Buyer beware: How big free agents fared their first season after signing mega-contracts

Jesse Rogers posted an article today on Jason Heyward and how he can possibly live up to expectations with the Chicago Cubs after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract (although he can opt out of the deal after the 2018 or 2019 seasons).

Heyward isn't the only big free agent facing the pressure of those enormous dollar figures. David Price signed a $217 million deal with the Boston Red Sox to help turn around a team that had consecutive last-place finishes the past two seasons and a rotation that ranked 13th in the American League in ERA in 2015. The Arizona Diamondbacks gave Zack Greinke $206.5 million to steal him away from their division rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Chris Davis re-signed with the Baltimore Orioles for $161 million. Justin Upton (Detroit Tigers, $132.75 million), Johnny Cueto (San Francisco Giants, $130 million) and Jordan Zimmermann (Tigers, $110 million) also signed nine-figure contracts. It's exhausting just reading the numbers.

What happens to big free agents in the first season after signing their mega-contracts?

We have to start by defining "big," and then we can compare how players performed before they signed the deal and after. Not counting international free agents such as Masahiro Tanaka, Jose Abreu or Yu Darvish, in the previous five offseasons, 38 free agents signed contracts worth at least $50 million. Collectively, the first years of their new deals were a disaster: Their total WAR (from Baseball-Reference.com) declined from 147.6 to 90.8 -- they lost more than a third of their value. Their three-year average WAR before hitting free agency declined from 132.8 to 90.8.

Only nine of those 38 free agents performed better in their first year:

Max Scherzer, Nationals, 2015: 6.0 to 7.1 WAR

Nelson Cruz, Mariners, 2015: 4.6 to 5.2

Ervin Santana, Twins, 2015: 1.2 to 1.6

Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals, 2014: 3.4 to 5.7

Greinke, Dodgers, 2013: 3.6 to 3.9

Anibal Sanchez, Tigers, 2013: 2.4 to 6.3

Prince Fielder, Tigers, 2012: 4.6 to 4.7

Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies, 2012: 1.6 to 1.7

Cliff Lee, Phillies, 2011: 4.8 to 8.6

Remarkably, seven players performed below replacement level: Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Victor Martinez, Ubaldo Jimenez, Melvin Upton Jr., Edwin Jackson and Adam Dunn. So far, 14 players have signed $50 million-plus contracts this offseason. History suggests those teams are almost as likely to get replacement-level performance as they are an improvement upon the player's 2015 performance. Sure, none of those 14 appear to be likely candidates to fall so far, but neither did any of the above (well, OK, maybe Jackson). Eight of those 14 are pitchers, so an injury or two could easily lead to subpar performance.

Anyway, to offer comparisons to the blockbuster free agents such as Heyward, Price and Greinke, let's see how the $100 million guys fared in Year 1.


Scherzer, Nationals, seven years, $210 million: Jim Bouton of "Ball Four" fame once edited a book titled "I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad." Don't blame Scherzer for the Nationals' failures in 2015. He was terrific, including two no-hitters in which he was an error and a hit batter away from two perfect games.

Jon Lester, Cubs, six years, $155 million: Lester went 11-12 with a 3.34 ERA as his WAR declined from 4.6 to 3.1. (That's just his pitching; he was worth minus-0.3 as a hitter.) But remember that 2014 was arguably his best season: That 3.1 WAR was right in line with the 2.8 he had averaged over the previous three seasons. Some will point to his 5.0 FanGraphs WAR as an indicator that he pitched better than his 3.34 ERA suggests, but his inability to hold runners was a reason his ERA was higher than his 2.92 FIP.


Robinson Cano, Mariners, 10 years, $240 million: Cano dropped from 7.8 WAR in 2013 to 6.4 in his first season with Seattle, before slipping even further in 2015 to 3.4. The Mariners are holding out hope that his second half last season was a good sign, as he hit .331/.387/.540 with 15 home runs in 70 games after a terrible start.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Yankees, seven years, $153 million: Ellsbury was viewed as a risky signing considering he had been great in 2011 and 2013 with the Red Sox, but missed a lot of time in 2010 and 2012 with injuries. Over the past three seasons, his WAR has gone from 5.7 to 3.3 to 1.9 (when he battled injuries again).

Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers, seven years, $130 million: This contract drew a lot of gasps, even though Choo was coming off a season with a .423 OBP with the Reds as his walk rate spiked and he was hit by 26 pitches. But he was turning 31 and though the Reds had played him in center, everyone else considered him a corner outfielder. After an injury-marred 2014 (0.1 WAR) he did bounce back in 2015 with a .276/.375/.463 line and 22 home runs (3.5 WAR).


Greinke, Dodgers, six years, $147 million: Of course, Greinke didn't make it through all six seasons with the Dodgers as he exercised an opt-out clause in his contract after his monster 2015 campaign. After posting a 3.83 ERA the previous three seasons (which didn't include his 2009 AL Cy Young campaign) and averaging 2.8 WAR, Greinke got better with the Dodgers, posting a 2.30 ERA and averaging 5.8 WAR (plus an additional 0.9 per season with his bat). The Dodgers seemingly overpaid at the time, but extracted great value.

Josh Hamilton, Angels, five years, $125 million: It's easy to forget now, but Hamilton was coming off a season in which he hit 43 home runs and finished fifth in the AL MVP voting. After hitting 31 home runs and accumulating 2.9 WAR in two seasons with the Angels, Angels owner Arte Moreno is now paying Hamilton to play for the Rangers.


Albert Pujols, Angels, 10 years, $240 million: As it turns out, Pujols' 2011 season with the Cardinals -- though still terrific -- was the first sign of a player in decline. His WAR went from 7.5 in 2010 to 5.3 in 2011 to 4.8 in his first year with the Angels. He's now 36, coming off another foot surgery and has six years left on his contract.

Fielder, Tigers, nine years, $214 million: His first year in Detroit was terrific, as he hit .313/.412/.528 with 30 home runs, but his WAR dropped to 1.9 in 2013 and after that season the Tigers traded him to the Rangers. He's a different hitter now than he was during his peak: Swinging earlier in the count, going for average over power, drawing fewer walks. Without any value on defense or the bases, his WAR in 2015 was 1.9.

Jose Reyes, Marlins, six years, $106 million: This was a classic buy-high case as Reyes was coming off a batting title and his career high (by far) in OPS+. In his first year with the Marlins, he reverted back to his career norms and his WAR dropped from 4.7 to 2.9.


Carl Crawford, Red Sox, seven years, $142 million: For some reason, the Red Sox decided to throw all of that money at Crawford instead of re-signing Adrian Beltre (who signed with the Rangers for six years, $96 million). Anyway, Crawford had been great with Tampa Bay in 2010, but was a disaster from the get-go with Boston.

Jayson Werth, Nationals, seven years, $126 million: A much-criticized signing, largely because Werth was already 32 in the first year of the deal. He had a poor 2011 and then played just 81 games in 2012 before having excellent seasons in 2013 and 2014. The contract hasn't been a disaster, although it's looking bad now after an injury-filled 2015 and two seasons left at $21 million per year.

Lee, Phillies, five years, $120 million: The Phillies got three great seasons from him, including 8.6 WAR in 2011 and 7.3 WAR in 2013, before his arm gave out. They can't really have any regrets, other than losing in the 2011 playoffs (Lee did have a poor start, giving up 12 hits and five runs in six innings).

What do the results show for these 13 guys? They went from a combined 65.9 WAR in the season prior to free agency to 48.1 WAR in their first year after signing, declining from an average of 5.1 WAR to 3.7 -- a loss of 27 percent of their value.

I suspect we'll see a similar decline in performance from this year's big free agents. As good as Greinke is, it will be nearly impossible for him to match the 1.66 ERA he had last season. Price is also coming off a career-best 2.45 ERA. Davis could revert back to his 2014 level of performance. Maybe Heyward's value takes a hit if he struggles defensively in center field.

The bottom line: There's no sure thing, even with a $100 million -- or $200 million -- ballplayer.