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How last year’s big deals worked out (so far)

December 4, 2020

Over the next few weeks, or even the next few months, many baseball players are going to be signed for lots of money. They may sign for less money than we might have expected because of the pandemic, but then again, maybe not -- the market never quite turns out

Over the next few weeks, or even the next few months, many baseball players are going to be signed for lots of money. They may sign for less money than we might have expected because of the pandemic, but then again, maybe not -- the market never quite turns out the way you expect it to.

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One way we can try to guess how this might work out, both in the short and long term, is to look to the past. It was just one year ago that we were all awaiting the last round of free-agent signings, and wondering where those players were going to go. So, a year later, how are all those deals working out?

Obviously, the circumstances of 2020 turned out to be dramatically different than anyone could have thought. But you can still look at the 10 biggest deals from last year and mark, at least so far, how they’re going, and how they might look moving forward. After all, in a year, we’ll be looking at this offseason's deal that way.

So, here’s how the top 10 deals by total overall value are holding up, after Year One.

1. Gerrit Cole, RHP, Yankees
Contract: 9 years, $324 million

If you are being uncharitable, you might argue that when you sign a guy for $36 million a year for nine years, you can certainly expect, at the very least, to be getting the best pitcher in baseball for the first of those years. Cole was not the best pitcher in baseball in 2020, but he wasn’t particularly far from it, either, going 7-3 in 12 starts with a 2.84 ERA and a fourth-place finish in American League Cy Young Award voting. He also pitched well in three postseason starts, which, all told, is the real reason the Yankees signed him for so much. That season didn’t end with a World Series title for New York, but the Yanks have eight more tries to go with Cole.

2. Anthony Rendon, 3B, Angels
Contract: 7 years, $245 million

After extending Mike Trout into 2030 before the '19 season, the Angels needed to prove they weren’t done improving the team around him, so they went out and got the best hitter on the market, a guy who had just won a World Series. The Angels got all they could have hoped for out of Rendon, who put up a .286/.418/.497 line, finished 10th in MVP voting and actually put up a higher WAR than Trout did. The bad news is that the Angels proved, for the second time in three years (Andrelton Simmons in 2018), that you can have two of the top 15 players in baseball and still not be very good. The Angels have more holes right now than Rendon can fill. But the one he can fill, he’s filling magnificently.

3. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals
Contract: 7 years, $245 million

Signed for the exact same amount as Rendon, there is much more reason to be concerned about Strasburg than his former teammate. First off, Strasburg is two years older, and second, he’s a pitcher. And the thing about pitchers is that they get hurt. Strasburg got hurt in 2020, and fast: He ended up only making two starts, for a total of five innings, before nerve issues ended his season. He subsequently underwent surgery to fix carpal tunnel neuritis. It’s a positive, one supposes, that if he was going to essentially miss a year, it was the one in the middle of a pandemic when the Nationals weren’t particularly good anyway. But there are six more years on that contract, and he’ll be 33 in July. If the Nationals are going to return to the postseason in '21, they need Strasburg to be Strasburg. But then, there are still five more years after that.

4. Zack Wheeler, RHP, Phillies
Contract: 5 years, $118 million

The Phillies proved, a year after signing Bryce Harper, that they would do whatever it took to get their team back to the playoffs, bringing in Wheeler to anchor -- along with Aaron Nola -- a rotation that needed plenty of help. It turned out that the bullpen needed even more help, and while Wheeler was excellent (he put up a 2.92 ERA and only gave up three homers in 71-plus innings), he wasn’t enough to get the Phillies back. So now the Phillies, with J.T. Realmuto, have to show once again that they will do whatever it takes to get their team back to the playoffs … and they have to hope Wheeler is just as good in Year Two.

5. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Twins
Contract: 4 years, $92 million

Timing is everything. Donaldson bet on himself in 2019, signing a one-year deal with the Braves and cashing in after hitting 37 homers for a division winner. The Twins needed a third baseman, and they were eager to finally get over the postseason hump, so they brought in Donaldson, who … was injured all year and only hit .222 with six homers in 28 games. Had Donaldson had his '20 season in '19, you might have wondered if he was done. (He’ll be 35 on Tuesday.) Now the Twins have three more years to get the most out of him in a division that’s looking increasingly competitive. Still, he’s bounced back from worse than this.

6. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, D-backs
Contract: 5 years, $85 million

Of all the deals on this list, this one looks the worst a year later. That’s not entirely due to Bumgarner’s issues in 2020, though there were plenty: He had a 6.48 ERA in nine starts and showed dramatically reduced velocity throughout the year. But the whole point of bringing in Bumgarner was to push an up-and-coming team over the top. Instead, the D-backs finished in last place and ended up trading away all sorts of pieces, and quickly. So now the guy who was meant to be the final cog in the contending machine looks like … an albatross? Already? Maybe he recovers that velocity, and maybe the D-backs improve in 2021, but right now, this is a pitcher on a very different timeline than his organization.

7. Hyun Jin Ryu, LHP, Blue Jays
Contract: 4 years, $80 million

Toronto couldn’t have known it at the time, but Ryu ended up being the perfect 2020 signing. Forever plagued by injury concerns over the course of a long season, Ryu only had to make 12 starts in '20, and they were good ones: He put up a 2.69 ERA, finished third in AL Cy Young voting and led his team back to the playoffs. He’ll have to hold up for the long haul more in '21, but this has gone splendidly so far. Maybe someday he’ll actually get to pitch for the Blue Jays in the city of Toronto.

8. Yasmani Grandal, C, White Sox
Contract: 4 years, $73 million

Grandal was for the White Sox in 2020 what he always is: An above-average hitter (and on-base monster), a decent catcher and a reliable clubhouse leader. And he got to do it for a team that finally made it back to the postseason after a long absence. Fun fact about Grandal: He has reached the playoffs six straight years, for three different teams (Dodgers, Brewers, and White Sox). With all the young talent on the South Side, the next three years seem certain to add to the streak.

9. Nick Castellanos, OF, Reds
Contract: 4 years, $64 million

Castellanos was supposed to be just one more addition to an overwhelmingly powerful Reds lineup, one that was going to, at last, get that team over the hump in that division. Instead, Castellanos had an average season (102 OPS+), and the rest of the Reds' lineup fell off a cliff. Fortunately, Cincinnati's pitchers made up for it and got the club into October anyway, but if the Reds are going to be what they’re meant to be, Castellanos needs to get back to the star he was after being traded to the Cubs in 2019. And, frankly, he needs some help.

10. Mike Moustakas, 2B, Reds
Contract: 4 years, $64 million

And here’s one of those guys who is supposed to help. Moustakas’ numbers were down a bit from his career averages in 2020, which was as much of a bummer as Castellanos’ step backwards. These two guys aren’t getting paid superstar money, but they are in the context of the Reds. The Reds looked like their lineup was stacked heading into '20. That they don’t look that stacked heading into '21 is of considerable concern, with three more years to go on each of these deals.