Free Agency has gotten a bad reputation over the last few years with extreme long term investments resulting in minimal production. Look no further than Angels slugger Albert Pujols or Orioles dud Chris Davis. Many teams empty their pockets to add big bats and experienced arms, but are hit with a sharp decline. In some cases, this is certainly true, but in some, teams have sneakily acquired surplus value.
Bargain #1 – Charlie Morton (2yr/$24M)
Case in point, Charlie Morton. It’s not every day that a 34-year old has a career renaissance, but that’s been the case with the Astros righty. As you can tell by the chart below, he’s found new life after his contract with the ‘Stros.
In his lengthy stint with Pittsburgh, he posted a 4.39 ERA, but it’s dropped nearly a point in Houston. Injuries derailed his career, and he ended up going to the Phillies on a one year in 2016. He only made 4 starts, raising questions about whether or not he can be relied on.
Since his deal with Houston, his velocity has steadily increased, and so has his success. His 4-seam fastball has also spiked to a maximum velocity of 98.8 mph, causing more whiffs. This year he’s posted career bests in ERA, WAR, and K-rate, making him a big bargain. Baseball Reference has him at a 2.3 WAR, between All-star Miles Mikolas and notable snub Blake Snell. Whatever the Astros are doing is working beautifully.
Bargain #2: Wilson Ramos (2yr/$12.5M)
The Rays are known for taking small risks and yielding impressive returns. One of these low risk moves was adding catcher Wilson Ramos. Ramos tore his UCL in the midst of a very productive 2015 season with the Washington Nationals, leaving him in the free agent market with red flags galore. The Rays smartly took the flier on Ramos, signing him to a two year deal with the hopes of at least one productive season.
2017 wasn’t bad for Ramos, as he smashed 11 home runs and drove in 35 in 224 PAs. 2018, though, was where he’s truly earned his money. Through the all star break, he’s hit .297, with 13 HR, 53 RBI, and a 2.3 WAR. Also, he earned his first career all star game start because of it. Unfortunately, a minor injury will prevent him from participating in the weekend festivities. Replacing him is Indians backstop Yan Gomes.
He’s played a big role in the Rays’ surprising season, along with surprise production from Matt Duffy and C.J. Cron. Tampa Bay struggled mightily out of the gate but have risen to 49-47 at the break. Wild card run or a mirage? We’ll find out soon.
In a season where Gary Sanchez was presumed to be the most productive AL catcher, Ramos has subverted expectations. If he continues his production, we can expect him to have a lucrative payday this offseason.
Mistake #1: Ian Desmond (4yr/$60M)
One of the most head scratching moves two years ago was Colorado signing Desmond to a lucrative contract late in free agency. With a full outfield (Blackmon, Tapia, Dahl, Gonzalez, Parra), a shortstop (Trevor Story), and a first baseman (Ryan McMahon, Mark Reynolds), they still decided to bring him in to be a utility player. Generally, it’s gone as poorly as you’d expect.
Mediocre may be the best word to describe Desmond’s 2017 season. Moving around the field at LF and 1B primarily, Desmond hit .274 with a league average .324 OBP in 95 games. His power took a dive from his ‘16 level, going from 22 home runs to just 7. His OPS took a 71 point dive from .782 to .701.
2018 hasn’t been any better. In fact, he’s given Colorado negative value. In 93 games through the all star break, he’s posted a -0.2 WAR with a poor .231 BA. On the positive side, he’s boosted his power with 18 home runs in the first half, but concerns are a plenty as he has two more costly years on his contract.
Mistake #2: Dexter Fowler (5 yr/$82.5M)
When St. Louis signed Fowler in 2016, they looked to take down the Cubs and return to the playoffs as a division leader. So far, they’ve struggled to meet expectations as a team, and a big part of that is Dexter Fowler’s struggles.
Last year wasn’t horrible for Fowler, but there were some mixed results, namely his poor defense. In 2017, he was bad on the field, with a -18 DRS and -7 UZR, regressing further from his time with the Cubs. He also had limited playing time, missing 56 games due to an injury. Offensively, he slashed .264/.363/.488. A slow start kept him from realizing his overall value, indicating that he may not be the best investment going forward.
Instead of turning a corner, Fowler has been a liability this season. His past 30 games have been particularly painful. He’s mustered a .183 BA and .236 OBP with 24 strikeouts (in 84 at bats). Overall, he’s hit .174 this season with 7 home runs, posting a painful .567 OPS. As you can see below, his exit velocity is nearly 4 mph lower than league average.
He’s been valued at -1.4 WAR thus far and it’s not hard to see why. According to my math, soft contact & many whiffs + poor defense = bad results.
We are only one and a half seasons through Fowler’s contract, so his contract isn’t going to go away easily any soon. With Tommy Pham, Harrison Bader, Jose Martinez, and Marcell Ozuna all vying for playing time, ‘Dex’ may be running out of time to prove himself.
The Other Guys
There are some other players who have given lots of value on respectable contests. Chief among them are Justin Turner and Aroldis Chapman. Turner was a big part of the Dodgers’ World Series run, even though it fell short. Chapman has been dominant this year for New York, with a minuscule 1.35 ERA out of the ‘pen. His stuff looks better than ever.
There have also been more bad contracts handed out from 2016. Giants reliever Mark Melancon has struggled with injuries and long bouts of struggles in 2017. Matt Wieters has also struggled with injuries this year, and his game has shown a lot more holes in the big stage of Washington D.C.
Any of these players could have a big month and leave this list, or struggle to the point of being a liability. With a big free agency coming up this winter (with Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, and others), teams will experience the process again and hopefully learn some needed lessons. The beauty….and ugliness….of baseball is its unpredictability.
(Image via RaysColoredGlasses.com)