Memorial Day weekend is considered the unofficial start of summer, but in the baseball world, it serves as another important benchmark.
After two months of hearing the “it’s still early” refrain, we can finally begin to make some legitimate assessments of what’s transpired so far. And that means this is as good a time as any to look back at the biggest winter deals, put a few under the microscope, maybe see if they were as good (or bad) as we initially believed. Some of the results, with roughly 30 percent of this season already in the books, are surprising.
We’ll kick it off with the best moves, and work our way down to the not-so-great to a bit troubling. While it’s a little premature to write off any long-term contracts, slow starts are enough to make any general manager nervous — or put a manager on the hot seat. So this is how things shake out so far:
The good news for the Mets? Cespedes is every bit the middle-of-the-order wrecking ball they imagined, leading the majors with 15 home runs through Thursday and a .660 slugging percentage second only to David Ortiz. He also was third overall with 36 RBIs. The only downside, at least for the Mets, is that Cespedes is making himself a ton of cash as there is now a 99.9 percent chance he opts out after getting his $27.5-million for this season (the entire three-year deal is worth $75 million). Either way, it’s been money well spent. As Terry Collins said this week, he doesn’t even want to think about what life would be like without Cespedes in the Mets’ lineup.
The Cubs snatched Zobrist away from the Mets with an 11th-hour deal worth $56 million over four years, extreme for a 35-year-old utility man. But he’s done everything president Theo Epstein had in mind, batting .346 with an MLB-leading .453 on-base percentage. He’s also on pace to score more than 100 runs with 20-plus homers. Impressive production for a second baseman that also has logged three games in rightfield. The back end of the contract could end up biting the Cubs, but for now, Zobrist is looking like a pivotal piece in what may be a special season on the North Side.
The Mets were ready to move on without Murphy, who wanted to stay in Flushing, but what he’s doing now in D.C. has to cause a few ripples of regret for Sandy Alderson and Co. The Nats got him on a three-year, $37.5-million deal that’s looking like a bargain for a cleanup hitter flirting with .400 and a 1.043 OPS, 300 points higher than his career mark. Murphy’s glove remains a liability with five errors already at second base, where he made six in 69 games last season. But if he keeps doing this kind of damage at the plate, those gaffes will be easier to swallow.
Because they’re the Red Sox, flush with both prospects and cash, new president Dave Dombrowski could afford to send four highly-regarded minor-leaguers to the Padres for Kimbrel, who traveled east with a guaranteed $25 million left on his contract through 2017. Expensive, sure, but Kimbrel has converted 12 of 13 save chances with a 2.37 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 19 innings. Outfielder Manuel Margot, the top prospect in the deal, is batting .280 with three triples, three homers and 14 stolen bases in 44 games at Triple-A El Paso. The next, shortstop Javier Guerra, is batting just .188 with nearly twice as many strikeouts (61) as hits (32) in 44 games at High-A Lake Elsinore.
JOHNNY CUETO, JEFF SAMARDZIJA
We packaged these two together because they were at the core of the Giants’ costly rotation rebuild and both have been well worth the investment. Cueto, signed to a six-year, $130-million deal, seems thrilled by the move back to the NL at 7-1 with a 2.38 ERA in 10 starts. Samardzija (5 yrs, $90M) is 7-2 with a 2.54 ERA in 10 starts.
The Nationals chose to let the homegrown Zimmerman walk after giving $210 million to Max Scherzer, and he wound up signing a $110-million deal with the Tigers at a team-friendly length of five years. Zimmerman, the first Tommy John-surgery patient to get a nine-figure contract, has rewarded Detroit with a 7-2 start and 2.52 ERA. He was slowed this week, however, by a groin strain.
The Yankees were able to buy low on Chapman, knowing that a suspension was coming, and also had to be willing to stomach the fallout from his domestic abuse allegations. Since his return from the 30-game ban, however, Chapman is still throwing 100-103 mph and is 6-for-6 in save chances. Despite forming a dream pen with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, the real value for the Yankees should be on the trade front. Brian Cashman could look to flip the pending free agent before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.
Desmond, frozen-out all winter, waited until Feb. 29 to accept a one-year, $8-million deal from the Rangers — to play the outfield rather than shortstop, where he had logged 913 games over his eight-year career. That turned out to be a clever move for GM Jon Daniels as Desmond, splitting time between center and left, has batted .292 with an .803 OPS and six home runs for the second-place Rangers.
Fowler, at age 30, would have preferred a long-term deal this offseason, and seemingly had a three-year agreement with the Orioles. But landing back with the Cubs, on a one-year, $13-million contract, is working out pretty well for both parties as Fowler has a slash line of .318/.432/.529 with five homers and 32 runs scored in 45 games while playing superb centerfield defense.
Hill isn’t going to win the Cy Young, but if there was a special award for bargain-bin finds, he’d be in the running. The A’s snapped him up on a one-year, $6 million deal after Hill spent most of last season in the minors, including two starts for the Long Island Ducks. He’s 7-3 and his 2.18 ERA is the lowest in the American League among qualified starters.
NEIL WALKER, ASDRUBAL CABRERA
Just acquiring Walker alone would have been enough to make the Mets happy, but they also got the bonus of shipping Jon Niese, a surplus lefty no longer needed, to the Pirates in the even-up swap. Walker has been a huge help deflecting the Murphy attention, at least in Flushing, by hitting 11 homers and teaming with Cabrera to be a solid double-play combo. While there was some early skepticism regarding Cabrera’s two-year, $18.5-million deal, the switch-hitter’s .282 average and savvy play at short has been a badly-needed upgrade at the position.
The Yankees took on $41 million, through 2019, and also gave up valuable swingman Adam Warren in trading for Castro. But Cashman accomplished two missions in doing so: solidifying a shaky position since Robinson Cano’s departure and Castro, at 26, also helps the team get younger. With a slash line of .258/.294/.421 and six homers, Castro has supplied decent righthanded offense from the position. Now he just has to get smarter on the basepaths. Warren, meanwhile, has a 1.96 ERA in 17 appearances for the Cubs.
The Red Sox, desperate for an ace, gave Price a record $217-million contract, and let’s just say the adjustment process has probably been a little long for impatient Bostonians. Thanks to the Red Sox’s bruising offense, Price is sitting pretty at 7-1 despite a 5.34 ERA through his first 10 starts. He’s also had a surprising 1.219 WHIP, but there have been signs he’s turning the corner, winning his last three starts with a 2.57 ERA over that stretch.
The Diamondbacks were praised for aggressively swiping Greinke from the Dodgers’ apparent grasp, but his $206.5-million contract is hardly paying off through the first two months. Greinke is 5-3 with a 4.59 ERA, a sputtering start for the pitcher who finished runner-up to Jake Arrieta in the Cy Young balloting last season.
The Orioles blinked first in their negotiation with Davis and relented on a seven-year, $161-million deal that will take him to age 37. That’s the price tag on power these days, and Davis, with 10 homers through 45 games, is not quite on the pace that got him to 53 and 47 in two of the previous three seasons. He’s also batting .229 and headed toward another 200-strikeout year.
Through Friday, Heyward’s .276 slugging percentage was dead-last among the 71 qualified outfielders in the majors. The Cubs say they signed Heyward signed for his superior defense and ability to get on base, but $184 million is an exorbitant price to pay for those attributes. Heyward does have three Gold Gloves on his resume, and he’s a sabermetrics darling, but the Cubs must want a better return on this investment. He’d be getting booed off the field in New York.
Upton was in a similiar position to Cespedes this offseason. Frustrated with the market, he was on the verge of going the one-year route before the Tigers, apparently bidding against themselves, inked him to a 6-year, $132.75-million deal. He’s no Cespedes. Upton, sporting a .224/.269/.318 slash, is on pace for 231 strikeouts, which would shatter Mark Reynolds’ 2009 record of 223.
ON SECOND THOUGHT . . .
The Diamondbacks may have emptied the vault for Greinke, but they stripped the farm system for the disappointing Miller, whose trade package is now the infrastructure for the Braves’ rebuild. Miller is only 25, and is earning $4.35 million in his first arbitration year, but he’s off to an atrocious start at 1-7 with a 7.09 ERA. His 1.03 BB/K ratio is also tied for last with the Royals’ Yordano Ventura among the 103 qualified starting pitchers. Mercifully, the D-backs placed him on the disabled list Friday with a sprained right finger. For Miller, Arizona surrendered shortstop Dansby Swanson, the top overall pick in 2015, who is hitting .286 with three homers in 26 games since his promotion to Double-A. As well as Ender Inciarte, and excellent defensive outfielder, and Aaron Blair, a righthander (0-3, 7.59 ERA) learning on the job in Atlanta.
The Astros traded five pitching prospects, including the 2013 top overall pick Mark Appel, for Giles and minor-league shortstop Jonathan Arauz in the hope the former Phillies closer would be the final piece for a World Series push. But Giles, whose fastball has reached 100 mph, has a 5.75 ERA in mostly a setup role for Luke Gregerson as the Astros have stalled at 20-29. Appel wound up on the DL Friday with a shoulder strain, a disconcerting injury, but another piece of the deal, Vincent Velasquez, is 5-1 with a 2.75 ERA and 10.5 K/9 for the surprising Phillies.