Last winter’s free-agent market was debated for years in advance. Its slow pace led to a long period of tension that has extended into early CBA negotiations. There was and is much at stake that goes beyond the bounds of the individual contracts that were negotiated. But those specific deals are also interesting and important standing alone — particularly those that involved significant, multi-year commitments.
We’ll check in on the thirteen players who signed for $30MM or more in total guaranteed money to see how those contracts look now that we’re more than two-thirds of the way through their first seasons. We’ve already gone through the five position players. Now, here are the eight pitchers who inked such deals:
Patrick Corbin, SP, Nationals (6 years, $140MM): Corbin has been just about everything the Nats hoped he’d be, turning in 141 2/3 innings of 3.43 ERA ball with 10.4 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 along with a 46.0% groundball rate. The numbers aren’t quite as exceptional as they were last year, but it’s promising to see that he has mostly maintained his breakout (and has even nudged his velocity back a bit toward his career average). It still feels like a pretty heavy price, but … let’s just say the D.C. org is probably pleased it made this investment rather than topping the Phillies to bring back Bryce.
Nathan Eovaldi, SP, Red Sox (4 years, $67.5MM): Yeah, I know he’s pitching as a reliever for the moment. But that’s not what he was signed for. And it doesn’t even capture the full scope of the problems. Eovaldi came back to the Boston bullpen from a long elbow-related absence. He’s pumping heat, as usual, but the results have been ugly all year long. Eovaldi does carry a 14:2 K/BB ratio in 7 2/3 innings as a reliever, but he has also been tagged for a .591 batting average in balls in play and seven earned runs in that capacity. Overall, his swinging-strike rate has dropped back to 8.8% after popping up to 10.7% last year. There’s still time for the 29-year-old to figure things out, but his performance thus far has left his 2018 uptick looking like an outlier.
Yusei Kikuchi, SP, Mariners (4 years, $56MM): MLBTR’s Connor Byrne took a closer look at Kikuchi just the other day, so I’ll point you to that rather than re-listing the core facts here. The key fact for the Seattle organization is that Kikuchi was always a long-term play rather than a win-now gambit, so there’s still hope they can help him learn and adjust. But the initial showing doesn’t admit of much promise.
Zack Britton, RP, Yankees (3 years, $39MM): The groundball artist formerly known as “Zach” doesn’t get swings and misses like he did in his prime, but he’s still excelling with a 2.30 ERA in 47 frames. Opposing hitters still haven’t figured out the power sinker. They’re putting the ball on the ground at a 78.7% clip and failing (particularly given this offensive environment) to put the ball over the fence (0.57 HR/9). Britton is again giving out more free passes than one might prefer, but he’s better equipped to erase them with double plays than any reliever in the history of baseball.
J.A. Happ, SP, Yankees (2 years, $34MM): The Yanks’ other significant pitching investment hasn’t worked out as well. Happ is through 115 innings of 5.24 ERA ball, with 7.1 K/9 against 2.3 BB/9 and a hefty 26 home runs allowed. The velo is fine. The swings and misses are at the same level as his successful 2018. But Happ just hasn’t been able to tamp down the hard contact and has been far too prone to the long ball. The positive is that the veteran southpaw is healthy and still seems to be exhibiting the same arsenal and general skillset that has worked for him in recent seasons.
Charlie Morton, SP, Rays (2 years, $30MM): And you thought Happ had a late-career renaissance. It’s still unclear why the Astros didn’t issue Morton a qualifying offer after his strong two-year run with the team. He has been even better in Tampa Bay, spinning 143 frames of 2.77 ERA pitching with 11.0 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, and a 49.1% groundball rate. Morton has allowed only eleven long balls, a markedly low figure for a starter in this offensive context. He’s a fantastic buy on this deal.
Jeurys Familia, RP, Mets (3 years, $30MM): I won’t lie. This struck me as a nice move for the Mets at the time it was made. Familia still hasn’t reached thirty years of age and was a solid late-inning asset in 2018. Unfortunately, he has fallen apart in his return to New York. Through 37 2/3 innings, he’s sporting an awful 6.69 ERA with 9.3 K/9 and 7.4 BB/9. Familia is having trouble getting opposing hitters to chase out of the zone, which is leading to the walks and explains the reduction in his swinging-strike rate (from 14.1% last year to 10.2%). He’s not throwing his four-seamer as hard as usual, but his heavily utilized sinker is still sitting in its typical 96+ mph range. While there’s still hope of a turnaround, it’s safe to say that rival clubs wouldn’t be anxious to take on the remainder of this deal.
Lance Lynn, SP, Rangers (3 years, $30MM): The most surprising $30MM+ contract is also arguably the best value of them all. The 32-year-old Lynn has had plenty of effective seasons in the majors, but he has by some measures never been better than in 2019. He’s throwing harder than ever and carrying a career-best 21.8% K%-BB% on a personal-high 12.3% swinging-strike rate. Statcast is impressed, crediting Lynn with a .279 xwOBA-against that’s even better than the .294 wOBA actually produced by opposing batters. It’s fair to wonder whether Lynn can keep up quite this level of work for the final two years of the deal, but the pact has obviously turned into quite the asset for the Texas organization.
I suppose we could’ve looked fully at Craig Kimbrel, who signed with the Cubs in mid-season after shedding draft compensation, but it seems premature to attempt an assessment just 14 appearances into his $43MM contract.