Rebound on tap for these 2023 free agents?

January 14th, 2024

When a team invests in a player on the free-agent market, the hope is that the move will pay immediate dividends. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way.

There is a long list of marquee free-agent acquisitions from last offseason who didn’t have seasons to remember in 2023 and will be seeking better results in Year 2. That includes Mets closer , who signed the richest deal ($102 million over five years) for a reliever in MLB history but never threw a pitch this past season after suffering a torn patellar tendon in his right knee during the World Baseball Classic.

The 10 free-agent additions below also qualify. Unlike Díaz, we saw plenty of these players in 2023. Some even managed to make positive contributions to their teams. But all are being counted on to make significant improvements during the second year of their contracts.

, 1B, Astros
Less than a month after winning their second World Series title in six years, the Astros took a big swing in free agency, replacing longtime starting first baseman with Abreu -- one of the best available hitters on the open market. The veteran slugger spent the first nine seasons of his career with the White Sox, racking up numerous accolades -- including the 2020 AL MVP Award -- and slashing .292/.354/.506 with 243 homers and 863 RBIs before joining Houston on a three-year, $58.5 million deal.

While Abreu played 141 games and drove in 90 runs in his first season with the Astros, the rest of his numbers plummeted. He finished with career lows in batting average (.237), on-base percentage (.296) and slugging (.383) and had an OPS+ (87) below 117 for the first time. Abreu did improve down the stretch and had a big postseason as Houston reached the American League Championship Series for the seventh straight year, but he has a lot to prove entering his age-37 campaign.

, SP, Angels
Anderson has been close to a league-average pitcher during his career, but he reached a new stratosphere under the Dodgers’ tutelage in 2022. The left-hander earned his first All-Star selection and finished the season with a personal-best 2.57 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP over 178 2/3 innings. The underlying metrics backed up his performance -- Anderson was among the best in baseball at limiting loud contact and walks, which outweighed his below-average strikeout rate.

The Angels bought in on the improvements, striking early in free agency and signing Anderson to a three-year, $39 million contract. Anderson ended up regressing across the board in 2023, however, posting a 5.43 ERA with a 1.49 WHIP and a 1.86 K/BB ratio across 141 innings as the Halos missed the postseason for the ninth straight year. The Angels have some much bigger issues to worry about entering 2024, especially after losing to the Dodgers in free agency, but seeing Anderson improve in Year 2 would at least provide some solace for an organization looking for any semblance of positivity.

, OF, White Sox
Chicago’s decision to sign Benintendi to a five-year, $75 million contract -- the largest deal in franchise history -- seemed curious at the time and looks even worse now. After looking like a potential star in his early years with Boston, the left fielder managed just a 105 OPS+ from 2019-22. And while he did notch a 120 OPS+ in his final year before free agency, that number was fueled by a high BABIP and came with a notable lack of power (5 HR, .399 SLG).

Benintendi’s first season with the South Siders saw him tumble to an 87 OPS+, as he hit .262 with five homers and a .356 SLG over 151 games. Making matters worse, Chicago was unable to rebound from a disappointing 81-81 record, instead going the other way and finishing 61-101, which led to a plethora of trades and wholesale changes in the front office. The White Sox now find themselves staring at a multiyear rebuild, but Benintendi likely isn’t going anywhere, given his contract.

, SS, Padres
After reportedly making serious pursuits of and , the Padres stunned the baseball world when they pivoted to Bogaerts and inked the veteran shortstop to an 11-year, $280 million contract, far exceeding even the most optimistic of projections. Although his final numbers -- 19 homers, a 120 OPS+ and 4.4 WAR (per Baseball-Reference) -- were perfectly solid, a strong September made his season look better than it actually was. Bogaerts hit just .258 with a .721 OPS through the end of August, contributing to the large deficit the Padres faced in the NL Wild Card race, and his turnaround came too late to alter San Diego’s trajectory.

On the heels of their disappointing 82-80 finish, the Padres have tightened the purse strings this offseason. Their biggest move? Trading away superstar outfielder to replenish some of the pitching depth they lost in free agency, which puts further pressure on Bogaerts to be more consistent at the plate in 2024

, OF, Giants
A consolation prize after the Giants failed to lure Judge to the Bay Area, Conforto joined San Francisco on a two-year, $36 million deal (with an opt-out after 2023) last January. Although he missed all of 2022 while rehabbing from right shoulder surgery, Conforto showed no signs of rust in the early going last season, producing 12 homers and an .822 OPS over his first 53 games in a Giants uniform. However, he was unable to keep it up, hitting just three homers and posting a .636 OPS in his final 72 games.

After the season, Conforto decided against opting out, remaining with the Giants for one more year on an $18 million salary. He’ll enter 2024 having hit .235 with 29 homers and a 100 OPS+ over 250 games dating back to the start of 2021, making this a pivotal campaign for a player who will turn 31 in March.

, C, Cardinals
Contreras’ first year with the Cardinals after signing a five-year, $87.5 million deal was uneven to say the least. Brought in to replace the retired , who made 10 All-Star teams and won nine Gold Glove Awards over 19 years behind the plate for St. Louis, Contreras got off to a rocky start on both sides of the ball in 2023.

With their pitching staff struggling, the Cardinals stripped Contreras of his catching duties less than six weeks into the season and made him their everyday designated hitter, a decision they’d reverse course on before the end of the month. Through 69 games with the club, he had a .652 OPS, a far cry from the .808 OPS he posted in seven seasons with the Cubs. While the Cards limped to a 91-loss season, Contreras eventually hit his stride at the plate, posting a .346/.442/.615 slash with 12 homers over his final 56 games. Defense is never going to be Contreras' calling card, but his bat could play a big role in a resurgent year for St. Louis in 2024.

, SS, Twins
Last offseason was a whirlwind for Correa, who opted out of his deal with the Twins after one year and saw reported contracts with the Giants and Mets fall through due to concerns raised during his physical. He ultimately returned to the Twins on a six-year, $200 million contract, with four vesting options that could keep him in Minnesota through 2032.

Although Correa was hampered by plantar fasciitis throughout the year and finished with 1.4 WAR and a 94 OPS+ over 135 games, the Twins won the AL Central and went on to end their 18-game postseason losing streak, with their prized shortstop playing a pivotal role in October. With better health, we should see Correa's production rebound in 2024, which will be his age-29 season.

, SP, Yankees
The Yankees have been aggressively shopping for starting pitching help this offseason -- they reportedly pursued  and were linked to , and before reaching a two-year deal (per a source) with -- in large part because the marquee arm they signed last year was such a disappointment in Year 1. Rodón, who signed a six-year, $162 million deal with the Bronx Bombers, began last season on the injured list due to a left forearm strain and was further delayed by a back injury before making his team debut on July 7.

Rodón went on to record a 6.85 ERA over 14 starts, with New York going 3-11 in those games. The left-hander also had regrettable interactions with jeering fans in Anaheim in July and Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake in September, further tarnishing his first season in pinstripes. Despite the addition of Stroman, the Yankees need Rodón to be the No. 2 starter they thought they were getting when they signed him on the heels of a spectacular two-year stretch (2.67 ERA, 12.2 K/9) with the White Sox and Giants.

, SP, Cubs
Taillon’s career has been filled with numerous ups and downs. The right-hander was selected second overall by the Pirates in the 2010 MLB Draft but took six years to reach MLB, in part because he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 before throwing a big league pitch. After a promising rookie campaign in 2016, his second MLB season was interrupted when he needed to undergo treatment for cancer. Then, following his best season as a Major Leaguer in 2018, he suffered another UCL injury that required Tommy John surgery seven starts into 2019.

Taillon persevered through all of that to secure a four-year, $68 million deal with the Cubs last offseason, but his triumph in free agency was followed by yet another dip. The right-hander posted a career-worst 4.84 ERA in his first year with Chicago, though a 3.38 ERA over his final 16 outings does offer hope that he can rebound in 2024.

, SS, Phillies
A torrid finish salvaged what was shaping up to be a rough first season in Philadelphia for Turner, who joined the club on an 11-year, $300 million contract. The shortstop recorded a .236/.289/.367 slash through 108 games in 2023, nowhere near his lifetime .302/.355/.487 line entering 2023. Turner, though, began to turn things around after receiving a show of support from the Philadelphia faithful on Aug. 4. He went on to hit .339 with 16 homers, 41 RBIs and a 1.069 OPS over his final 47 games, a span in which the Phillies posted a 28-19 record. Turner also had a perfect 30-for-30 year on the basepaths, setting a record for the most stolen bases in a season without being thrown out.

The Phillies finished 14 games behind the Braves in the NL East in 2023, but with Turner firing on all cylinders again and  back to full strength after missing part of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, Philadelphia could close the gap this year.