Best and worst MLB free agency signings of 2021 so far, including Mets and Yankees

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DJ LeMahieu, Taijuan Walker, George Springer
DJ LeMahieu, Taijuan Walker, George Springer

Once upon a time, Sandy Alderson got a little lucky en route to acquiring Yoenis Cespedes at the 2015 trade deadline. Will Taijuan Walker prove to be something of a full-season version of Cespedes, a vital piece for a Mets team that makes a run to the postseason?

We’ll see about that. So far Walker, as a last-minute signing before the start of spring training, has been a godsend for the Mets, and his presence highlights an offseason in which they did better in free agency than any team in baseball.

As far as the 2015 comparison, remember, the Mets acquired Cespedes only after the Carlos Gomez deal had been rescinded and attempts for Jay Bruce and Justin Upton proved fruitless. With the deadline at hand, Alderson had reservations about Cespedes’ character but felt he had to make some sort of splash.

Similarly, the Mets turned to Walker last winter only as a fallback option. They’d shown no interest in signing him for months, but after Trevor Bauer shunned them to sign with the Dodgers, then James Paxton preferred a reunion with the Mariners, and finally Seth Lugo needed elbow surgery, the Mets decided they had to make a significant move.

Walker was still available at that point only because other teams were skeptical of his ability to deliver consistency. As he revealed after his strong start Tuesday night, the two-year, $20 million deal he signed with the Mets was the only guaranteed offer he received.

It seems odd considering that he finished the 2020 season strong with the Toronto Blue Jays, going 2-1 with a 1.37 ERA in six starts after they acquired him from the Seattle Mariners at the trade deadline.

“Some of his underlying numbers weren’t as promising (as the ERA),” one scout told me on Thursday. “And he had just started leaning on that two-seamer that has really helped him. He’d always been a four-seam guy who didn’t have great command.”

Whatever the reasons, the Mets took a chance, and as a result, Walker has turned out to be the finishing touch to their productive offseason.

In ranking the best signings around the majors, in fact, I’d make the case the Mets have four of the Top 10. Well, sort of anyway, as I’ll explain.

And one key guy I left out, James McCann, could find his way onto the list eventually if he continues his improved hitting of late to go with his as-good-as-advertised work behind the plate.

With all of that in mind, here is my Top 10 list of best signings, with the rankings taking into account how much the player cost his new team – and a Bottom 5 of worst signings as well...

Jun 13, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Carlos Rodon (55) pitches in the third inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.
Jun 13, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Carlos Rodon (55) pitches in the third inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.

1) Carlos Rodon, Chicago White Sox

The lefty was non-tendered by the White Sox in December, available to every team, but wound up re-signing in Chicago for a one-year, $3 million deal. After a mediocre, injury-plagued six seasons with the Sox, he has emerged as a dominant starter, pitching to a 1.89 ERA while allowing a league-low 5.3 hits per nine innings and throwing a no-hitter.

2) Taijuan Walker, Mets

At age 28 (he’ll be 29 in August), Walker is having the type of success that was predicted for him earlier in his career, after he was taken as a supplemental pick in the first round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Three years after Tommy John surgery, he seems to have conquered his command issues, while adding the two-seamer that has helped him avoid the home run ball that plagued him early in his career. In fact, while pitching to a 2.12 ERA he has allowed only three home runs in 68 innings, the best ratio in the NL.

3) Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants

While Gausman showed signs in 2020 of living up to his once-hyped potential, the Giants’ decision to offer him the qualifying offer of $18.9 million for a year raised some eyebrows around the league. But he has more than delivered on their confidence so far, going 8-1 with a 1.51 ERA in 14 starts this season.

4) Mark Melancon, San Diego Padres

The Atlanta Braves must have thought he was getting old. They let him walk and while their bullpen has imploded too often, Melancon is having an outstanding season, leading the majors with 19 saves while pitching to a 1.86 ERA at age 36, at the cost of a one-year, $3 million contract.

5) Marcus Semien, Toronto Blue Jays

When the multi-year offers weren’t out there for him, Semien swallowed his ego and took a one-year, $18 million deal from the Jays to move from shortstop to second base, and the creative thinking has paid dividends. Semien is likely headed for the All-Star Game, putting up an .883 OPS that includes 16 home runs. And he’s helped make the Jays’ offense one of the most explosive in baseball.

Jun 17, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Marcus Stroman (0) punches his chest during the seventh inning against the Chicago Cubs at Citi Field.
Jun 17, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Marcus Stroman (0) punches his chest during the seventh inning against the Chicago Cubs at Citi Field.

6) Marcus Stroman, New York Mets

Stroman went into the offseason with no intention of accepting the $18.9 million qualifying offer, sure he’d get lucrative multi-year proposals. But teams were leery after he opted out of the 2020 season on the heels of a so-so finish to 2019, and so he decided to take the one-year deal and prove his worth again, which he’s doing by pitching to a 2.35 ERA, combining with Jacob deGrom and Walker to give the Mets a Big Three as good as any in the majors.

7) J.T. Realmuto, Philadelphia Phillies

The Mets were scared off by the early asking price and while they’re happy enough with McCann, he’s not in Realmuto’s class as the consensus best all-around catcher in baseball. Sidelined for two weeks with a hand injury, Realmuto has still had an impact, hitting .286 with an .860 OPS to go with his top-notch defense. He’s worth the five-year, $115.5 million deal the Phillies paid, as his price eventually came down after the Mets took themselves out of play.

8) Jonathan Villar/Kevin Pillar, New York Mets

They’re hard to separate, both unexpectedly playing vital roles to help the Mets survive a plague of injuries, so I paired them for this list. Each was signed as a depth piece, Villar for $3.55 million, Pillar for $5 million. But as an entry they’ve been so much more, delivering key hits, playing outstanding defense, and providing veteran leadership -- especially Pillar in the way he responded to getting hit in the face with a pitch in May.

9) Nelson Cruz, Minnesota Twins

It’s not Cruz’s fault that the Twins are a huge disappointment this season, as the soon-to-be-41-year old DH just keeps hitting. Signed to a one-year, $13 million contract, Cruz is hitting .296 with 14 home runs and a .921 OPS.

10) Trevor Bauer, Los Angeles Dodgers

Might have to revisit this if Bauer is affected significantly by Spin-gate, as it appears in his most recent starts. But overall, the right-hander has delivered for the Dodgers, pitching to a 2.64 ERA while tossing a nearly league-high 88 2/3 innings. Hard to expect too much more, even at $40 million per over two years before his op-out. The final verdict likely will come down to what Bauer does in the postseason.

Jun 12, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New York Yankees first baseman DJ LeMahieu (26) reacts after hitting a three-run home run during the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
Jun 12, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New York Yankees first baseman DJ LeMahieu (26) reacts after hitting a three-run home run during the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

And the Five Worst...

1) DJ Lemahieu, New York Yankees

The most shocking decline in baseball this year. From a league-leading 1.011 OPS to .680 right now. The Yanks thought they were smart to stretch his $90 million deal over six years, lowering the AAV. Maybe not.

2) Jackie Bradley Jr., Milwaukee Brewers

Looks like the Mets were wise not to sign him, as Bradley, who got a two-year, $24 million deal from the Brewers, is hitting .152 with a .496 OPS in 220 plate appearances. Excellent outfield defense isn’t enough to offset those numbers.

3) Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta Braves

Ozuna wasn’t hitting early, then he went on the IL with a broken finger and now his future is clouded by a domestic violence arrest in late May. Not what the Braves were hoping for when they signed him to a four-year, $65 million deal coming off his big 2020 season.

4) Didi Gregorius, Philadelphia Phillies

After keeping him on hold most of the offseason, the Phillies decided they needed Gregorius back if they were going to be serious contenders, signing him for two years and $28 million. But the shortstop got off to a poor start with the bat (.229 with a .630 OPS) and then hurt his elbow, sidelining him since May 13. In addition, his defensive metrics say he’s playing a subpar shortstop.

5) George Springer, Toronto Blue Jays

As much as I thought he was the right guy for the Mets to sign to play center field, I have to include him here simply because he’s missed all but four games because of leg injuries. Still think he’ll prove worthy of the six-year, $150 million he got from the Jays, but injuries are always part of the equation.