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Since the end of the last World Series, the 30 teams of major league baseball have spent $3.8 billion on veteran free agents. Most got long-term, guaranteed deals but not all will turn out to be good investments.
The announcement Tuesday that Jacob deGrom needs Tommy John surgery for the second time is a case in point.
The Texas Rangers thought they pulled off a coup by signing deGrom, a two-time National League Cy Young Award winner, to a five-year, $185 million deal last December. He made six starts, spanning 30 1/3 innings, before the devastating diagnosis was made. In a best-case scenario, he won’t return until late in the 2024 season.
Another American League starter, southpaw Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox, signed a five-year, $145 million contract that became effective at the start of the 2020 campaign. Since then, he too had Tommy John surgery, plus separate wrist and finger fractures and a rib injury. He’s won exactly 10 games – half of them this year – before he went on the IL again last week, this time with a sore shoulder.
At least deGrom and Sale should return eventually. Stephen Strasburg might not.
The 2019 World Series MVP, who signed a seven-year, $245 million pact to stay with the Washington Nationals after winning that trophy, has hardly pitched since then. He’s made eight starts, winning one game, in the last four years and has just been told by doctors to shut down the light workouts that were part of his rehabilitation program.
Like deGrom and Sale, he’s had Tommy John surgery – plus a whole lot more. His most recent troubles are believed to be related to thoracic outlet syndrome.
Two American League East contenders, the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, are hoping injured southpaw starters Carlos Rodón and Hyun Jin Ryu return by the All-Star break. The former is a lefty coming off a fine season in San Francisco, while the latter underwent mid-season Tommy John surgery in 2022.
Both have guaranteed salaries: six years and $162 million for Rodón, who has yet to throw a pitch for the Yankees after suffering forearm and back issues, and four years at $80 million for Ryu. Fortunately for Toronto, Ryu’s deal expires after this season.
Compounding the Strasburg fiasco, the Nationals also added veteran starter Patrick Corbin, who gave them one good year in 2019 followed by four bad ones. His deal still has two years and $59 million to go.
Then there’s Madison Bumgarner, like Strasburg a former World Series MVP. The erstwhile left-handed ace of the San Francisco Giants was a National League All-Star four times who helped his team win three world championships. But his talent evaporated in the desert, where he was 15-32 with a 5.23 ERA before the Diamondbacks cut bait earlier this season with two years and $37 million left on his contract.
Even though he could sign with another club for a pro-rated portion of the $720,000 major-league minimum, no team has made an offer.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are also paying big bucks to a pitcher who no longer works there. After a bidding war with the wealthy New York Mets, they signed former Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer for three years and $102 million. But the pitcher was slapped with a record 324-game suspension for allegedly violating Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy.
Although he denied the charges, the Dodgers released him after an unsuccessful effort to trade him. Now pitching in Japan, Bauer is still getting $22.5 million from the Dodgers under his MLB contract after early reinstatement by an arbitrator.
Position players aren’t immune from the virus of big pay plus low production.
New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, signed to a 10-year, $341 million deal after Cleveland traded him, hit .230 in his first National League season, rebounded to .270 last year, but hit only .213 over the first two months of the current campaign. His power production has also declined, contributing to his club’s inability to play better than .500 ball.
Even Carlos Correa, the 28-year-old star shortstop wooed by the Mets and Giants before re-signing with the Twins last winter, has struggled. After hitting .291 in 2022, his first year with Minnesota, he’s flirting with the Mendoza Line all of a sudden. In his first 50 games this season, his average was a puny .207. He signed a six-year, $200 million deal in January.
Other struggling stars have also not justified their contracts. They include Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon, who has four years and $152 million left; former National League MVP Christian Yelich, who signed a nine-year, $215 million pact with the Brewers in March 2020; and erstwhile All-Star Joey Votto, who has yet to play for Cincinnati this season but has this year’s $32 million salary remaining on his original 10-year contract, which contains a full no-trade clause. The Reds are extremely unlikely to pick up his $20 million option for 2024 but will have to pay the first baseman a $7 million buyout if they don’t.
Colorado’s Kris Bryant, like Yelich a former MVP, hasn’t given any payback from the six-year, $158 million contract he signed before last season. The injury-plagued slugger has delivered only 10 home runs in his first two seasons with the Rockies.
After losing Andrew Benintendi to the Chicago White Sox, the Yankees were hoping fellow outfielder Aaron Hicks would rebound this season. He didn’t, convincing the club to jettison the outfielder with three years and $30.5 million remaining on his contract. Baltimore signed him to fill their void in center field after Cedric Mullins suffered an injury.
Josh Donaldson, far from his former MVP form, still carries the weight of the $92 million contract the Minnesota Twins gave him. The oft-injured third baseman, traded to the Yankees, has one year and $29 million left. When healthy, Donaldson is still a dangerous hitter – but at that price?
Nor are the White Sox happy with Yasmani Grandal, a power-hitting catcher who signed for four years and $73 million. Now in the last year of his contract, his power has suddenly evaporated.
Catchers who can hit are few and far between, as Sal Perez suggested after leading the American League with 48 home runs and 121 runs batted in two years ago. His output was considerably lower last year and nothing to write home about this season either. His four-year, $82 million deal started in 2022, the year after his unexpected but prolific power production.
Ultimately, age and injuries can interfere with anyone, regardless of past history.
Miguel Cabrera, now 40 and playing his final season, has lost the power that helped him win a Triple Crown and MVP award in 2012, but he’s guaranteed $40 million from the Detroit Tigers in the final year of his contract.
Just a shell of his former self, the future Hall of Famer went homerless in his first 109 plate appearances of this season.
If any of the injured pitchers return to health or hitters return to form, those revivals could alter the 2023 playoff picture. But if the stagnation continues, teams may have to find alternatives.