MLB Free Agency: Grading the Biggest Signings of the Entire Offseason

Tim Kelly
January 15, 2020 - 11:56 am
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A year ago, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado headlined arguably the most anticipated free-agent class in MLB history. As it turned out, neither of their stints in free agency was especially fun for anyone involved.

Machado did ultimately sign a 10-year/$300 million deal with the San Diego Padres, but not until Feb. 19. Harper, a client of Scott Boras, didn't secure his 13-year/$330 million deal until early March, when his new team, the Philadelphia Phillies, had already reported for Spring Training.

This time around, free agency was much more enjoyable, with each of the seven most coveted options signed by mid-January, and most signed before the conclusion of 2019.

With the most notable options off the free-agent board, here are grades on each deal:

Josh Donaldson
Josh Donaldson signed with the Twins. Photo credit (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Josh Donaldson: Four-Year/$92 Million Deal With The Minnesota Twins
Grade: B

Between 2017 and 2018, Donaldson was limited to just 165 of a possible 324 games, so there's certainly an element of risk in signing a 34-year-old to this type of deal. There's also going to be increased risk for opposing pitchers who have to navigate through a Twins' lineup that now includes Donaldson.

Remember, the Twins won 101 regular season games in 2019, with Nelson Cruz, Mitch Garver, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler and Miguel Sano all hitting at least 30 home runs. When you add in Donaldson - who slashed .259/.379/.521 with 37 home runs and 94 RBIs in 2019 - the Twins may very well have the best lineup in the sport.

Donaldson, the 2015 American League MVP, also posted 15 defensive runs saved in a 2019 season that saw him revive his career with the Atlanta Braves. That gives you a good feeling about how he'll age defensively. Additionally, on an American League team, DH could become an option if he slips defensively in the later stages of the deal.

While the Twins did retain Jake Odorizzi after he accepted their qualifying offer, they would have liked to add more of an impact arm this offseason. As currently constructed, their best path to World Series contention is going to be to outslug opposing teams. Adding Donaldson increases their chances of doing so.

Zack Wheeler
Zack Wheeler joined the National League East rival Phillies. Photo credit (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Zack Wheeler: Five-Year/$118 Million Deal With The Philadelphia Phillies
Grade: B+

When you take into account the deals that Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg - more on them in a minute - ultimately got, Wheeler's deal feels pretty fair.

Even as is, the 29-year-old is a very effective major league starter. In 2019, he went 11-8 with a 3.96 ERA, 3.48 FIP and 195.1 innings for the New York Mets. If that's his peak, his deal will probably still age well relative to the escalating pitching market.

That said, there was a feeling that Wheeler didn't reach his full potential in New York. The Phillies - who don't have much in way of certainty in their starting rotation after Aaron Nola - are banking on pitching coach Bryan Price being able to unlock said potential. If Wheeler develops into an All-Star caliber arm, it would increase the Phillies' chances of competing in a National League East that figures to be very competitive in 2020 and beyond.

Stephen Strasburg
Stephen Strasburg will stay in in D.C. Photo credit (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Stephen Strasburg: Seven-Year/$245 Million Deal With The Washington Nationals
Grade: C

When Strasburg has been healthy in his career, he's been excellent. It's hard, though, to feel positive about how the 31-year-old's new deal will age.

Let's start with this - 2019 was a remarkable season for Strasburg. He went 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA, 3.25 FIP and 5.7 fWAR across 209.0 regular season innings. In the postseason, he was even better, ultimately winning the World Series MVP as he helped pitch the Washington Nationals to their first World Series title in team history.

That acknowledged, 2019 was the first time since 2014 that he's topped the 200 innings mark in the regular season. It was the first time since 2014 that he's pitched more than 175.1 innings in a regular season. He's a veteran of Tommy John surgery that has fairly consistently dealt with injuries throughout the course of his career. Pitchers don't usually become healthier as they age.

Given how effective Strasburg is when he's able to stay healthy, it's hard to altogether dismiss this contract. His deal also includes $80 million in deferrals that won't be paid out until the conclusion of his time playing under the current deal. The prospects, though, of paying Strasburg $70 million between 2025 and 2026 could end up being scary.

Yasmani Grandal
Yasmani Grandal signed with the White Sox. Photo credit (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Yasmani Grandal: Four-Year/$73 Million Deal With The Chicago White Sox
Grade: B+

In a difficult free-agent market, Grandal had to settle for a one-year/$18.25 million deal in 2019 with the Milwaukee Brewers. Grandal bet on himself by accepting a one-year deal, and ultimately won that bet.

After homering 28 times and posting a 5.2 fWAR for the Brewers in 2019, Grandal landed a lucrative four-year deal with the White Sox, where he'll join an organization ripe with young talent in a division that isn't especially deep.

Grandal, Edwin Encarnacion, Dallas Keuchel, Gio Gonzalez and Steve Cishek were among the veterans that the White Sox signed in a busy offseason. When you add them to a young core that includes Eloy Jiminez, Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito and Luis Robert, there's a lot to like about the future for the White Sox.

Anthony Rendon
Anthony Rendon headed west in free agency. Photo credit (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

Anthony Rendon: Seven-Year/$245 Million Deal With The Los Angeles Angels
Grade: B+

It does feel like the Angels were hell-bent on making a major investment this offseason, independent of what position it came at. After Orange County native Gerrit Cole agreed to a record-setting deal to join the New York Yankees, the Angels pivoted and signed Rendon, a World Series hero with the Washington Nationals, instead.

In 2019, Rendon made his first All-Star team, slashing .319/.412/.598 with 34 home runs, 126 RBIs and a 7.0 fWAR. In the postseason, Rendon hit .328 with three home runs and 15 RBIs, helping the Nationals to defeat the Houston Astros in a seven-game World Series.

Certainly, it's fair to question whether the Angels have the pitching to be a playoff team in the first year of Joe Maddon's managerial tenure. However, a lineup that includes Rendon, Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani might be enough for the Angels to post their first winning season since 2015.

Gerrit Cole
Gerrit Cole joined the New York Yankees this offseason. Photo credit (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Gerrit Cole: Nine-Year/$324 Million Deal With The New York Yankees
Grade: A-

There will be a time and place to debate whether Cole will still be a front-line starter in 2028, the final season of his deal. For now, though, the Yankees have added perhaps the best pitcher in baseball, who is only 29 and has managed to stay relatively healthy thus far in his career.

In two seasons with the Houston Astros, Cole went 35-10 with a 2.68 ERA and 2.67 FIP over the past two seasons. After the 2019 All-Star Break, Cole turned in one of the most dominant stretches in MLB history, going 11-0 with a 1.79 ERA in 14 starts.

The Yankees have an elite bullpen, after re-signing Aroldis Chapman. It would be an added benefit to their lineup to get a healthy Giancarlo Stanton back in 2020, but Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres give them a pretty imposing lineup as is. And with the addition of Cole, along with the return of Luis Severino, the Yankees starting rotation - which also includes Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton - is World Series caliber as well.

The Yankees will enter 2020 as the prohibited World Series favorites, largely based on the addition of Cole.

Madison Bumgarner
Madison Bumgarner decided to stay in the National League West. Photo credit (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Madison Bumgarner: Five-Year/$85 Million Deal With The Arizona Diamondbacks
Grade: B-

The former World Series MVP elected to stay in the National League West - and close to his horses - and sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks after 11 illustrious seasons in San Francisco.

Bumgarner perhaps isn't the pitcher he was at his peak, but he's still only 30 and was very effective in 2019, posting a 3.90 ERA and 3.90 FIP across 207.2 innings. 2019 marked the seventh time in his career that he's topped the 200 innings mark, but the first time since 2016.

Even after trading Zack Greinke to the Houston Astros prior to the July 31 trade deadline, Torey Luvullo's squad went 31-22 over the final two months of the 2019 season. The Diamondbacks finished 2019 at 85-77, meaning even with the continued presence of the Los Angeles Dodgers and expected rise of the San Diego Padres, the Snakes should be a competitive team in 2020.

It's fair to wonder if Bumgarner, who made his major league debut at age 19, will run out of gas in the final years of the deal. He should still provide quality innings for the first three or so years, however.

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