When baseball season is over and we have nothing to look forward to except a long, cold winter, who doesn’t love watching a team get the Hot Stove going with a huge splash via trade or free agency?
Nobody, that’s who. Even if it negatively impacts your favorite team, it’s at least entertaining to hop on social media and watch everyone freak out for a short period of time. But as we’ve seen over the past couple winters with the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks, the offseason winners don’t always end up being the actual winters in October.
Actually, it seems like that almost never happens.
There’s nothing wrong with going after top-tier free agents once winter rolls around – especially if a team has a glaring need at that particular position. Sometimes it seems like a no-brainer, but it’s not that easy. The smaller deals that don’t grab as many headlines for one reason or another can end up having just as much – or even more – of an impact on a team’s ultimate success or failure in the following season.
Here are six free agents from last winter who mostly flew under-the-radar compared to other higher-priced ballplayers, but have worked out very well in 2016.
Bartolo Colon, SP, New York Mets
Contract: one year, $7.25 million
When the Mets re-signed Colon for the 2016 season, the plan was pretty clear. He’d fill a rotation spot until Zack Wheeler was ready to return from Tommy John surgery and then shift to the bullpen. Back in February and March, that was looking like sometime around the All-Star break in mid-July.
Well, here we are approaching the end of August and the 43-year-old has been the most durable starter on the squad. Not only has Wheeler experienced a couple setbacks that now have his season in jeopardy, but every other starter expected to be a big contributor has experienced some kind of health issue.
He and Noah Syndergaard are tied for the team lead with 10 wins, and the veteran has compiled a 3.38 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in the process. That’s a solid line for most pitchers, but it’s even more impressive since Colon throws his fastball – which clocks in at an average of 87.7 mph this year – 88.9 percent of the time.
Hyun Soo Kim, OF, Baltimore Orioles
Contract: two years, $7 million
Kim’s experience in American professional baseball got off to a horrible start, but he’s turned an awkward situation into a solid rookie season.
Spring Training stats don’t count, but they do when you slash .178/.224/.178 in 45 at-bats. The Orioles wanted Kim to start 2016 in the minors, but had to get his consent – which he wouldn’t give. Joey Rickard began the season as the starting left fielder and initially put up some quality numbers, but slowly started to fade.
As for Kim, it was like a flip was switched. He didn’t get much playing time at first (45 at-bats in April and May), but he made the most of his opportunities, which kept increasing. Soon enough, the man who couldn’t get an extra-base hit in Spring Training posted a .329/.410/.454 line in 152 at-bats by the All-Star break.
The left-handed hitter has struggled a bit (his big night on Thursday notwithstanding) and also spent some time on the disabled list, but he made the right decision to refuse a minor-league assignment and learn on the fly in the big leagues. There’s still some adjusting to do (he has no hits vs. left-handed pitching in 20 plate appearances), but he’s much more of an asset than Baltimore originally thought he’d be.
JA Happ, SP, Toronto Blue Jays
Contract: three years, $36 milion
Remember when the Blue Jays awarded Happ this three-year deal? Toronto was familiar with him, but he basically earned it thanks to the 1.82 ERA and 1.03 WHIP he twirled in 63.1 innings with the Pittsburgh Pirates last season.
The two sides agreed to this deal right after Thanksgiving, when David Price was still on the market. It was a head-scratching kind of move, but opting for him over his fellow southpaw has paid huge dividends. Fresh off yet another victory, Happ leads baseball with 17 wins to go along with a 3.05 ERA and 1.14 WHIP (all career highs).
There were lots of questions about Toronto’s starting rotation heading into this year, one being they didn’t appear to have a true ace. Many thought this was Marcus Stroman’s chance, but he’s been inconsistent. However, based off the great production they’ve gotten from Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez and Happ, it didn’t really matter.
Better yet, the Blue Jays saved a whole bunch of money instead of committing around $30 million per season to Price, who has dealt with his own struggles this year.
Mike Napoli, 1B, Cleveland Indians
Contract: one year, $7 million
With a seemingly solid starting rotation, the Cleveland Indians needed more offense. They had holes at first base, third base and the outfield, especially with Michael Brantley’s status up in the air at the time (he’s now out until 2017).
Cleveland proceeded to go bargain shopping and agreed to deals with Rajai Davis, Juan Uribe and Napoli. While the Uribe signing didn’t work out and he’s no longer with the team, the front office hit with the other two, and specifically on Napoli.
From 2014-15, the right-handed slugger hit just .236/.348/.415 with 35 homers and 105 RBI in 822 at-bats, yet has managed hit .262/.350/.520 with 29 homers and 85 RBI in 423 at-bats so far in 2016.
What’s changed? His line-drive rate has increased (15.5 percent in ’15, 19.5 percent in ’16) and while he’s making less contact overall (76.5 percent in ’15, 71.6 percent in ’16), he’s doing more damage on the ones he’s hitting (29.7 percent hard-hit rate in ’15, 40.8 percent in ’16).
Sandy Leon, C, Boston Red Sox
Contract: one year, $534K
How should I summarize Leon’s season with Boston? I’ll just leave this here…
At the end of the day, does it actually mean anything? It’s impressive, but that’s how baseball goes sometimes. From 2012-15 with the Washington Nationals, Leon hit a paltry .187/.258/.225 with one homer and eight RBI in 209 total at-bats. This year is obviously a much different story.
While the biggest concern for the Red Sox at the moment is their bullpen, they couldn’t find the right mix at catcher for a while, either. Christian Vazquez, Blake Swihart, Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday have all donned the tools of ignorance in Beantown this year, but Leon has been the only one to mix offense and defense the way manager John Farrell and his coaching staff wants.
Can it last? Who knows, but it’s likely that Boston is just concerned about the rest of this year for now. They can worry about 2017 once winter comes.
Doug Fister, SP, Houston Astros
Contract: one year, $7 million
The Astros have sent four different starting pitchers to the mound 20 or more times this season: Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers and Fister. Of those four, just one has an ERA below 4.66… and it’s Fister. Through 146 innings of work, he leads this group with 11 wins, a 3.76 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP.
When he signed with Houston over the winter, Fister was a bounce-back candidate after a tough 2015. The front office hoped acquiring him would round out the rotation, but fast forward to a few months later and he’s easily the most consistent and durable starter they’ve got.
The biggest change in Fister’s game is a much heavier reliance on his curveball (6.8 percent in ’15, 15 percent in ’16) and a decrease in his changeup frequency (12.7 percent in ’15, 7.5 percent in ’16). For a pitcher with an average fastball velocity of 86.9 mph, using his curveball more (70.3 mph) over his changeup (79.1 mph) could be really helpful in disrupting a hitter’s timing.
So, it’s not always about making big splashes in the winter, but making moves that will help complete a roster and provide some depth. Which under-the-radar signing do you think has worked out the best in 2016?