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2017’s contracts in review (part 2)

Completing the 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?

Seattle Mariners v Washington Nationals Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

The schtick of this two-part article, which I covered in excruciating detail in part 1, is that a) we’re through nearly a quarter of the season, which means that b) there’s just barely enough information to start judging the free agent deals of the offseason; c) I’m impatient, so d) I’m writing the article that does precisely that.

Quoting myself from the original article:

Two months of play is, of course, not nearly enough to analyze [the offseason signings] 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.

You can’t stop me from doing this early article, but you can make fun of me when I get something egregiously wrong.

Edwin Encarnación

December 22, Cleveland Indians, three years/$65 million ($20 million team option for year four)

Cleveland came up just short last postseason, and signing Encarnación was a big part of their plan to rectify that this offseason. From 2012–16, the slugging righty was one of the game’s premier hitters, with a 146 wRC+ that ranked seventh among qualifiers. His 2016 represented a slight step back, with a 134 wRC+, but his yearly WARs — 4.3, 4.0, 3.6, 4.5, 3.9 — were those of a consistently excellent offensive threat.

So far, however, 2017 has been extremely shaky. Encarnación has never been a big strikeout guy, despite his immense power (15.1 percent from 2012–16), but his K-rate has spiked this year, to 28.8 percent. His contact rates are falling across the board, his power is down, and his overall offensive line is a just-above-average 104 wRC+.

On the other hand, as documented above, Encarnación has a lengthy and extremely consistent track record, so there’s still reason to think this is just a temporary slump. Along those lines, ZiPS and Steamer respectively project Edwin for a 127 and 120 wRC+, either of which would be a decline from his prior five seasons yet also way better than how he’s hitting currently.

But the thing about the contract Cleveland penned with Encarnación is that it’s not that risky. They always knew he was going to be 34 this season; while a decline this steep might be surprising, a decline being present is not, and that’s built into this deal. Sure, the Indians don’t want to see their $65 million investment yield nothing, or next to nothing. But this isn’t the kind of mega-deal that can alter the trajectory of a franchise for the next decade if it goes wrong. Does Cleveland desperately want Encarnación to figure things out? Of course. Do they need him to, in order to survive his contract? Probably not.

Iván Nova

December 22, Pittsburgh Pirates, three years/$26 million

Ho boy. This’ll be another brief one, because it shouldn’t be too controversial to say that Nova is crushing it with the Pirates at a bargain price. When Pittsburgh picked him up at the trade deadline last season, it seemed like a head-scratcher; what could they possibly want with a mediocre starter who had only a few months left before free agency? The answer, as it turned out, was to give him a trial run with Clint Hurdle and Ray Searage, a trial run that went so well that he’d be convinced to return. I’m not sure if nobody but the Pirates thought they could draw out the talented side of Nova we’re currently seeing, or if he took a pay cut to stay with Pittsburgh, but the end result is a bargain either way.

And yes, we are currently seeing a very talented side of Nova. He’s running a 3.21 FIP and a 2.63 ERA, both of which would be career bests. He’s not striking out many batters, but he’s walking nobody (almost literally; he’s at four walks on the season in 61 23 innings, and for a while, he had more complete games than walks in his time with Pittsburgh). His current fWAR of 1.4 comes pretty close to justifying his roughly $8 million price tag already. It feels like we hadn’t heard as much about Searage’s magic powers in recent years; Iván Nova is making the case for a comeback, and making his contract look like a steal in the process.

José Bautista

January 17, Toronto Blue Jays, one year/$17 million

We reach the second of the two 2016 Blue Jays sluggers who hit free agency this offseason. I already talked a bit about Bautista when I discussed the Kendrys Morales deal, since his lingering on the market communicated a lot about the way sluggers on the older side of 30 were being valued this offseason. After a down year in 2016 — or at least by his admittedly lofty standards; a 122 wRC+ is nothing to sneeze at, but it was Bautista’s worst since before his 2010 breakout — the one-year deal represented an attempt by the righty to reset his market, and hopefully find more demand next season.

The Blue Jays, as a result, are almost totally insulated from any kind of risk in this deal. Even if Bautista were to completely crater, Toronto would face no long-term consequences as a result. In this kind of contract, it’s the player who bears most of the risk. Admittedly, the player also stands to benefit from the upside — if they break out, rather than the team getting a player for less than the market price, the player gets to sign a bigger contract — but there’s generally not much upside when it comes to 36-year-olds.

See, e.g., José Bautista’s 2017: His 112 wRC+ is not awful, but it’s certainly not the bounceback he was hoping for after signing a one-year deal. Like Encarnación, his strikeout rate and power are trending in the wrong direction, and he’s 37. (These late breakout players always surprise me with how old they are.)

Because the deal is so short, it can’t possibly be that good or that bad for Toronto. It’s also not clear how much of a choice Bautista had; he signed this deal in January, long after he probably expected to get a better offer. But whatever the circumstances that led to this contract, the first months of the season have not made it look great.

Matt Wieters

February 21, Washington Nationals, one year/$10.5 million (player option year two, $10.5 million)

We close this article with one of the latest major contracts of the offseason. Scott Boras and the Nationals clearly have a special relationship, which generally seems to manifest itself by allowing Boras to fleece Washington in new and creative ways. Wieters was a former top prospect who had never lived up to his potential; he had languished in his last few years in particular, when his offense and his framing (as measured by Baseball Prospectus) were both middle-of-the-pack and nothing more.

In hindsight, it’s easy to think that two years and $21 million is not so much to pay for Wieters. Sure, he’s lost most of his prospect sheen, but there was likely still some upside lurking in there somewhere, and $21 million is nearly pocket change for a team like the Nationals. What made this deal weird was not just the dollars exchanged and the service received; when the Nats penned Wieters, they seemingly already had a starting catcher in the form of Derek Norris. They had apparently been trying to trade Norris, without any success, so they must have known that signing Wieters entailed releasing Norris, which is exactly what happened. That makes this calculus a little more complicated; the question is not whether Wieters is worth his salary, but whether Wieters, above and beyond Norris, is worth his salary.

At the outset of the season, that seemed like a stretch. Norris had gone from a terrible framer with Oakland to top-notch with the Padres, and he had shown similar offensive pop to Wieters in the recent past, along with better durability. PECOTA (which includes framing) gave Norris a significant edge, projecting Wieters for 0.7 WARP in 518 PAs versus 1.1 WARP for Norris in just 295 PAs.

The start to the season hasn’t changed that much. Wieters still looks like a below-average framer, and Norris above-average. And while Wieters has improved somewhat, with a .285/.362/.439 line that translates to a 108 wRC+ (20 points higher than his 2016 figure), it hasn’t been enough to close the framing gap, according to BP. Even with Norris’s struggles on offense — he’s hitting .220/.293/.356, good for an 80 wRC+ — BP gives him the slight edge, at 0.4 WARP to Wieters’ 0.3.

For this move to make sense, though, Wieters can’t just beat Norris — he has to beat him by a substantial amount, enough to justify $21 million over the next two years, and that seems exceptionally unlikely. This deal isn’t going to sink the Nationals; they’ve got plenty of cash to play with. It is looking more and more like a head-scratcher, however.

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