The list of qualifications to be a great offseason signing, by my standards, consists of 3 categories: the value of the player, liability of the contract , and of course, the intangibles. The value of the player should be self-explanatory, but unless it isn’t, that consists of what he will produce on the field (statistics-wise), as well as the flexibility and depth he provides to the team. One of the biggest mistakes that teams make is overpaying for players in their 30s, and sacrificing their future payroll for the short-term gain. This is where liability of the contract comes into play. Don’t expect huge pitcher contracts on this list, because those are incredibly risky. While David Price and Zack Greinke may be considered more valuable (by a large margin) than some of the players to make the list, the size of their contracts, along with the chance of injury in pitchers after age 30, makes the risk of their signings too big. The intangibles allude to the character traits that affect a team’s “clubhouse chemistry”, and other non-statistical contributions the player with bring to a team. It was a great year to be a buyer in the free agent market, so some of the best signings required shorter commitments than expected. Be prepared: the list is a bit Cub-heavy…
Honorable mentions: Alex Gordon – Royals (4 years/ $78 million), Hisashi Iwakuma – Mariners (1 year, $12 million), Jimmy Rollins – White Sox (1 year/$2 million), Ben Zobrist – Cubs (4 years/$56 million), Howie Kendrick – Dodgers (2 years, $20 million), Ian Desmond – Rangers (1 year/$8 million)
- CF Dexter Fowler, Chicago Cubs
Contract – 1 year, $13 million
2015 Stats – .250/.346/.411, 54 XBH (17 HR), 46 RBI, 102 R, 20-of-27 SB, 2.2 WAR
This could just be an article written about the drama regarding Fowler’s free-agent experience, and in fact, plenty has been written about that. It was reported that Fowler signed with the Orioles for 3 years/$33 million on February 23rd. Two days later, the Cubs announced they had re-signed Fowler for 1 year/$13 million. It turns out the Cubs were correct, and this makes for a great signing, as well as an awesome depth move for the already-super-deep Cubs. The pressure is now off of the kids (Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber) to hold down the corners, as Jason Heyward and Fowler will be occupying two of the three outfield spots. This is a low-risk move for the Cubs, but still answers the questions that come with trusting too many youngers with the heavy lifting. Fowler’s intangible contributions likely are tied to the fact that he’s a familiar face on the team, which already had great success last season. He is obviously a good fit, and his presence will be appreciated, as he is considered a veteran (will be 30 on opening day) on a team with many youngsters. The 5th choice on this list was a toss-up between several one-year deals, mostly because Alex Gordon’s age (34) and declining bat meant he wouldn’t make the list. I was strongly considering putting Jimmy Rollins here, as he looks like a prime bounce-back candidate with the White Sox, and a steal at $2 million if he produces at all.
- CF Yoenis Cespedes, New York Mets
Contract – 3 years, $75 million (Opt-out clause after 1 year, $27.5 million)
2015 Stats – .291/.328/.542, 83 XBH (35 HR), 105 RBI, 101 R, 7-of-12 SB, 6.3 WAR
I don’t think anybody expected Yoenis Cespedes to sign for such a short-term contract, and $75 million seems a bit small (in the world of baseball salaries) for a player of Cespedes’ caliber. For a long time it seemed like the Tigers would look into bringing the Cuban star back, but that never happened. The Nationals appeared to be the biggest competition for the Mets to sign Cespedes, but he ultimately decided to return to New York. Some people blame the National’s failure on the fact that they’re offering deferred money on contracts, but I believe their problems are more related to their team culture, and clubhouse environment. As for the question of intangibles, Cespedes had the best power streak of his life with the Mets (17 HR in 54 games), and had nothing but praise to give when asked about the chance of him re-signing with the team. The Mets now have 4 fully capable outfielders (Curtis Granderson, Juan Lagares, Michael Conforto, and Cespedes), giving them solid depth in that department. This should bode well for a contending team, just in case somebody gets injured/underperforms. Unless he sustains some serious injury, it seems inevitable that Cespedes will exercise his opt-out, which would make this a 1 year/$27.5 million contract. That is still a great price (with very little risk) for a slugging veteran on a team that is hoping to return to, and win, the World Series.
- LF Justin Upton, Detroit Tigers
Contract – 6 years, $132.75 million
2015 Stats – .250/.336/.454, 55 XBH (26 HR), 81 RBI, 85 R, 19-of-24 SB, 4.4 WAR
At age 28, Justin Upton was the youngest option, except Jason Heyward, in this year’s free agent class. He also carries the most offensive potential moving forward of anyone on this list. If Upton can steer his On Base Percentage a little closer towards his career mark of .352 next season, he could do wonders for the Tigers’ offense. At the very least, Upton is a solid defender in left field, and another slugging righty to stack alongside Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez. There isn’t much to say about Upton as far as personality and character. Back when Upton was expected to be the leader of the Arizona Diamondbacks, at age 24, there were complaints about his ability to do so. Obviously it is unfair to blame him for being the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, but people have always seemed to resent Upton for not being good enough. Now that he’s in Detroit, and he won’t be expected to lead the offense, he can (hopefully) maintain consistency. The team is full of veterans, and he will not be in the spotlight, so this appears to be a good fit in terms of the clubhouse. No matter how you look at it, the Tigers got a solid player, who has the potential to get better, at the reasonable cost of $22.1 million per year.
- SP John Lackey, Chicago Cubs
Contract – 2 years, $32 million
2015 Stats – 13-10, 2.77 ERA, 218 IP, 175/53 (K/BB), 1.21 WHIP, 5.6 WAR
John Lackey fits the profile perfectly of a veteran piece to compliment a young contender. Though he’s 37, Big John has been pitching like an ace. Don’t expect the same results this season, but if he can eat 200 innings with an ERA in the low 3.00-range, this signing will be a $16 million per year bargain. Signing Lackey not only helped the Cubs, but also weakened their rival St. Louis Cardinals, whom he pitched for last season. The team now features a starting rotation headlined by 2015 NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and Lackey. These three could make for an intimidating trio, come October. Lackey also has plenty to bring to the table in terms of his intangible traits. For one, the man knows how to win: he’s a two-time World Series champion (2002 Angels, 2013 Red Sox). In addition, Lackey will, like Fowler, provide a much-needed veteran presence on a young team in the spotlight. This signing solidifies what was a top-heavy rotation on an exciting, playoff-bound team. If not for the absolute steal that is to follow, the Cubs’ signing of John Lackey would be the No. 1 offseason signing.
- RF Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs
Contract – 8 years, $184 million (Opt-out clauses after 3 years/ $78 million, 4 years/ $98 million)
2015 Stats – .293/.359/.439, 50 XBH (13 HR), 60 RBI, 79 R, 23-of-26 SB, 6.5 WAR
Jason Heyward was considered by most to be the crown jewel of the 2015-2016 Offseason, and the Cubs decided to cash in. At 8 years/$184 million, this appears to be the largest contract in Cubs franchise history. This will only be true if Heyward chooses not to exercise one of his opt-out clauses; something he’s expected to do. Since coming into the league in 2010, Heyward leads all MLB outfielders with a 96.2 Ultimate-Zone rating and 122 Defensive Runs Saved, and has teased fans with good, sometimes-great offense as well. There are many things he can provide for his new team: including get on base (career .353 OBP), hit for some pop (double-digit home runs every season of his career), excellent base stealing (89% success rate last year), and elite defense. Jason Heyward isn’t an “old school” type of star player. If we were “living in baseball” 20-30 years ago, Chris Davis would most likely be considered the top free agent position player of the class, not J-Hey. Regardless of whether or not he really wanted to “be the man” in St. Louis, as some have asserted, Heyward has always had a sparkling reputation, and doesn’t seem to offend anyone. His strongest intangible trait might that he’s always been a quiet player. He can be a leader on the Cubs simply by putting his head down and doing his job. Not everyone in the clubhouse has to be a character, but Heyward has always carried himself with a level of professionalism, and that’s valuable too. Due to his opt-out clauses, it doesn’t seem likely that this contract will financially hinder the Cubs in any way. Rather, the Cubbies stole another valuable piece from the Cardinals in what was a killer offseason for Chicago.
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