While there is no excitement of actual baseball being played, there’s a different kind of excitement that keeps fans engaged during the dead of winter: the Hot Stove.
Every team is on the verge of getting a clean slate upon reporting to Spring Training, and who knows, maybe the moves made in the offseason is all that’s needed to turn a pretender into a legitimate playoff contender. It doesn’t matter what we think about those trades and free-agent signings when they happen, though. The true judgment and evaluation comes once games start counting again in April.
The following seven free agents from last winter were viewed as important pieces toward contending for the teams who acquired them. There’s still time to turn things around before their contracts expire, but 2016 has unfortunately been nothing but forgettable for them thus far.
Alex Gordon, OF, Kansas City Royals
Contract: 4 years, $72 million
Despite being limited to 104 games last year, the four-time Gold Glove winner still managed to slash .271/.377/.432 with 13 homers and 48 RBI. He’s a huge presence in the clubhouse and was an important piece of Kansas City’s World Series-winning nucleus, which is why general manager Dayton Moore decided to award him a record-breaking deal for their franchise.
A wrist injury kept Gordon on the sidelines for a good chunk of the year (and ended Mike Moustakas’ season), but he’s failed to produce at the plate before and after hitting the disabled list. He’s struggled to a .203/.306/.331 triple slash with eight homers and 18 RBI in 281 at-bats.
Looking ahead to next year, the Royals are hoping Gordon can stay healthy and maybe benefit from some better luck (.327 BABIP in ’15 and .318 for his career, but just .274 in ’16).
Justin Upton, OF, Detroit Tigers
Contract: 6 years, $132.75 million
A second-half surge from the Tigers and a recent slump from the Cleveland Indians have Detroit just four games out of first place, but Upton hasn’t been a huge reason why.
Owner Mike Illitch approved the Upton signing late in the winter because it seemed as though adding his bat would put them over the edge. That hasn’t been the case, as he’s posted to a very un-Upton like .234/.290/.386 triple slash. The right-handed slugger showed a little life in July by posting an .842 OPS, but is struggling to a .420 OPS to start August.
With a long commitment ahead, the bright side here is that Upton is still young (entering his age-29 season in 2017) and it appears he’s pressing at the plate – his swing percentage on balls outside the strike zone has jumped from 24.2 percent in ’15 to 27.1 percent this year.
Wei-Yin Chen, SP, Miami Marlins
Contract: 5 years, $80 million
With the NL East narrative surrounding the Washington Nationals and New York Mets heading into this season, this was a huge acquisition for Miami. Since their toughest competition boasted deep rotations, they needed to find a frontline starter to pair with Jose Fernandez.
Chen checked all the boxes: he’s a southpaw that had four years of success pitching in the AL East, and more importantly, he did so at a hitter-friendly ballpark like Camden Yards. Moving to the National League and into pitcher-friendly Marlins Park would make this deal look like a bargain.
Unfortunately, Chen has been one of Miami’s most unproductive starters, compiling a 5-4 record with a 4.99 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 89 strikeouts in 110 innings of work. When looking at his advanced statistics, a couple things jump out: he’s relying on his fastball less than ever (65 percent for his career, 60.9 percent in ’16) and his infield fly-ball rate has dropped dramatically from 14 percent in 2015 to 6.6 percent this year.
If Miami wants to make its playoff hopes come true and advance deep into October, they’ll need Chen to regain his 2014-15 form upon returning from the disabled list.
Jason Heyward, OF, Chicago Cubs
Contract: 8 years, $184 million
The Cubs are on a roll right now – they’ve won 10 in a row, pushing their season record to 72-41 and their NL Central lead to 13 games. Their outfield, though? It’s been a mess compared to what they expected.
Dexter Fowler has been great, but Kyle Schwarber hasn’t played since the first week of the season, Jorge Soler has been inconsistent and hurt and Heyward has been a huge bust. His defense has been up to expectation and he filled in nicely for Fowler in center field when he was on the DL, but he’s posted a career-worst .624 OPS through 393 at-bats.
We can point to his .268 BABIP as being part of the problem, as the last time it was this low (.260 in 2011), his triple slash looked like what it does in 2016. However, his ground-ball rate has dropped (57.2 percent in ’15 to 49.1 percent in ’16) while his fly-ball rate has increased (23.5 percent in ’15 to 31.1 percent in ’16), which could be another cause for the drop in production compared to his stellar season with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Chris Davis, 1B, Baltimore Orioles
Contract: 7 years, $161 million
Last winter, Davis was in a class by himself because he provided truly elite home run power – he enjoyed two 40-homer seasons in the last three years, leading the league in dingers on both occasions. He’s hit another 23 this year and has collected 61 RBI in the process, but is continuing the “odd year good Chris Davis, even year bad Chris Davis” trend.
The left-handed slugger has posted just a .220/.334/.435 line in 400 at-bats and is leading the league in strikeouts for the second straight year with 155 whiffs. Davis’ ability to draw a walk has helped him maintain some offensive value, but his hard-hit rate has decreased slightly from last year, which could be caused from opposing pitchers giving him a steady diet of changeups (10.9 percent in ’15 to 14.3 percent in ’16).
David Price, SP, Boston Red Sox
Contract: 7 years, $217 million
Landing Price to lead Boston’s staff was basically a no-brainer in the mind of Dave Dombrowski. The Red Sox went into 2015 without a true staff ace, and they ended up in last place for the third time in four years.
As it turns out, he’s been one of the few hurlers that can’t string a bunch of good starts together. The southpaw has only enjoyed one month with an ERA under 4.00 while Steven Wright and Rick Porcello have been carrying the rotation.
There was chatter at the start of this year about a decrease in fastball velocity (94.2 mph in ’15, 92.9 mph in ’16), but his K/9 hasn’t changed all that much. Boston is in the midst of a playoff race, and if they really want to send David Ortiz into retirement with a bang, Price needs to be the guy he’s been throughout his whole career prior to landing in Beantown.
Gerardo Parra, OF, Colorado Rockies
Contract: 3 years, $27.5 million
From the get-go, the Rockies signing Parra was puzzling because they already had three left-handed hitting outfielders in Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson. The playing time question cleared up once Colorado dealt Dickerson for Jake McGee, but Parra hasn’t shown any signs of offensive value (while playing his home games at Coors Field, to boot).
He’s hit just .257/.267/.404 in 265 at-bats, further making that .517 slugging percentage he posted in 100 games with the Milwaukee Brewers last year more of an aberration than anything else. Parra just got activated off the disabled list and has filled in for an injured CarGo, but he’ll likely be forced to the bench while David Dahl continues a historic start to his MLB career.
Each of these seven free-agent signings from last winter have been disappointing thus far in 2016, but there’s a chance each can finish strong and regain their stud status in 2017. Which signing has been the most frustrating to watch?