The free agent market continuously provides organizations with an opportunity to sign the missing piece to their roster. Each season, hundreds of free agents hit the open market and while some prosper, others retrogress.
Resuming the significant free agent signings of the decade series, this article will focus on the best and worst free agent signings, in my opinion, from 2015 through 2019.
SP Jon Lester – six-years, $155 million
To extinguish the longest World Series title drought in baseball history, the Chicago Cubs required key free agent acquisitions to accompany a young, talented group of players that featured 1B Anthony Rizzo, 2B/SS Javier Báez, and 3B Kris Bryant, among others. Securing Lester prior to the 2015 season alerted the league that the Cubs were ready to compete. Chicago has received just about what was expected out of Lester. From 2015 through 2019, Lester has been durable, pitching 941.2 innings with a 3.58 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP.
Currently in the last year of his contract, Lester has a vesting option for the 2021 season worth $25 million with a $10 million buyout; a bit too steep for a 36-year-old pitcher on the backend of his career. However, the option becomes guaranteed if Lester throws a combined 400 innings in 2019 and 2020. Unfortunately, with a delayed and shortened season, it seems unlikely Lester will pitch the remaining 228.1 innings needed to guarantee a seventh year, meaning he could return to the open market at the conclusion of the season.
3B Pablo Sandoval – five-years, $95 million
A three-time World Series champion with the San Francisco Giants, Sandoval was supposed to be the Boston Red Sox’s switch-hitting third baseman for five years. But after two and a half miserable seasons, the franchise parted ways with Sandoval by releasing him July 2017. Only a few days later, Sandoval signed a minor league contract with the Giants.
Injuries limited the production of Sandoval, who appeared on the injured list three times in two years. Sandoval also never finished a season in Boston with a positive WAR. In 2016, he only played in three games due to left-shoulder surgery, batting .000/.143/.000 with one walk. Combined, Sandoval batted .169/.242/.271 and finished with a -2.0 WAR. The money spent on Sandoval backfired, as his release meant the Red Sox committed to paying the remainder of his salary through the 2019 season, along with a $5 million buyout of his 2020 club option.
1B/DH Chris Davis – seven-years, $161 million
Four years after the Orioles re-signed Davis to a seven-year deal, it continues to materialize as one of the worst signings in baseball history. Once an elite slugger, Davis crushed in Baltimore after being acquired from the Texas Rangers in 2011. Before signing the seven-year deal, Davis’ best season came in 2013 when he hit 53 home runs, drove in 138 RBIs, scored 103 runs, and slashed .286/.370/.634. Two years after signing his fruitful contract, Davis’ worst season, based on WAR, came in 2018, when he slashed .168/.243/.296 with 16 home runs, 40 runs, and 49 RBI, finishing with a -3.2 WAR. Since 2016, Davis has accumulated a -1.6 WAR with a .196/.290/.376 slash line, far from the $23 million average annual value (AAV) of his contract.
OF Jason Heyward – eight-years, $184 million
After a combined six successful seasons in Atlanta (5) and St. Louis (1), three Gold Glove awards, second in the 2010 NL ROY award, and an All-Star nomination, Heyward took his talents to the Chicago Cubs prior to the 2016 season. Heyward was a part of a World Series championship roster and was awarded two more Gold Gloves in 2016 and 2017. With Chicago, Heyward has slashed .252/.327/.383, not far off from his career .261/.343/.429 slash line, with a .711 OPS, 47 home runs, 85 doubles, and 227 RBIs over 542 games.
While Heyward should still be considered an average hitter and above average defender, he hasn’t fully met the expectations of the $23 million AAV of his contract, accumulating a 6.0 WAR from 2016 through 2019. Heyward has four years left on his contract before he hits the open market at the end of the 2023 season.
OF Yoenis Céspedes – four-years, $110 million
Céspedes has constantly been in motion over his eight-year career, debuting with the Oakland Athletics, then being traded to Boston in 2014, then to the Detroit Tigers in 2015 before finally landing with his longest tenured organization, the New York Mets. At the conclusion of the 2015 season, Céspedes elected free agency before re-signing with the Mets on a three-year, $75 million deal, which included an op-out after the 2016 season. Céspedes opted-out after an above average season where he logged a 3.7 WAR with 31 home runs and a .280/.354/.530 slash line to land himself a larger, four-year, $110 million deal prior to the 2017 season.
Unfortunately for the Mets, that deal has been atrocious. From 2017 through 2019, Céspedes has only played 119 games, including missing the entire 2019 campaign due to heel surgery. For comparison, Céspedes averaged 141 games per season from 2012 through 2016. Over those 119 games, Céspedes has slashed .277/.339/.518 with 26 home runs, 71 RBIs, and a 2.5 WAR, providing a slim glimmer of hope that, when healthy, he can still be an elite threat in the batter’s box.
CP Aroldis Chapman – five-years, $86 million
Before the 2016 trade deadline, the New York Yankees traded Chapman to the Cubs for 2B/SS Gleyber Torres, OF/1B Billy McKinney, RP Adam Warren, and OF Rashad Crawford. During the 2016-17 offseason, the Yankees signed their flame-throwing closer to a five-year deal with an opt-out clause after the 2019 season. During a non-contention year, the Yankees set themselves up by acquiring a highly touted prospect in Torres and then had the financial flexibility in the offseason to reclaim their closer.
Aside from a mediocre season in 2017, Chapman has met the Yankees’ expectations of a lights out closer. In 102 save attempts since 2017, Chapman has converted 91, which is 89.2% of his opportunities. He has also pitched 158.2 innings with a 2.63 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP, 247 strikeouts, held opponents to .174 batting average, and accumulated a 5.4 WAR. Chapman recently opted out of his five-year deal to sign a new three-year, $48 million deal. He will become a free agent prior to the 2023 season.
SP Yu Darvish – six-years, $126 million
Why Darvish was offered such a lucrative, long-term deal is beyond me. One above average season in 2013 and the rest of Darvish’s less than spectacular seasons are forgotten. Not to mention his horrid postseason resumé — 2-4 with a 5.81 ERA over 26.1 innings pitched. Darvish’s $21 million AAV is undeserving based on his production thus far. Over two seasons with the Cubs, Darvish is 7-11, pitched 218.2 innings, has a 1.15 WHIP, and has a 4.16 ERA over 39 games.
Darvish has dealt with several injuries over his carer, including missing the entire 2015 season due to Tommy John surgery. He has also suffered from two separate right shoulder injuries, right tricep tendentious, and lower back pain. Darvish will become a free agent at the conclusion of the 2023 season when he will be 37 years old. The Cubs have spent $45 million on Darvish so far and have received a cumulative 2.9 WAR, a wasteful expenditure to say the least.
1B Eric Hosmer – eight-years, $144 million
A former World Series champion with the Kansas City Royals in 2015, Hosmer built up an impressive resumé before signing his eight-year deal, which is the second largest in Padres franchise history behind only 3B Manny Machado’s 10-year, $300 million contract. Hosmer established himself as an above average hitter by never batting below .250 in all but one of his seven seasons (2012) and playing over 150 games in five of his seven campaigns.
However, Hosmer’s shift to Southern California has yet to benefit his new team. Although Hosmer has played 317 of 322 games over two seasons, he has produced a combined -0.5 WAR. His strikeout percentage continues to climb as well, going from 21% in 2018 to 24.4% in 2019. While his walk rate is declining and his strikeout rate is increasing, his batting average has been on the rise, going from .253 in 2018 to .265 in 2019. After an above average performance in 2019, where Hosmer drove in 99 RBIs and batted .265/.310/.425 with a .735 OPS, there is still hope that he will pick up his production. Hosmer may choose to opt-out of his current deal after the 2022 season. If he doesn’t, he will be guaranteed another $39 million over three years and become a free agent at the conclusion of the 2025 season.
3B Josh Donaldson – one-year, $23 million
Josh Donaldson, the 2015 AL MVP, a three-time All-Star, and “The Bringer of Rain” crashed in Atlanta on a one-year deal, which eventually led to his recent four-year, $92 million deal with the Minnesota Twins. The one-year deal was low risk, high reward for the Braves, even with a $23 million price tag. As one of the most formidable batters in baseball between 2013 and 2017, Donaldson’s injury-riddled 2018 season startled teams from committing to a long-term deal, unsure if he could stay healthy.
Donaldson did what he did best in Atlanta, blasting 37 home runs and 33 doubles with a .259/.379/.521 slash line. He also scored 96 runs and drove in 94 RBIs, but most importantly, he stayed healthy and played 155 games. Atlanta took a gamble on Donaldson and it paid off generously, as he produced a 4.9 WAR on the season.
SP J.A. Happ – two-years, $34 million
As a Yankees fan myself, one of the most infuriating offseason acquisitions was signing Happ to his expensive two-year deal. When Happ was traded to New York at the deadline in 2018, he was stellar, going 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP over 63.1 innings. However, I thought a $34 million deal with a third year, $17 million vesting option was too much for a then-36-year-old pitcher.
Happ couldn’t replicate his 2018 success the following season. Over 161.1 innings, Happ went 12-8 with a 4.91 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and a 1.90 HR/9 ratio. He also finished with a 1.3 WAR. Similar to Lester, due to a delayed and possibly shortened season, it is unlikely Happ will pitch the 165 innings or start the 27 games needed in 2020 to guarantee his 2021 vesting option, meaning he will most likely become a free agent at the conclusion of the season.
My name is Sebastian and I am a senior at Northern Arizona University. I am a double major in journalism and communication, along with a minor in German. I have been in various editorial positions and have contributed articles to The Lumberjack, NAU's student-run newspaper.