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A look back at the best 2017-18 free agent signings

Jhoulys Chacin and the Brewers have done quite well.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Just a couple of days ago, I stumbled back upon FanGraphs’ 2018 free agent tracker. It was interesting to look back at all the deals that were made last offseason, and it made me wonder: which signings and teams did the best last offseason?

“Best” is certainly subjective, especially because not all deals are created equal. Yu Darvish’s contract, for example, looks awful, as the Cubs signed him to a six-year deal last offseason. He made just eight starts this year before a right triceps strain kept him out for the rest of the season. It’s entirely possible that Darvish’s contract still works out okay for Chicago if he comes back and pitches well, but for now, it’s among the worst deals made.

That’s why it’s hard to evaluate an offseason not even a full season later. But, I still want to see which players (and which teams) have been significant contributors so far this year. Let’s break this down a couple of different ways.

Most value added by team

First, let’s see which teams made the best free agent signings:

Most successful offseasons by free agent fWAR

Team Pitcher fWAR Position Player fWAR Total
Team Pitcher fWAR Position Player fWAR Total
Brewers 1.5 5.3 6.8
Red Sox 0.0 6.2 6.2
Phillies 2.9 1.4 4.3
Cardinals 0.9 3.2 4.1
Athletics 3.1 0.7 3.8
Through games on Aug. 30

The Brewers being at the top of the list is not surprising. Lorenzo Cain (4.9 fWAR) and Jhoulys Chacin (2.5 fWAR) were two phenomenal additions, let alone Christian Yelich (4.7 fWAR) who was added through trade with the Marlins. From free agents themselves, the Brewers added nearly seven wins of value this offseason, which may have been the difference between being in the playoff race — as they are now, holding a two game lead for the second Wild Card spot — and being a .500 team.

The Red Sox being on this list is not a surprise, with J.D. Martinez (5.3 fWAR) highlighting their class. The Phillies, Cardinals and Athletics out the list; like the Brewers, these three teams might not even be in the race without their offseason additions. That is major kudos to their respective front offices for doing the necessary work to take their teams to where they are today.

The best position player free agent signings

Next, let’s look at the best individual free agent signings. First, position players.

Position players

Player Team fWAR
Player Team fWAR
J.D. Martinez Red Sox 5.3
Lorenzo Cain Brewers 4.9
Carlos Gonzalez Rockies 2.0
Todd Frazier Mets 1.7
Mike Moustakas Royals 1.7*
Through games on Aug. 31 / *Moustakas’ fWAR is only calculated through his time with the Royals.

J.D. Martinez is the free agent signing of this offseason. Signing a five-year, $109.95 million contract with the Boston Red Sox in February (!!!!), Martinez is now a candidate to win the AL MVP with his .333/.404/.648 slash line alongside 39 home runs and 114 runs batted in over 557 plate appearances. Martinez has the opportunity to become a free agent once again this offseason, as he has the first of three potential opt-outs.

Overall, though, the position player free agent market last offseason has not turned out to be phenomenal. Really, only Martinez and Cain have had a significant impact on their new clubs, though Moustakas, too, has had a good season. He did not stick with the team that signed him, however, as the Royals traded him to the Brewers (who else?) during trade deadline season. He has been quite good since joining Milwaukee.

The best pitcher free agent signings

Lastly, let’s take a look back at the pitchers who signed new deals during the winter months.

Pitchers

Player Team fWAR
Player Team fWAR
Miles Mikolas Cardinals 3.2
Jhoulys Chacin Brewers 2.5
Trevor Cahill Athletics 2.1
CC Sabathia Yankees 2.1
Jake Arrieta Phillies 1.8
Through games on Aug. 31

When I first saw this, I couldn’t believe it.

Miles Mikolas has been the most valuable starting pitcher free agent acquisition of the offseason. It was not Yu Darvish nor Jake Arrieta and not even someone like Lance Lynn or CC Sabathia. It was Mikolas, followed by Jhoulys Chacin. That’s incredible! (I’d like to humbly point out that I called Chacin doing well back when the Brewers signed him. It’s time for me to retire.)

Anyway, that’s such a weird list of names. Yes, it makes sense to see Jake Arrieta up there, but Trevor Cahill ($1.5 million) and Mike Minor, who ranks sixth, ($8.33 million) are making a combined less than $10 million this season. Chacin ($8.75 million), too, was signed to a pretty cheap contract, as far as starting pitchers’ salaries go.

Looking forward

With all of this in mind, what does this mean for next offseason, when we see the likes of Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, Patrick Corbin, A.J. Pollock, Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel and Josh Donaldson, among others, all become free agents?

This exercise shows us that it’s not always the most lucrative contracts that are the best deals. Oftentimes, yes, those are the best players, but if you’re trying to find the extra pieces to take your team to the next level, it’s about finding value that other teams do not. Baseball is a game that centers around finding value at the margins, and while big contracts are fun and exciting, those also carry significant risk with them.

Of course, to the average fan, it shouldn’t even matter how much money your favorite team is spending on a player. It’s not your money. But, you do want your team to be able to find the most effective players while also being able to keep financial flexibility for in-season additions. No team did this better than the Brewers, who didn’t allocate backbreaking dollars to free agents this offseason, allowing them to get Moustakas, Jonthan Schoop, Gio Gonzalez, Xavier Cedeno and Curtis Granderson in trades.

Free agents are supplemental pieces. Clearly, no team can build their core from free agents alone. But through (sometimes unexpected) additional value, these can be the players that turn you from a .500 team into a serious playoff contender.


Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.