The So-Far Disastrous Crop of 2016 Free Agents

Let’s go back in time nine months. Fresh off the Royals World Series victory, MLB teams were making plans for how to reshape their teams for 2016. And for many of those teams, those plans included making a run at one of the many quality players available in free agency. After some years of slim pickings on the open market, there was suddenly a pretty terrific crop of players available to sign, with the market being especially deep in starting pitching and outfielders. And with teams flush with cash, a lot of players changed teams this winter, getting big paychecks in the process.

Seven players signed deals worth at least $100 million in guaranteed salaries. Eight players signed contracts that gave them the right to opt-out of their deal at some point and re-enter the free agent market if their value goes up. Middle relievers and bench players made multi-year deals a standard for players who used to have to go year to year. This past winter was, by any definition, a league-wide spending spree.

But as we approach the end of the first year of these contracts, there seems to be one developing theme; the teams that spent the most money in free agency probably wish they hadn’t.

With only a couple of exceptions, the high-end range of last winter’s free agent class have been soul-crushing disappointments. Let’s just get right to some numbers. Here are the 13 players who signed for at least $70 million over the winter, and how they’re performing this season.

The Dirty Baker’s Dozen
Yoenis Cespedes 0.289 0.362 0.548 143 2.3
Chris Davis 0.220 0.337 0.442 108 2.2
Jason Heyward 0.225 0.304 0.313 68 1.2
Alex Gordon 0.219 0.321 0.361 85 0.6
Justin Upton 0.226 0.281 0.371 71 -1.0
Pitchers ERA- FIP- xFIP- WAR RA9-WAR
Johnny Cueto 77 78 84 4.0 4.1
David Price 95 84 80 3.3 2.7
Zack Greinke 91 89 99 2.0 1.8
Jordan Zimmermann 104 92 110 1.8 0.8
Mike Leake 117 98 91 1.8 0.2
Jeff Samardzija 110 110 103 1.1 1.3
Ian Kennedy 89 118 106 0.7 2.9
Wei-Yin Chen 120 114 103 0.6 0.5

Johnny Cueto has been terrific, more than justifying the Giants faith that his second half fade from last year wasn’t a warning sign of future troubles. Yoenis Cespedes was excellent in the first half, continuing to hit at a high level, and keeping the Mets in the playoff race, though his second half has been mostly filled with injuries. David Price has been pretty good as long as you don’t evaluate a pitcher by their ERA, and he’s been better of late, so I think the Red Sox are probably fine with the deal to this point.

The other 10, though? Those guys have been somewhere between a mild disappointment and a flaming dumpster fire, with most of the group closer to the latter.

Chris Davis is probably having the best year of the disappointing hitters, and he’s regressed back to being just a decent bat instead of a great one. Davis still plays solid defense at first base and isn’t useless by any means, but at $23 million a year for an aging slugger, you want more than a 108 wRC+ in the first year of the deal. If Davis was performing like this on a short-term deal, you’d say it’s not a big problem, but the fact that the Orioles are on the hook for six more years after this one is a pretty scary thought. And that’s the most optimistic story we can tell about the rest of the expensive guys.

Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Alex Gordon were all supposed to be All-Star caliber outfielders; instead, they’ve all lost their power and are hitting like backup catchers. Between them, they’ve been worth less than +1 WAR this year, but they’ll be paid a combined $55 million this season anyway, and that’s even with the Royals backloading Gordon’s deal. Heyward and Upton are young enough that it’s still reasonable to think they can bounce back from this, but given the disastrous 2016 seasons now on their resume, it’s pretty clear that neither player would get anything close to the contracts they signed last winter if they were forced back onto the free agent market at this point.

And while I was a big fan of the Gordon contract for the Royals, I can’t imagine they’re all that happy to have a 32 year old who looks like a league average hitter under contract for $60 million over the next three years; even with high-level outfield defense, the bat needed to hold up better than this to make it a good deal for the Royals, and one year in, it looks like he might not be an impact hitter anymore.

And those outfielders might actually be doing better than the other expensive starting pitchers.

Zack Greinke’s success was largely built on a .229 BABIP last year, and to the surprise of no one outside of Arizona, that hasn’t carried over. And with his strikeout rate dropping back down to league average, a lack of weak contact is a problem for a guy being paid at ace-levels. Greinke is still a good pitcher, and he might still give the Diamondbacks some good years, but like most of what happened in Arizona this year, the expectations and the realities were simply not the same.

Back in KC, Ian Kennedy has strung a few good starts together to get his ERA back down, but his home run problem had the Royals already thinking about trying to dump his contract at the trade deadline, except no one was interested in taking it off their hands.

In the other Missouri free agent pitching acquisition, Mike Leake has been the opposite of Kennedy, putting up a lousy ERA despite peripherals that make the decision to sign him look justifiable. The Cardinals are probably still okay with this deal, but Leake’s inability to strand runners is one of the reasons the team has underperformed this year.

And then there’s Jeff Samardzija, who continues to show that 2014 was the fluke, not the rest of his career, and he’s simply not as good as his stuff suggests he should be; right now, he looks like a league-average innings eater. Jordan Zimmermann saw his strikeout rate drop precipitously before landing on the disabled list, and has joined Upton as a massive disappointment in Detroit. Wei-Yin Chen was decent to start the year, then developed a nasty home run problem before complaining of elbow pain, and now it seems unlikely he’ll pitch again this year.

To date, these 13 players have combined to be worth about +21 WAR, which puts them on track to be worth about +28 WAR over the course of the season. That works out to just over +2 WAR per player, making the 13 most expensive free agents signed last winter roughly a group of league average players, at least for 2016. And that’s in the first year of long-term deals that were supposed to justify the future costs by getting value up front. Unfortunately for the teams that bet big on high-end free agents last winter, there hasn’t been much up-front value to collect.

That isn’t to say that everyone who dipped their toes in free agency last winter is regretting it. The Blue Jays, heavily maligned for their decision to go for depth instead of star power, look like geniuses for their bets on J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada, both of whom are going to get Cy Young votes while pulling in less money combined than David Price will make by himself this year. The Nationals have been carried by Daniel Murphy this year, making them pretty happy that Brandon Phillips used his no-trade to block a deal to DC, forcing them to turn to Murphy as a fallback plan. And the Rangers got the bargain of the winter in Ian Desmond, who has been a key part of their success this year after signing for just $8 million on one year deal during Spring Training.

The teams that did well in free agency last year are the ones who made modest bets on guys who looked like league average players, with a few of them turning into high-end performers instead, and only a small number of them — looking at you, Gerardo Parra — have turned into pumpkins.

Normally, I’d suggest that this kind of free agent disaster would be a big problem for the upcoming class of premium free agents, but after Stephen Strasburg signed his extension during the season, there just aren’t going to be any of those this winter. Teams were already going to be forced to pivot towards more middling players if they wanted to use cash to upgrade their rosters this winter, so the widespread failure of the top end of the 2016 free agent class might not end up having a huge impact on the market.

But it is yet another reminder of how difficult forecasting baseball can be. Even guys with great track records, good projections, and top-flight pedigrees can just stop playing well seemingly overnight. And it’s not like we can even pinpoint a single common thread among the disappointments. If you look at Heyward and say don’t bet on guys who get value from their defense, then do you also look at Upton and Davis and say the same about power hitters? If you look at Samardzija and say don’t bet on raw stuff, do we look at Zimmermann and say don’t bet on command either?

It seems like lately, the only way to win in free agency is to stay out of the deep end. There will always be a big demand for star players, but the evidence continues to mount that it’s just very difficult to predict which free agents will play at that level in advance.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Baron Samedi
7 years ago

“Blue Jays… geniuses… J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada… Cy Young”

7 years ago
Reply to  Baron Samedi


7 years ago
Reply to  Baron Samedi

This is a message that you could send back in time, and no-one would act on it.

Vince Clortho
7 years ago
Reply to  Baron Samedi

Baseball sure is a funny game. But what are the odds that this post looks super dated this time next year?

Variance can really make you look like a ding dong

Baron Samedi
7 years ago
Reply to  Vince Clortho

i dont know vince what are they?

Vince Clortho
7 years ago
Reply to  Baron Samedi

Wasn’t meant to be smug. It’s hard to judge long term deals 400 PA in. Last year Sox fans wanted to burn Porcello at the stake, now he’s the 3-ish win pitcher he was paid to be again. It will be a fun post to check on later’s all

Famous Mortimer
7 years ago
Reply to  Vince Clortho

How many times would the article have to say “so far” for you to be okay with them not “judging long term deals 400 PA in”.