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2017’s contracts in review (part 1)

Taking an early look at the free agent deals of the 2017 offseason. Which are off to a good start, and which are looking like poor decisions?

MLB: Miami Marlins at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s almost Memorial Day, which means it’s almost mid-baseball season, as opposed to early baseball season. That means there’s going to be a whole host of lookbacks, as we valiant content creators of the world take advantage of an arbitrary holiday to do some reflecting on the first big chunk of the year. But because content creation is a vicious, cutthroat, dog-eat-dog game, I’m getting the jump on all the other chumps by writing my lookback a week early. Eat my dust, suckers.

I don’t feel bad, either, because there are lots of things to review, and I’m only taking one of them: contracts! A lot of free agent signings from this past offseason inspired vigorous discussion when they were announced. Two months of play is, of course, not nearly enough to analyze them fully, but it’s enough to start to judge them. Will some of these provisional conclusions look very silly in six months, or in five years? Most definitely. Is that going to stop me from writing this? Most definitely not.

There are a lot of contracts to talk about, so I’m going to split this endeavor into two parts. We won’t touch on every contract from this past offseason, but instead go over the ones that I found interesting — maybe because they’re big, maybe because they’re weird, maybe both. We’ll move chronologically, starting at the beginning of the offseason in this article and going through the end in a piece later this week.

Kendrys Morales

November 11, Toronto Blue Jays, three years/$33 million

The beginning of the offseason is wild. Nobody knows what’s happening, or what’s going to happen. Maybe you’ve got predictions, about which positions and types of players will be undervalued and which will be more expensive than they should be, but nobody actually knows what’ll happen. Wait too long, and you might find a roster hole you meant to fill still needs filling in April (or July). Move too soon, and you might pay more than you need to, or find yourself hamstrung by a quick decision.

The Jays definitely fell into the latter camp with this signing, the first major one of the 2017 offseason. With José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación both at the end of their contracts, and Toronto not looking to shell out big bucks for either of them, it looked like the Blue Jays would need someone to fill in for them. They moved fast, signing the 33-year-old Morales to a substantial deal.

The switch-hitting DH was just a few seasons removed from his career nadir of 2014, when he rejected a qualifying offer and found himself without a team until June 8, then went on to a terrible 23s of a season. But his two subsequent years with the Royals featured two very good offensive seasons, so while three years and $33 million seemed like a lot, it didn’t feel crazy.

This deal is also interesting because it already has gone through a round of re-evaluation. It seemed like a slightly unfavorable deal for the Jays when it was signed, but the assumption was that Bautista and Encarnación would be way out of the team’s price range, making a more-expensive-than-ideal Morales look not so bad. Of course, Bautista ended up signing with the Jays (which we’ll get to later), and that made the Morales deal look totally unnecessary. The two months of 2017 under his belt haven’t helped with that impression, either; with a 91 wRC+, he’s been a below-average hitter, which is fine for a shortstop or catcher and downright terrible for a DH. His walk rate and power are down, his strikeout rate is up, and there aren’t any obvious indications that bad luck is to blame. This is just year one of three, too. The Jays struck first this offseason, but at least so far, I wouldn’t envy them.

Eric Thames

November 29, Milwaukee Brewers, three years/$16 million

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Milwaukee Brewers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not going to spend much time on Thames, because we all know that he is crushing the league with extreme prejudice. He’s hitting .306/.429/.664 with a 16.0 percent walk rate, good for a 176 wRC+. He’s great! The Brewers signed him for just as long as the Jays signed Morales, and for less than half as much! Holy crap!

The Morales comparison is unnecessary; this is a fantastic deal for the Brewers even in a vacuum. But it sure does help drive the point home. Thames was a total wild card back in November, a prodigal son returning with a new swing and some kickass elbow pads. Now, he’s a star, signed to a utility player’s contract.

Mark Melancon

December 5, San Francisco Giants, four years/$62 million (opt out after year two)

The Giants’ bullpen struggles became a punchline toward the end of the 2016 season. So Melancon, as Grant Brisbee put it in his transaction analysis, looked like a perfect fit. The righty had a extensive track record of excellence, and while he wasn’t the high-velocity strikeout artist of a Chapman or a Jansen, he had kept runs off the board better than just about anyone else over the prior four seasons. San Francisco was happy to pay Melancon to deliver predictable, consistent results.

On the one hand, that’s basically been the story for the beginning of the season. Melancon’s ERA is worse than it has been in recent years, but a good chunk of that might be the result of his rough first outing of the season, when he gave up two of his five runs. His ground ball rate is down, as is his whiff rate, but his walk rate is better than it has been, and his strikeouts are pretty much fine. In his 12 23 IP of work, Melancon’s basically looked as expected: steady, reliable, throwing strikes and getting contact that usually turns into outs.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Francisco Giants John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

So this contract looks iffy, but not because of anything Melancon’s done or not done. Rather, it looks iffy because the Giants suddenly look like something other than a playoff contender, what with their 19–26 record and nine-game deficit in the NL West. And if the hole they’ve dug really is too big for them to get out of, then a $15 million closer is a luxury they really don’t need or want. Sure, Melancon will be around through 2020, but the volatile nature of relievers means that you really want to make the most of the early years of their contract, when you can be most certain they’ll still be valuable. Melancon is 32, and it’s possible that there’s never a match between a season where he’s excellent and the Giants are good enough to make use of that excellence. In December, with San Francisco coming off a NLDS loss to the eventual champions, that possibility seemed remote. It seems a lot less remote now.

Aroldis Chapman

December 7, New York Yankees, five years/$86 million (opt out after year three)

Two of the big relievers on the market last offseason signed within two days of each other. Chapman was always going to be the biggest fish, and his contract lived up to expectations. Of course, it helped that it was the Yankees on the other side, and that even in a year when Brian Cashman had managed to sell rebuilding to his bosses, they made sure he splurged on Chapman.

In many ways, this is the opposite of the Melancon/Giants situation. Chapman was coming off a stretch of incredible dominance, and while he’s still been amazing in his return to New York, there have been hints of slippage. His ERA is an unsightly 3.55, his strikeout rate is a more-mundane-than-usual 36.8 percent (compared to 44.4 percent from 2014–16), and batters are making contact against him on 69.8 percent of swings (compared to 60.8 from 2014–16). Chapman is still great, but this might be the beginning of a down year for him.

On the other hand, the Yankees are off to a shocking 25–16 start, currently sitting in first place in the AL East. Much of the commentary around the Chapman deal focused on the seeming mismatch between this contract and the competitive timeline for New York. From my friend and colleague Nick Stellini’s recap over at FanGraphs:

[G]iven that the Red Sox just turned themselves into a juggernaut — the Yankees are going to be looking at a Wild Card spot, at best.

[...]

[T]he team is probably going to be pretty good again in three years.

[...]

There’s an awful lot of risk in this contract, and it was given out by a team that’s not currently operating in win-now mode.

I’m not trying to pick on Nick; I agreed with all those statements, and they reflected conventional wisdom at the time. Heck, the Yankees probably thought they weren’t in win-now mode, and just accepted that Chapman was going to have his best years before they were ready. But instead, New York (i.e., Aaron Judge) has pushed their timeline up to the present. That makes this a massive reliever contract given out by a contender, rather than a rebuilder, and that’s a contract that I can wrap my head around with much less difficulty.

Justin Turner

December 13, Los Angeles Dodgers, four years/$64 million

Turner has had an odd career. He bounced around as a Quad-A kind of guy for almost five years, before heading west to Los Angeles in 2014 and breaking out at the ripe age of 29. But while he was on the older side in the 2017 offseason, and about to enter his age-32 season, Turner also was possibly the best free agent available. It came down to him and Yoenis Cespedes, and while the difference in performance between the two of them seemed slight, the difference in price was never going to be.

Even so, four years at $16 million annually seemed like quite a bargain. As Steven Martano pointed out in our recap of the signing, Turner is local to L.A., and that may have impacted his decision to sign there. One of the only other explanations for the low price was that MLB teams knew something about Turner that we in the public didn’t, and that his gaudy numbers from 2014–16 hid some fundamental flaw.

But there haven’t been any flaws visible thus far in 2017. While Turner just hit the DL with a hamstring strain, he was hitting .379/.453/.493 with a 160 wRC+ prior to that. Paired with his usual solid defense at third, that’s made him worth 2.2 fWAR already.

It’s not clear how much this surge can be trusted; his strikeout rate is way down, from 17.1 percent in his first three years with the Dodgers to 12.3 percent in 2017, but his walks have stayed steady, and his isolated slugging is a measly .114. The biggest difference this season appears to be his unsustainably high .433 BABIP, so some regression is likely in order. But while these first 160 PAs may not show that Turner is a superstar, they do show that he’s a solid player, and that’s all he needs to be to make the Dodgers very happy with their decision to sign him.

Even if Turner ages normally, this deal only turns bad if the starting point for his age-related decline is lower than it would appear to be based on the previous few years. Based on the last two months, that looks nearly impossible.

Henry Druschel is a Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @henrydruschel.