Execs rank top free-agent signings, and No. 1 is not who you think

May 7th, 2024

The baseball world spends several months each winter monitoring the free-agent market, waiting to see which teams will spend what is necessary to improve their rosters with the best talent available.

Some signings work out splendidly, while others backfire due to a variety of circumstances, injury and underperformance chief among them.

That got us thinking. A little more than one month into the 2024 season, which free-agent signings have already paid dividends for clubs looking to capture a postseason spot with the ultimate hopes of winning the World Series?

We posed that question to two dozen executives, who gave a wide range of answers.

Shota Imanaga, Cubs (9 votes)
Shohei Ohtani, Dodgers (4 votes)
Jack Flaherty, Tigers (1 vote)
Sonny Gray, Cardinals (1 vote)
Jordan Hicks, Giants (1 vote)
Reynaldo López, Braves (1 vote)
Seth Lugo, Royals (1 vote)
Albert Suárez, Orioles (1 vote)
Spencer Turnbull, Phillies (1 vote)
Tyler Glasnow, Dodgers (trade/extension) (1 vote)
Zack Wheeler, Phillies (extension) (1 vote)
Too early to tell (1 vote)

Imanaga was the most common answer, which is hardly a surprise given how well the 30-year-old has performed for the Cubs.

“The strike-throwing and stuff quality have been strengths to stabilize an unsettled rotation,” an AL executive said. “A number of teams are probably thinking ‘what if?’ right now.”

In his first six starts, Imanaga is 5-0 with a 0.78 ERA, posting elite numbers in both chase percentage and walk percentage.

“This level of performance isn’t sustainable,” an AL executive said. “But it looks like Imanaga is at least a [3-WAR] pitcher in the near-term and the cost wasn’t extreme.”

As good as Imanaga has been, when you factor in his contract -- the Cubs signed him for four years and $53 million, a deal that can be worth up to $80 million over five years depending on a number of factors – the signing has the potential to be a steal for Chicago.

“Imanaga has been impressive, and it wasn’t a crazy contract, especially compared to others,” an NL executive said. “It’s fair to say he’s exceeding expectations based on market value.”

Based on total guaranteed dollars, Imanaga’s deal was the 11th-largest contract awarded in free agency this winter, with fellow starters Yoshinobu Yamamoto (12 years, $325 million), Aaron Nola (seven years, $172 million), Eduardo Rodriguez (four years, $80 million), Sonny Gray (three years, $75 million) and Blake Snell (two years, $62 million) among those landing bigger deals.

“He was well known and heavily evaluated in anticipation of being posted, but he was in the shadow of Yamamoto’s spotlight,” an AL executive said. “He’s five years older [than Yamamoto], and the Cubs stepped up.”

One executive said the Imanaga contract “looks like a bargain” to this point.

“The only pitcher signed for what at the time seemed a reasonable amount,” an AL executive said. “Not hindsight, but we evaluated him very positively and good for them for stepping up.”

The only other player named by multiple executives was Shohei Ohtani, who landed a staggering 10-year, $700 million contract from the Dodgers. This deal was unique, of course, thanks to a massive deferral of $680 million, reducing the present-day value to approximately $460 million.

Even accounting for the present-day value, Ohtani’s deal is the biggest in baseball history, but as one AL executive put it, it’s still the best signing of the year “because he’s the best player on the planet.” Another AL decision-maker hesitated to answer Ohtani, because it “feels like an unfair answer to this question.”

“He’s the best hitter in the game and eventually he’ll pitch for them, too,” an NL executive said. “If you have the money, which the Dodgers do, adding a bat like that is a no-brainer.”

It’s interesting to note that, other than Ohtani, every player named by executives was a starting pitcher, showing the value that position has to those in front-office jobs.

Here’s a sampling of thoughts from executives on some of the other pitchers who received votes:

“Reynaldo López could be quite a steal for Atlanta if they successfully continue his conversion back into the rotation.” – AL executive

“[Seth] Lugo is exactly what a team like the Royals needed to help steady the ship for young players.” – AL executive

“It’s hard to believe [Sonny] Gray has taken things up another level from 2023, but his performance so far has been nothing short of dominant.” – AL executive

“I don’t think [Albert] Suárez is going to be as good as we’ve seen, but he may be a decent depth starter and [the Orioles] got him for nothing.” – AL executive

Two executives voted for a pair of acquisitions that didn’t come from the free-agent market, but rather a trade and a contract extension, tabbing Tyler Glasnow (traded from the Rays to the Dodgers, then given a five-year, $136.5 million extension) and Zack Wheeler (three-year, $126 million extension) as the best deals of the offseason.

“They got a huge bargain,” an AL executive said of the Phillies’ deal with Wheeler.