is upon him. But since the Mets are about as win-now as win-now teams get, two or even one good season from him could justify this deal.
6. RHP Kevin Gausman, Toronto Blue Jays
The Deal: 5 years, $110 million
Compared to the overwhelming majority of pitchers, Kevin Gausman had a great year in 2021.
Even in spite of a fade in the second half, he pitched to a 2.81 ERA with 227 strikeouts in 192 innings. His trademark splitter was up there among the most valuable pitches in the league, and indeed deserves a good deal of credit for how he's whiffed at least 10 batters per nine innings three years in a row.
Compared to Robbie Ray, though, Gausman was...well, not Robbie Ray. As in, not a Cy Young Award winner who paced his American League peers with a 2.84 ERA and 6.7 rWAR and everyone in MLB with 248 strikeouts.
This is not meant to demean Gausman, but rather to cast a quizzical look at the Toronto Blue Jays. Did they know that Ray was going to sign for just $5 million more than Gausman? And if so, what kept them from at least matching that offer?
Reasonable answers to these questions might come to light. For now, though, it sure seems like the Blue Jays took a slight discount for more than a slight downgrade.
5. LHP Robbie Ray, Seattle Mariners
The Deal: 5 years, $115 million
While the similarity of Ray's and Gausman's deals is an odd look for the Blue Jays, it's naturally a great look for the Seattle Mariners.
This is not to say there's no room for skepticism. As good as Ray was in 2021, he was downright awful in pitching to a 6.62 ERA in the shortened 2020 season. That was a case of control problems that had always been there going fully nuclear as he walked 45 batters in 51.2 innings.
Even before then, however, Ray was a generally above-average pitcher who thrived on his strikeout totals between 2017 and 2019. Even if he reverts to that form, he'll still be a welcome upgrade in Seattle.
After striking out only 7.7 batters per nine innings in 2021, the Mariners rotation indeed needed an electric arm in its midst. That's the least Ray should be, and he'll be the No. 1 starter that Seattle otherwise doesn't have if he sticks with what worked for him this season.
All told, it doesn't seem terribly likely that the Ray signing will lead to backward progress in Seattle after the team's best season in nearly two decades.
4. RHP Max Scherzer, New York Mets
The Deal: 3 years, $130 million
Is there risk in this deal for the Mets? You bet, and oodles of it. Scherzer's 2021 season didn't end well, and he's heading into his age-37 season. When looking at pitchers who've worked as much as he has in his 30s, the precedents aren't exactly encouraging.
There is, however, also oodles of upside in this deal.
Scherzer is a three-time Cy Young Award winner who's also finished in the top three of the voting in three of the last four years. If he and fellow Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom stay healthy, they can be an all-time great duo.
A contract with such obvious boom-or-bust potential wouldn't necessarily be a good idea for most teams. But since the Mets roster already had a boom-or-bust thing going on even before Scherzer arrived, if anything it's admirable that the organization is choosing to lean into it.
3. SS Javier Baez, Detroit Tigers
The Deal: 6 years, $140 million
When the Tigers eventually did follow up their splash on Rodriguez with an even bigger splash on a position player, they filled easily the biggest hole in their lineup.
Javier Baez will slot into a shortstop spot that ranked 28th in the majors with minus-0.5 rWAR in 2021. Ideally, he'll be a substantial upgrade offensively and defensively.
He will be if he lives up to the best versions of himself. As in, the guy who's a four-time Fielding Bible Award winner who's also clubbed 102 home runs over the last four seasons.
However, free agents don't get any more boom-or-bust than Baez. The warning signs are especially there on offense, where he's become the foremost low-walk, high-strikeout hitter in baseball. And while he salvaged much with a hot September this year, preceding that was a 169-game stretch in which he had an 85 wRC+.
It's a good thing, then, that the Tigers won't necessarily need Baez to carry their lineup over the next six years. That job will more so fall on Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, who should be able to handle it even if Baez devolves into a glove-first player.
2. 2B Marcus Semien, Texas Rangers
The Deal: 7 years, $175 million
At the outset of the winter, the Rangers were a 102-loss team with a good but not quite great farm system. As such, really the only quick road back to contention would require them to spend a ton of money.
To this end, Marcus Semien represents a significantly better investment than Gray.
He figures to slot into a second base spot that, while not terrible on the whole in 2021, added only 16 home runs to a total infield output of 66. Semien hit 45 home runs just by himself this season, setting a record for a primary second baseman.
Oh, and he also won a Gold Glove. So even at the time of his signing, you could look at the Rangers infield alignment and be enthusiastic about him teaming with fellow Gold Glover Isiah Kiner-Falefa up the middle.
Simply to these extents, the Semien signing moved the Rangers from the realm of the moribund at least into the realm of the interesting. After a season like the one they just had, that's not a small thing.
1. SS Corey Seager, Texas Rangers
The Deal: 10 years, $325 million
Whereas a middle-infield tandem of Semien and Kiner-Falefa at least figured to be interesting, one of Semien and Corey Seager is downright exciting.
Adding a bat like Seager's kills two birds with one stone for the Rangers. He's a massive upgrade for a shortstop spot that ranked 24th in OPS this season and also the left-handed bat that the club was sorely lacking—especially after Joey Gallo left town.
More so than Seager's defensive quality, the big question here is the long-term outlook of his health. He's missed significant time in recent years with Tommy John surgery, hip surgery and a broken hand. So even though Seager (27) is four years younger than Semien (31), the latter is arguably more of a durability dice-roll.
Even still, the Rangers needed to make a signing of this magnitude to make the leap from interesting to entertaining. There's another one still to make it to contention, but it's good enough that they're a lot closer now than they were even a couple days ago.