The Phillies recently beat the market for first baseman Carlos Santana with a three-year, $60MM deal. This is a team that won 66 games in 2017, and despite also adding a pair of veteran relievers, doesn’t seem like they’re making a full push to contend in 2018. The Santana signing got me thinking about other recent free agent deals given out by teams that had been in a clear rebuild. Here’s a look at how five recent examples turned out. Note that this excludes something like the Red Sox signing Pablo Sandoval, since the team wasn’t tanking prior to that contract.
- Coming off a 73-win season, the Cubs signed pitcher Jon Lester to a six-year, $155MM deal, the second-largest of the 2014-15 offseason. While the 2014 Cubs were clearly tanking, it was the third year of that effort under the Theo Epstein regime. The Lester signing, which took some convincing on the Cubs’ part, was the signature move of an offseason that also included the additions of Joe Maddon, Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero, and Jason Hammel. The timing of the Lester signing made sense, and the 2015 Cubs won 97 games and made it to the NLCS.
- Coming off a 51-win season, the Astros signed pitcher Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30MM deal, the 14th-largest of the 2013-14 offseason. The Astros made this move despite having a year left in their tanking process. This was the offseason in which the Astros also acquired Dexter Fowler and several veteran relievers. The Feldman signing was one of those “respectability” type deals for a team not quite yet ready to win. While it may have been unnecessary, it’s also the smallest on this list and didn’t end up hampering the Astros.
- Coming off a 61-win season, the Cubs signed pitcher Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52MM deal, the sixth-largest of the 2012-13 offseason. The Cubs were entering the second year of their rebuild, and they settled for Jackson after missing out on Anibal Sanchez. It didn’t take long for regret to set in on this one, as Jackson was terrible for the Cubs from the get-go. The Cubs likely saw Jackson as a high-floor pitcher who could take the ball 30 times and bring stability to their rotation, but do clearly rebuilding teams need to spend good money on that?
- Coming off a 69-win season, the Nationals signed right fielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126MM deal, the second-largest of the 2009-10 offseason. The Nationals would win 72 games in 2010, but then jumped to 80 wins in 2011 and 98 in 2012. The team made the playoffs in 2012, ’14, ’16, and ’17, and Werth was a big factor in the team’s success in ’14. Werth was good for just 3.0 WAR from 2011-12, but performed as a star-caliber player from 2013-14 with 9.7 WAR. The Werth contract was widely panned at the time it was signed. Though Werth concentrated most of his value into two of the seven seasons, the Nats didn’t come out that poorly overall.
- Coming off a 62-win season, the Royals signed pitcher Gil Meche to a five-year, $55MM deal, the sixth-largest of the 2006-07 offseason. The Meche contract was a real eyebrow-raiser at the time, but the righty was actually quite good for the first two years of the deal before injuries became a problem. Meche is now best known for his stunning decision to walk away from the final year of that deal, forfeiting $12MM. Though the case can be made that Meche was “worth” the money in his two good years, the team never contended during his tenure. Would it have mattered if the 2008 Royals won 68 games instead of 72?
With the Santana signing, the Phillies can at least make the argument that they have a shot at contention in 2018. The club currently projects for about 78 wins, but with a few more moves they can push into the range of the second Wild Card. Teams like the Rockies, Giants, Pirates, Diamondbacks, and Mets aren’t too far ahead of them (this assumes the Cardinals are the favorite for the first Wild Card). On the other hand, the Padres currently project for about 73 wins, which is why their flirtation with Eric Hosmer makes little sense. The club would likely waste the first year of a Hosmer deal on a losing season, plus Hosmer simply isn’t as good as Werth was. I think, for the most part, teams don’t need to sign large free agent deals until they’re actually ready to contend.