Which of 2014's big-money free agents have earned their keep?
Robinson Cano made the American League All-Star team, but then what do you expect for $240 million? So too did Masahiro Tanaka, he of the $155 million deal and $20 million posting fee. Beyond that pair, however, none of last offseason's top 19 free agents in terms of total contract dollars — that is, nobody who received a deal worth a total of at least $23 million — was among the 66 players who made either league's roster for the Midsummer Classic. Once again, big bucks may buy star power, but it guarantees neither good health -- as Tanaka's pending MRI on his right arm reminds us -- nor star-level returns.
Indeed, the pattern has carried over from last year, when just three of the top 30 free agents (Torii Hunter, Marco Scutaro and Hisashi Iwakuma and Marco Scutaro) made an All-star roster, with Hunter's two-year, $26 million deal the highest ranked at number 13. The disconnect wasn't always this great, however. In 2012, six of the top 17 free agents (Prince Fielder, C.J. Wilson, Yu Darvish, Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan and Rafael Furcal) made the cut, and in 2011 it was five of the top 10 (Cliff Lee, Derek Jeter, Victor Martinez, Paul Konerko and Mariano Rivera).
As Tom Verducci pointed out earlier this week, the past winter's free agents who made the All-Star team have tended to be of the bargain bin variety. After Cano and Tanaka, the highest-paid All-Star among the most recent class is A's lefty Scott Kazmir, who received the 20th-largest contract at two years and $22 million. To get to number four, you have to go all the way down to Nelson Cruz, whose one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles ranked as the winter's 45th-largest, though 34th-ranked Justin Morneau (two years, $12.5 million) is among the NL Final Vote candidates.
From among the 31 highest deals (two players tied at number 30), the average wins above replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) for the 14 position players thus far is 1.4, while that of the 17 pitchers is just 1.1. More than half of those players -- sixteen of 31 -- have been worth less than one win, with four of them below replacement level. What follows here is a quick rundown of the performances of the recipients of the 11 largest contracts from the winter; that’s everybody who signed a deal worth at least $45 million. Seven of those players had previously earned All-Star honors a combined 27 times, but only one of them (Cano) will be on hand in Minneapolis next week.
Robinson Cano, Mariners: 2.9 WAR (10 years, $240M)
Signed to a deal that's tied for the third largest in history, Cano left a whole lot of homers behind in the Bronx, but despite hitting just six to date (down from 27 last year), he’s been plenty productive. His .319/.381/.440 performance translates to a 135 OPS+, down 12 points from what he did for the Yankees last year but still nine points above his career mark. Among AL second basemen, Ian Kinsler and Jose Altuve have delivered more value in terms of WAR thus far (3.7 and 3.3, respectively), but Cano's longer-term performance makes him a thoroughly justifiable choice for the starting nod and his sixth All-Star appearance. Meanwhile, the Mariners (49-41) currently occupy the league's second wild card spot, giving them a shot at their first postseason appearance since 2001. Cano’s deal probably won't pan out in the long run, but for now, it looks quite good.
Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees: 4.2 WAR (7 years, $155M)
Despite his bad week, Tanaka has been even better than the Yankees could have hoped, a strong candidate for the AL Cy Young as well as Rookie of the Year honors. His split-fingered fastball has flummoxed opposing hitters such that his 13.7 percent swinging strike rate is the majors' highest; his 4.2 WAR leads the league, while his 2.51 ERA is second and his eye-opening 7.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is third. If the other big contracts the Yankees doled out this past winter were paying off as handsomely as Tanaka's, they'd be running away with the AL East. Speaking of which…
Jacoby Ellsbury, Yankees: 1.5 WAR (7 years, $153M)
The good news is that the 30-year-old centerfielder has stayed healthy enough to play in all but three of New York's games, and his total of 86 is already more than he managed in two of his previous four seasons. The bad news is that the power he showed in his lone All-Star season of 2011 (32 home runs, .552 slugging) may be gone for good; he's batting just .279/.346/.390 with five homers en route to a 105 OPS+, three points below his career mark but nine points below last year. He has swiped 25 bases in 29 attempts, but his defense in centerfield (-7 Defensive Runs Saved, −3.6 Ultimate Zone Rating) suggests that the Yankees might be better off with him in left and Brett Gardner in center. Meh.
Almost nothing has gone right for the Rangers this year, and while Choo's performance has hardly been the biggest problem on a team that's lost Prince Fielder, Jurickson Profar and Matt Harrison to season-ending injuries -- not to mention 17 of their last 20 games -- he's been underwhelming. Choo has hit just .250/.373/.391 thus far, posting a 113 OPS+ that is solid but still 20 points shy of his career mark and 31 points off last year's sizzling .285/.423/.462 performance for the Reds. After swiping 41 bags over the past two seasons, he's just 3-for-6 in stolen base attempts this year, and despite moving out of centerfield, he's been well below average defensively (-8 DRS, −8.8 UZR).
Brian McCann, Yankees: 0.4 WAR (5 years, $85M)
Though he's gone yard 10 times thus far — eight of them in the Bronx — McCann has batted just .231/.288/.378 overall. Beyond reaching Yankee Stadium's short rightfield porch for seven of those home-based homers, his pull-conscious approach hasn't fully paid off, as it’s been easily neutralized by defensive shifts. McCann’s overall batting average on balls in play is just .242, 44 points below his career mark, and when pulling the ball it's a scant .217, well off his career .309. For all of that, the seven-time All-Star has been a gift behind the plate to New York's pitchers; via Baseball Prospectus, his 19.0 framing runs added lead the majors and are unaccounted for in B-Ref's version of WAR. That's an area where he's excelled before — he led the majors from 2008-13, too — and where the Yankees have been well ahead of the curve.
A dreadful April (.136/.252/.216 with one homer) fueled fears that Granderson was the second coming of Jason Bay in Queens. But Granderson has hit .278/.389/.519 with 13 dingers since the beginning of May, and his overall 124 OPS+ is 25 points higher than last year and three points above his career mark. If not worthy of a fourth All-Star appearance, he's at least been worth what the Mets are paying him, which is more than can be said for many of the others here.
Going strictly by WAR, Peralta ranks among the All-Star Game's biggest snubs, but it's not hard to understand why he won't be going to Minnesota; last year's 50-game Biogenesis-related suspension no doubt hurt his standing among his peers, who might have otherwise voted him into a reserve slot. In any event, the two-time All-Star has popped 13 homers, and his .242/.319/.442 line has been good for a 110 OPS+, eight points above his career mark and four points above his resurgent showing with the Tigers from 2010-13. That said, his +15 DRS raises an eyebrow, as it's well out of proportion relative to his career performance; he was two runs above average since moving back to shortstop in mid-2010, though it's fair to note that his 9.1 UZR this season is less out of character.
Remember that question mark-laden group of starting pitchers behind Tanaka? Unable to come anywhere close to those A.J. Burnett/John Lackey-type deals north of $80 million, they settled for a whole lot less, and with their flaws on display, it’s not hard to see why. Garza has been league-average, pitching to a 3.78 ERA (99 ERA+), but his 6.9 strikeouts per nine (or 18.4 percent, going by plate appearances) is his lowest mark since 2010.
Garza has at least been miles better than Nolasco, who's been rocked for a 5.90 ERA borne of a combination of an astronomical home run rate (1.4 per nine) and batting average on balls in play (.364) and his worst strikeout-to-walk ratio since his rookie season of 2006 (2.6). On Tuesday, he hit the DL due to a flexor pronator strain, having finally revealed that he had been pitching through pain. "He didn't want to be that guy who signed a big deal and went immediately on the DL,” a Twins executive told MLB.com, so hooray for machismo.
Jimenez, the only one of this trio to previously make an All-Star team, is out of whack yet again, walking an AL-high 5.4 per nine en route to a 4.52 ERA. Instead of becoming the Orioles' front-of-the-rotation linchpin, he's been its weakest link. But hey, only three more years to go on those deals.
Carlos Beltran, Yankees, −0.7 WAR (3 years, $45M)
Beltran has had by far the roughest season of any of the Yankees' big-money signings, because he's suddenly looked every bit his 37 years of age. Hampered by a bone spur in his elbow that will likely require surgery at some point, he missed 22 games in May and June and has been confined to designated hitter duty since returning, a factor which contributed to the team's decision to designate Alfonso Soriano for assignment last weekend. Now Beltran is dealing with swelling in his long-troublesome right knee, though that's said to be a comparatively minor complaint. Overall, the eight-time All-Star has hit just .216/.271/.401 with nine homers; his 84 OPS+ is his worst since 2000, and 37 points below his career mark.