Every player dreams of free agency. It is where the big bucks — or at least bigger bucks — are often realized. In most cases, that megamillions deal alleviates any financial concerns for that player and their loved ones for the rest of their life. A life-changing deal.
Because of that, free agency is always a win for the player, at least at the outset. The player chooses a team from a group of suitors that he wants to play for and is guaranteed to earn the amount they sign for since MLB contracts are totally guaranteed.
So what makes a good contract? To me, it means a team and the player benefit similarly from a deal. It isn’t too long that a contract becomes onerous to a club in its final years, yet the player is compensated at or above his production level.
Thus, you will not see in this Aaron Judge’s nine-year, $360 million contract with the New York Yankees, nor Trea Turner’s 11-year, $300 million deal. Xander Bogaerts and his 11-year, $280 million pact? Nope. With annual average values of $40 million, $27.27 million and $25.45 million, those deals by today’s standards won’t look good in the last few years they are on the books. Judge will be 39, Turner 40, and Bogaerts 41 in the final season of their respective deals. Judge will be relegated to DH duties and hit 20 to 25 homers. Turner and Bogaerts will likely be left fielders or part-time infielders.
The fact that all three signed with playoff teams that should be in the mix for the next couple seasons is also a plus. This isn’t the NBA, where two players can sign with a team and instantly make it a contender. It takes more than that. Signing with a team that has a shot at the playoffs also factored into my decisions.
There are still a few big-name free agents yet to get their big payoffs this offseason, but here are the deals I think give the most value for both sides:
Justin Verlander: 3 years, $120M w/Mets
Kodai Senga: 5 years, $75M w/Mets
José Quintana: 2 years, $26M w/Mets
First of all, no, I am not a New York Mets fan. But I do like what the Mets did as a whole to revamp their rotation. With only Max Scherzer and Carlos Carrasco set to return to the starting five, there was significant work to be done in order for the Mets to remain a contender in the National League East. Jacob deGrom, Chris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker were free agents and ended up elsewhere, with deGrom the biggest void to replace, at least from a talent standpoint.
In adding Justin Verlander, Kodai Senga and José Quintana, the Mets stabilized their rotation for the next two seasons. Verlander, coming off Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss most of the 2020 season and all of 2021, won the 2022 American League Cy Young Award in convincing fashion, going 18-4 with a 1.75 ERA with 29 walks and 185 strikeouts in 175 innings. Doing so as a 39-year-old normally wouldn’t result in a $40 million-a-year contract, but the fact that Tommy John surgery gave him a refreshed arm and what he has accomplished (two other Cy Youngs and an AL MVP) makes the risk worth it.
While many often use the phrase “professional hitter” to describe a player who just does his job, Quintana might be the definition of that as a pitcher. After struggling in 2021 after signing with the Los Angeles Angels and then being claimed by the San Francisco Giants, Quintana signed a one-year, $2 million deal and righted himself in 2022 with the Pittsburgh Pirates and earned a trade to the St. Louis Cardinals. In 32 starts during his age-33 season, Quintana went 6-7 with a 2.93 ERA in 165⅔ innings. The left-hander doesn’t go deep into games, but he does provide consistency. At $13 million a year, that is well under market value for the Mets, a team that can afford to make a mistake at that price.
The unknown is Senga. A true free agent from Japan (not through the posting system), Senga will be 30 years old when he throws his first pitch for the Mets. The right-hander’s fastball has been clocked as high as 102 mph. In 2022 with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, Senga had a 1.94 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 144 innings. He went 87-44 with a 2.59 ERA in 11 seasons in Japan and has a devastating pitch called a “ghost fork” that helped him lead the Hawks to four straight Japan Series titles (2017-2020). But how does that all transition to the U.S. and MLB, where the workload is more than one start a week and the ball is slightly larger? The workload is balanced by throwing fewer pitches (closer to 100 instead of 140). Senga figures to slot in at No. 3 in the Mets’ rotation behind Scherzer and Verlander. If he produces above what is expected, Senga has an opt-out clause after three seasons and can earn another payday in free agency. The $15 million AAV is another risk worth taking and could elevate the Mets’ rotation into an elite unit, with Carrasco and Quintana as the back end of the rotation — at least for the moment and regardless of the big-picture budget ramifications for owner Steve Cohen.
José Abreu: 3 years, $58.5 million w/Astros
Considering the qualifying offer this offseason is $19.65 million, a player of José Abreu’s quality — even entering his age-36 season — is worth that on a short-term deal. After all, the right-handed slugging first baseman has earned AL MVP votes in seven of his nine seasons in MLB, including winning the award in the shortened 2020 season. Now throw him in to a lineup such as the recently crowned World Series champion Houston Astros and this contract could be a bargain.
Abreu slashed .304/.778/.446 with 15 homers and 78 RBIs for the underachieving Chicago White Sox in 2022. Still, that was good enough for Abreu to have an OPS+ of 133. Yes, Abreu at this point is a more costly replacement for Yuli Gurriel, who is two years older and coming off a down season. But between his career slash line of .292/.354/.506 and 30-homer potential, he provides better protection around Yordan Alvarez as well as top-shelf production.
At this point, Abreu is chasing a ring and what better place to land than in Houston, which has made the World Series in four of the last six seasons, winning twice. Even if Abreu starts to slide in production in the third year of the contract, paying just a shade under $20 million based on AAV will be tolerable if he hits in the first two seasons of the deal.
Christian Vázquez: 3 years, $30M w/Twins
To call Christian Vázquez a late bloomer would be an understatement. He was a ninth-round pick as a 17-year-old in 2008 out of Puerto Rico and finally broke into the majors with the Boston Red Sox during his age-23 season in 2014. Since then, all he has done is hit and provide solid defense. His offensive abilities are why the Astros went out and traded for Vázquez at the deadline, as their production behind the dish was abysmal despite the terrific defense.
Vázquez slashed .261/.310/.386 between the Red Sox and Astros, with nine homers and 52 RBIs in 119 games. They aren’t necessarily All-Star numbers, but at least the batting average is above league norms. The Twins needed a significant acquisition following the moves they made this past spring. Minnesota expected to be a contender in the AL Central and were for most of the season before finishing third at 78-84. Vázquez certainly provides an upgrade over Gary Sánchez, particularly defensively, in what the Twins see as a timeshare with Ryan Jeffers, the team’s former top prospect.
Even for a small-market team such as the Twins, a $10 million AAV deal isn’t a big outlay, especially after losing Carlos Correa to the San Francisco Giants. Vázquez figures to not only be a good guide for Jeffers, but a nice clubhouse presence for the Spanish-speaking members of the pitching staff.
Taijuan Walker: 4 years, $72M w/Phillies
Once carrying the label of injury-plagued, Taijuan Walker has bounced back from Tommy John surgery in 2018 and proved to be a solid option for any starting rotation. And that is what the Philadelphia Phillies are banking on the right-hander to be, even if the price tag is a little higher than expected.
Walker over the last three seasons has stayed healthy, making 11 starts in the 60-game 2020 season and 29 each of the last two years. It is the 2021 and 2022 seasons with the New York Mets that made the former top prospect of the Seattle Mariners a valuable commodity on this year’s free-agent market. In particular, his 2022 numbers of a 12-5 record and 3.49 ERA with 49 walks and 132 strikeouts in 157⅓ innings showed his durability. Slotting somewhere behind Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler won’t force big expectations on Walker, yet the four-year commitment entering his age-30 season will give the right-hander stability he hasn’t known since breaking into the majors with the Mariners in 2013.
If Walker replicates the numbers of his last two seasons with the Mets, the $18 million AAV will be a bargain for the Phillies and give Walker one more bite at the free-agency apple. If not, the Phillies, who have gone all-in during recent seasons, can afford an $18 million mistake as long as there is some production from Walker.
Chris Bassitt: 3 years, $63 million w/Jays
He will likely never be a good candidate for the Hall of Fame, but if you take a good look at Chris Bassitt’s numbers, he pitches like an ace. A 16th-round draft pick by the White Sox in 2011 out of college at Akron, quickly made the majors, debuting in 2014. All he has done is post a career 3.45 ERA in 136 games, averaging 2.8 walks and 8.2 strikeouts per game. He did most of that work with the Oakland A’s, which is why he probably flew under the radar for most folks, but was with the Mets in 2022, winning 15 games with a 3.42 ERA.
Bassitt was the fifth-best starter on the open market, per MLB Trade Rumors, which predicted a three-year deal but a total package of $60 million. So the Toronto Blue Jays getting Bassitt for $21 million AAV is right in line with MLBTR. Like Senga and Walker on their respective staffs, Bassitt figures to be a No. 3 in the Jays’ rotation, behind Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman.
One thing that may have worked against Bassitt’s value is he will be entering his age-34 season. But the Jays, with a wealth of young position players, are a contender in a very competitive AL East and starting pitching depth could make a huge difference in whether a team makes the playoffs. Bassitt did have Tommy John surgery that wiped out his entire 2017 season, but has made almost all of his starts over the last four seasons. Bassitt did get a raise of more than $4 million over what he made with the Mets in 2022, but the deal seems club-friendly.
Josh Bell: 2 years, $33 million w/Guardians
This could be one of those sneaky good deals for both sides. Josh Bell has seemingly been on the cusp of being a star slugger, having posted a 37-homer, 116-RBI season in 2019 and a 27-homer year in 2021, the first with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the second with the Washington Nationals. He was a secondary part of the trade that sent Juan Soto from the Nationals to the San Diego Padres.
Now Bell will have a chance to show what he can do with the Cleveland Guardians, the defending AL Central champs who took the New York Yankees to five games in the AL Division Series before being eliminated. The Guardians didn’t have any big holes to fill this offseason, so Bell provides another level of protection for José Ramírez and burgeoning slugger Oscar Gonzalez.
Bell has an opt-out after the first year, so if he has a monster season, he can hit free agency again next offseason. The Guardians have a projected Opening Day payroll of about $90 million, per Cot’s, so the risk is minimal is Bell flounders for both seasons. That seems unlikely. Bell attributed his struggles after the trade to the Padres to trying to hit too many home runs. He shouldn’t feel that pressure in Cleveland and could thrive.
Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter)
Good writeup, but I thought Bassitt got $63 million for 3 years?