Wednesday September 3rd, 2014

September's arrival means that baseball is one month away from the playoffs, but also two months from the opening of a competition that is nearly as hard fought: The one for the league's best free agents. Clubs have in many cases become increasingly savvy about the pitfalls of devoting lengthy and lucrative contracts to older players, but that wariness has been counterbalanced by the fact that collectively bargained limits on spending on draft prospects and international amateurs have given them fewer places to spend their ever-escalating revenues. 

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In advance of what should be a reasonably strong market — which will likely be headlined by players like Jon Lester, Hanley Ramirez, Victor Martinez and Max Scherzer, and which will be previewed in early November in the seventh annual Reiter 50 — it seems a good time to check in on how last year's free agents are faring, for better or for worse. (Jose Abreu, who looks like the past year's best signing of any ilk, joined the White Sox last October, and therefore doesn't qualify.) While it's probably too early to make a judgment some of the longer deals, a few patterns emerge: There's really no such thing as a truly terrible one- or two-year contract, although there are certainly very good ones; and pitchers are particularly risky, as are aging players.

Here, then, are what so far look to be last winter's 10 best free agent deals, as well as the five worst.

The Ten Best Contracts

10. Robinson Cano, 2B, Mariners: 10 years, $240 million

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​Cano has proven to be precisely the long-sought-after offensive leader Seattle hoped he would be, ranking fourth in the AL in batting average (.321), 10th in OPS (.849) and seventh overall among hitters in WAR (5.2). The Mariners are only in the first year of the fourth-most lucrative contract in baseball history, but there are no regrets so far.

9. Justin Morneau, 1B, Rockies: Two years, $12.5 million

The formerly concussion-plagued AL MVP has rediscovered himself in Colorado at the age of 33, and it hasn't been a matter of the Coors Field effect. Morneau's slash lines at home (.308/.344/.489) and on the road (.311/.361/.476) are virtually identical. He currently trails Pittsburgh's Josh Harrison by three points in the NL batting race, and has emerged as a point of light in a dark year for the Rockies, as well as a potential offseason trade chip.

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8. Ervin Santana, SP, Braves: One year, $14.1 million

Santana, unable to find a long-term deal, was an emergency signing by the Braves after both Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen were lost for the season in March to Tommy John surgery. The deal has worked out for both parties: Santana got the same amount he would have had he not turned down the Royals' qualifying offer and can try for that big deal again this winter, and the Braves got a No. 2 starter without whom they might not currently be in the wild-card race.

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7. Casey McGehee, 1B, Marlins: One year, $1.1 million

McGehee hasn't shown the 20-home-run power he once had as a member of the Brewers or of Japan's Rakuten Golden Eagles (with whom he slugged 28 homers last season) — he has just three bombs — but he's nonetheless been a genuine bargain in his return to the United States. His .296 batting average and .365 OBP both rank 12th in the NL, which is outstanding given that he is the game's 461st highest-paid player.

6. Kurt Suzuki, C, Twins: One year, $2.75 million

Suzuki was one of baseball's most promising young offensive catchers back in 2009, when as a member of the Athletics he batted .274 with 15 home runs and 88 RBIs. Over the next four years, in which he went from Oakland to Washington and back, he hit just .237 with a .650 OPS, thereby significantly depressing his free agent value. With Minnesota, though, Suzuki's OPS has nearly equaled his '09 peak (it was .734 then, .731 now), and he ranks third among qualified catchers in batting average (.289) and second in doubles (27). The Twins have already rewarded him for his rebound; on July 31, they signed him to a two-year, $12 million extension, with a vesting option for 2017.

5. Jason Hammel, SP, Cubs: One year, $6 million

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The 31-year-old Hammel was great on the mound for the Cubs — he went 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA in 17 starts — but even better was that he represented the ideal pot-sweetener to combine with Jeff Samardzija in the July 5th trade with the A's that brought back Addison Russell, arguably the game's best shortstop prospect. Rarely has a last-place club had a better result from a one-year free agent deal.

4. Scott Kazmir, SP, Athletics: Two years, $22 million

Kazmir ended August with two terrible starts that added more than 60 points to his ERA, but his bottom line remains excellent: 14-7, 3.39. Many questioned why Oakland GM Billy Beane would make a 30-year-old who had been out of baseball two years earlier his highest-paid player at the season's start, but few are doing so now.

3. Jhonny Peralta, SS, Cardinals: Four years, $53 million

The Cardinals were widely expected to fill their gap at shortstop with Stephen Drew, so it was a surprise when they signed the 32-year-old Peralta — who was coming off a Biogenesis-related suspension — to not only one of the winter's richest deals, but also one of its earliest (it came on Nov. 24). St. Louis' haste has been rewarded, as Peralta ranks third among shortstops in home runs (18), fourth in RBIs (63), second in OPS (.805) and, despite his lack of footspeed, second in Ultimate Zone Rating. All of that adds up to a WAR, among regulars, that is 10th overall according to both Fangraphs (5.1) and Baseball Reference (5.5), and to a contract that the Cardinals will be content to carry for three more seasons.

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2. Nelson Cruz, OF, Orioles: One year, $8 million

Cruz, 33, was coming off a Biogenesis suspension of his own, though the market treated him less favorably than it did Peralta. He was ultimately forced to sign a one-year contract in late February that was less than 60 percent of the qualifying offer he turned down from the Rangers, in part because he was viewed as strictly a one-dimensional player. However, that dimension — his power — has proven more dangerous than ever before, as his 36 homers lead baseball and he has already set a career high with 91 RBIs. A multi-year deal will surely come next.

1. Phil Hughes, SP, Twins: Three years, $24 million

We wrote about Hughes' breakout earlier this season. That was in May, and it's now September, and it seems that the former Yankees top prospect has finally found himself. Hughes is now 15-9 with a 3.54 ERA, which in part stems from stunning command that has allowed him to walk a league-low 0.7 batters per nine. The thought was that he might benefit from the capacious Target Field, but he's actually been better on the road: his ERA is 4.50 at home and 2.70 away. According to Fangraphs' WAR, he has been the fourth-best pitcher in the game, behind only Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez and Lester.

You might quibble with that, but it is difficult to argue that Hughes' deal represents anything other than the best kind of free agent contract: Not a gamble on an aging asset, but an investment in an in-his-prime player (Hughes turned 28 in June) who might have even better days ahead.

The next ten: Marlon Byrd, OF, Phillies; Rajai Davis, OF, Tigers; Roberto Hernandez, SP, Phillies; Tim Hudson, SP, Giants; Michael Morse, OF, Giants; Dioner Navarro, C, Blue Jays; Francisco Rodriguez, RP, Brewers; Joe Smith, RP, Angels; Masahiro Tanaka, SP, Yankees; Chris Young, SP, Mariners.

The Five Worst Contracts

5. Carlos Beltran, OF, Yankees: Three years, $45 million

Beltran has been no better than a replacement-level player in his first year in New York, batting .241 with 15 home runs and 47 RBIs. You can blame the bone spurs in his elbow, which have caused him to miss significant time and which will be removed during the offseason. But he'll turn 38 next April and will likely continue to be the most disappointing of the several such free agents the Yankees signed last winter.

4. Curtis Granderson, OF, Mets: Four years, $60 million

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After a slow start, Granderson had a productive stretch during May and June, batting .275 with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs, but he has since regressed. Overall, his .210 average is the league's third-worst, and the two-time 40-homer hitter hasn't been able to balance that out with much power, posting just 16 home runs. The Mets' first true free agent splurge since Jason Bay in 2009 looks as if it might turn out to be similarly disappointing.

3. Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, Orioles: Four years, $50 million

Jimenez parlayed a terrific second half of 2013 (in which he had a 1.82 ERA in 13 starts for the Indians) into a major deal, but the mechanics-based control issues that had before that often plagued him returned in Baltimore. He's 4-9 with a 4.96 ERA and leads the AL with 70 walks, and his average fastball velocity has dropped by 1.5 mph, to 90.6. Two weeks ago, the Orioles demoted the man who was supposed to be their ace to the bullpen.

2. Ricky Nolasco, SP, Twins: Four years, $49 million

It seemed a head-scratcher when the Twins gave the longtime Marlin what turned out to be the offseason's third richest deal for a pitcher (after Masahiro Tanaka's $155 million contract with the Yankees and Matt Garza's $50 million deal with the Brewers), in part because he had posted an ERA below 4.48 just twice in his eight seasons. Even in pitcher-friendly Target Field, Nolasco's ERA (5.96) is the third-worst among the 113 starters who have worked at least 120 innings, and only one of them has fewer quality starts than his seven.

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1. Boone Logan, RP, Rockies: Three years, $16.5 million

The 30-year-old Logan entered free agency as a lefty specialist (righties have hit nearly .300 against him) with a career ERA of 4.39, and he had surgery to remove bone spurs in his elbow in October. So the Rockies' offer to him seemed rather aggressive. Now, it seems simply ludicrous. Logan's numbers speak for themselves: 6.84 (his ERA); .318 (lefthanders' — that's lefthanders' — batting average against); 25 (innings pitched); and four (trips to the disabled list, the last of which, in late August due to elbow inflammation, mercifully ended his season). It's the type of misstep that a desperate-to-rebuild organization simply can't afford.

The next five: A.J. Burnett, SP, Phillies; Grant Balfour, RP, Rays; Josh Johnson, SP, Padres; Joe Nathan, RP, Tigers; Chris Young, OF, Mets

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