Did last year's MLB free-agent class live up to the money?

The 2018 free-agent period was highly anticipated until it actually happened.

In comparison, this offseason already looks like it’s going in fast forward. We’re days away from the 2019 Winter Meetings but Yasmani Grandal (Chicago White Sox) and Zack Wheeler (Philadelphia Phillies) cashed in on deals that were larger than all but three of the free-agent pacts that were signed last offseason. 

Although it was slow to develop, there were still a number of big-money deals signed before last opening day. But they weren’t all winners. In fact, the bargain bin proved to be quite productive, as six of the eight players to lead the 2018 free-agent class in bWAR did not sign the top-10 biggest deals of the offseason.

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Here is a look at those that did, reviewing the player and the deal after the first year. 

Bryce Harper inked the largest free-agent contract in MLB history last February. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Bryce Harper inked the largest free-agent contract in MLB history last February. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Bryce Harper | OF | Philadelphia Phillies | Deal: 13 Years, $330 million
2019 Stats: 4.2 bWAR, .260/.372/.510, 35 HR, 114 RBIs

The Phillies’ commitment to Harper represented the largest contract in baseball history until Mike Trout re-upped with the Los Angeles Angels for $100 million more. Surely, some patience is required before proper judgement of a 13-year agreement can be made. But Philadelphia also made moves signaling their intention to win immediately. Harper’s first year with the Phillies didn’t come close to resembling his dominant MVP season in 2015. He struck out a career-high 178 times and missed out on being named an All-Star for only the second time in his eight-year career. 

But he didn’t exactly fall shy of expectations. Harper set a personal-best in RBIs and surpassed 30-homers for the third time in his career. The Phillies missed out on the postseason, but Harper was certainly not part of the problem. The 27-year-old’s deal has no opt-outs and a full no-trade clause. Philadelphia already showed a willingness to build around him, trading for J.T. Realmuto and signing Andrew McCutchen. They’ve also exhibited a lack of patience by letting go of manager Gabe Kapler after two years. Harper is not part of the problem in Philadelphia -- there’s still plenty of “stupid money” left to throw around. After a year, the pact still looks like a good one.

Manny Machado | INF | San Diego Padres | Deal: 10 Years, $300 million (5-year opt-out)
2019 Stats: 3.1 bWAR, .256/.334/.462, 32 HR, 85 RBIs

The Padres seem to be doing the rebuild thing the right way. They’ve got an incredibly talented group of young major leaguers and their prospect crop is among the best in the league. Also, a willingness to commit $444 million to a pair of All-Stars should help move things along. But their first year with Machado looked a lot like their past eight seasons without him. Their last-place finish wasn’t entirely Machado’s doing, though he wasn’t the best version of himself in 2019. He posted a career-low in average, a career-high 128 strikeouts, and he led the majors with 24 double plays — which was two less than his career-high from the previous season. But he also recorded his fifth 30-homer season, and he was second to rookie sensation Fernando Tatis Jr. on the Padres in bWAR. Much like the Phils, San Diego moved on from their manager, Andy Green, after 2019. And also like the Phils, there’s a lot of roster restructuring left to do. It’s too early to call this deal a dud, but neither Machado nor the Padres can really afford multiple repeats of 2019. 

Patrick Corbin | LHP | Washington Nationals | Deal: 6 Years, $140 million
2019 Stats: 5.4 bWAR, 14-7, 3.25 ERA, 238 SO

Mission accomplished. There’s not much more to it. Washington won the first World Series in franchise history in Corbin’s first year with the club. Obviously, Corbin wasn’t the sole contributor to the championship victory. But it obviously paid off for general manager Mike Rizzo to spend big money on a layer that wasn’t brought on to carry the pitching staff. And Corbin’s impact was significant. He had a personal-best 141 ERA+, made more than 30 starts for the fourth time in his career and struck out 10.6 M over 202 innings. Corbin was a workhorse in the regular season, then showed off some versatility in October. He was used out of the bullpen in five out of his eight appearances, including three scoreless innings in Game 7 of the World Series. But it’ll be tougher and tougher to return to the World Series as the years progress. Corbin’s annual salary climbs higher each season, and for some reason — massive MASN settlements notwithstanding —  the Nats are strapped for cash. Washington is already in danger of losing Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg to free agency. But, ultimately, the immediate World Series makes this a fantastic signing.

Nathan Eovaldi | RHP | Boston Red Sox | Deal: 4 Years, $68 million
2019 Stats: 0.1 bWAR, 2-1, 5.99 ERA, 70 SO

It’s difficult to judge a season decimated by injuries. After Eovaldi helped Boston to a World Series victory in 2018, the club rewarded the journeyman with a longer-term deal. But an elbow injury caused him to miss three months in 2019 and forced him to the bullpen upon for 11 appearances before a very uneven return to the rotation. Eovaldi registered a 6.21 ERA over the final eight starts of the season, and the Red Sox finished 12 games out of a wild card spot. Eovaldi did some great work out of the bullpen, allowing one run or fewer in nine relief outings. It wasn’t all bad in 2019 — his 9.3 K/9 was the highest in his career. But the Red Sox currently lack the rotation depth to move Eovaldi to the bullpen full-time, and only one reliever (Wade Davis) currently makes at least $17 million per year. There’s immediate cause for concern because the Red Sox are pretty much stuck with Eovaldi, but a full, healthy season could bring about a brighter future. 

Yusei Kikuchi struggled in his first season with Seattle after eight years in the NPB. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
Yusei Kikuchi struggled in his first season with Seattle after eight years in the NPB. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Yusei Kikuchi | LHP | Seattle Mariners | Deal: 4 Years, $56 million
2019 Stats: 0.5 bWAR, 6-11, 5.46 ERA, 116 SO

There’s a period of adjustment for players coming to a new country, both personally and professionally. Turns out, Kikuchi’s is going to take longer than a full season. In eight seasons in Japan, Kikuchi never posted an ERA above 3.97. But he fell flat in his first year stateside. Praised before he signed for his deceptive delivery, Kikuchi really didn’t fool anybody. He gave up 36 home runs and 195 hits in 161 2/3 innings. The Mariners couldn’t diagnose Kikuchi’s issues as time rolled on, and he finished with a 6.84 ERA over his final six starts. Seattle clearly expected more out of its second-highest paid player. If the Mariners are in full rebuild mode, Kikuchi may not be around for the good years. His contract has a few unorthodox clauses. There’s a player option for 2022, as well as a four-year team option that could extend his deal to more than $100 million value. Kikuchi is a long way from making that a reality.

A.J. Pollock, OF | Los Angeles Dodgers | Deal: 4 Years, $55 million (3-year opt out)
2019 Stats: 0.2 bWAR, .266/.327/.468, 15 HR, 47 RBIs

If Pollock can stay healthy and get regular at-bats, it allows the Dodgers to do a few different things. A near-three-month stint on the injured list with elbow infection turned Pollock into an expensive fourth outfielder. Alex Verdugo emerged as a legitimate option on one of the best teams in baseball. But reports are that the Dodgers are shopping Joc Pederson, and Pollock was already Los Angeles’ best righty-swinging outfielder. So he’ll have an opportunity to get back to regular playing time. The bulk of Pollock’s 2019 salary was from a signing bonus ($12 million), so the Dodgers will have to tighten their belts to accommodate Pollock in 2020. There is cause for immediate concern, though Pollock did perform well when healthy. He hasn’t played more than 113 games since 2015, though some of those injuries were freak accidents. But the Dodgers paid for the potential of what a full-season could bring.

Andrew McCutchen | OF | Philadelphia Phillies | Deal: 3 Years, $50 million (Club Option)
2019 Stats: 1.4 bWAR, .256/.378/.457, 10 HR, 29 RBIs

McCutchen tore his ACL before playing his 60th game of the season. But before the injury, the 33-year-old continued to steadily decline since his MVP season in 2013. The fan-favorite McCutchen was an easy sell, and the upside potential was tremendous. But the immediate injury — although it was a bit of a freak accident — should caution teams against laying out big money for players of his age. The Phils are within their contention window, and McCutchen hopes to be back for this year. A quick return, and the additional pieces Philadelphia added should shine a brighter light on this deal.

Zack Britton | LHP | New York Yankees | Deal: 3 Years, $39 million (Club Option)
2019 Stats: 2.4 bWAR, 3-1, 1.91 ERA, 53 SO

This past season was a snap-back year for Britton. He made the most appearances since the 2016 season, in which he was easily the best reliever in baseball. His microscopic ERA was actually the third-best of his career. Britton’s strikeout figures ironically diminished after he changed the spelling of his first name. But he still proved he can be a closer in this league, which makes him that much more valuable in his actual role as a setup man for the Yankees. New York won 103 games and had the ninth-best bullpen ERA in baseball. The Yankees were in danger of losing their closer, Aroldis Chapman, had he exercised his opt-out. But Britton provided them with insurance. 

J.A. Happ | LHP | New York Yankees | Deal: 2 Years, $34 million (Vesting Option)
2019 Stats: 1.2 bWAR, 12-8, 4.91 ERA, 140 SO

While the bullpen was a strength for the Yankees, the rotation seemed to be their biggest weakness. The Yankees elected to bring back Happ instead of Lance Lynn, who posted a 7.6 bWAR with Texas in 2019, the highest among the 2018-19 free-agent class. They also paid him more money than Lynn and Charlie Morton, a Cy Young finalist for division rival Tampa Bay. So, on the surface, it seems like this deal was a mistake. But Happ performed well enough to fit in the back of the Yankees’ rotation. He would have made for a solid depth addition, and he hit free agency at a good time, when the market was thin on starters. So the Yankees were more or less stuck with him, especially considering Lynn and Morton pitched well above expectations. New York is reportedly looking to make a huge, perhaps even Gerrit Cole-sized splash to improve their rotation, and there’s probably nothing Happ could have done last year to throw that plan off course.

Michael Brantley lived up to his contract in 2019 for the Houston Astros. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Michael Brantley lived up to his contract in 2019 for the Houston Astros. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Michael Brantley | OF | Houston Astros | Deal: 2 Years, $32 million
2019 Stats: 4.6 bWAR, .311/.372/.503, 22 HR, 90 RBIs

Brantley likely would have gotten a deal that similarly resembled McCutchen’s if not for his lengthy injury history. He was limited to 111 games in 2016-17 but his return to All-Star form with the Indians in 2018 foreshadowed his first year in Houston. Brantley posted his highest batting average since 2014 and set a new personal best in homers. He was less effective on the basepaths and failed to record double-digit stolen base totals for the first time in a full season. But the deal looks like a bargain, especially for a team that won the AL pennant twice in the past three years. Houston doesn’t have much major league outfield depth, especially after they parted with Jake Marisnick in a trade before the winter meetings. But if Brantley can repeat his performance in 2020, he should remain in high demand when he next hits the market as a 34-year-old. 

bWAR Leaders in 2018 FA class

Lance Lynn, Texas Rangers: 7.6
Josh Donaldson, Atlanta Braves: 6.1
D.J. LeMahieu, New York Yankees: 6.0
Patrick Corbin, Washington Nationals: 5.4
Charlie Morton, Tampa Bay Rays: 5.0
Michael Brantley, Houston Astros: 4.6
Nelson Cruz, Minnesota Twins: 4.3
Eduardo Escobar, Arizona Diamondbacks: 4.2
Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals: 4.2

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