Grading Big-Money MLB Free Agents' 1st Impressions on Their New Teams
We're still in the "WARNING: SMALL SAMPLE SIZES" portion of the MLB season. But after a full (business) week's worth of action, we can at least round up our first impressions.
And if we're going to do that, man, you know we have to start with the players who were paid the big bucks over the offseason.
Per MLBTradeRumors.com's transaction tracker, there were 10 domestic free agents and two more international free agents who signed for at least $45 million over the winter. That makes a dozen big-money guys worth looking at, and all 12 of them have fortunately gotten a chance to give a first impression.
This being the Internet, the only thing to do is grade these first impressions. So come and walk this way...
Jhonny Peralta, St. Louis Cardinals
Contract: Four years, $53 million
The Cardinals sorely needed to find a shortstop who could actually hit, as Pete Kozma and others combined to give them just a .583 OPS in 2013.
Enter Jhonny Peralta, and the problem...well, it hasn't been solved just yet.
Peralta started slowly, going 0-for-7 with a pair of strikeouts in the Cardinals' first two games against the Cincinnati Reds. Then he hit a two-run homer on Thursday! But then he picked up another 0-fer on Friday against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Four games in, Peralta's average is at .071, and his OPS is at .419. Cue the "heck, Kozma could have done that!" barbs.
Speaking a bit more seriously, there's more at work here than just Peralta failing to give the Cardinals an offensive boost at shortstop. A quick start could have helped him erase any notions that his .303 average in 2013 had something to do with his 50-game suspension resulting from the Biogenesis investigation.
So far, no such luck.
Carlos Beltran, New York Yankees
Contract: Three years, $45 million
The Yankees' hope was presumably that Carlos Beltran would start 2014 like he did 2013, as he had an .885 OPS and six home runs in St. Louis last April.
Instead, Beltran has been just OK.
He picked up just two hits in his first 11 at-bats in the Yankees' opening series against the Houston Astros. Though it didn't end up costing New York any runs, he also made an error in right field on Opening Day.
Beltran did take a step forward with a hit and a walk against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday, but that only boosted his early-season slash line to .200/.235/.267.
Nobody's panicking, of course, but Beltran's is a situation that is worth monitoring. He'll turn 37 this month, and he did see his OPS drop 121 points from the first half to the second half in 2013. In light of this, his first impression looks even worse.
Ricky Nolasco, Minnesota Twins
Contract: Four years, $49 million
Of the big-money pitchers who signed over the winter, Ricky Nolasco was the only one to draw an Opening Day assignment. So he had that going for him, anyway.
Aside from that, Nolasco's Twins debut, uh, didn't go so well.
Nolasco lasted six innings against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field but was touched up for five earned runs on 10 hits and a pair of walks. Alejandro De Aza took him deep twice.
Through one start, that puts Nolasco's ERA at 7.50 and his WHIP at 2.00, numbers that spell out B-U-S-T.
But let's calm down and note that it wasn't all bad. Brooks Baseball can show that Nolasco's velocity experienced an uptick, and FanGraphs can show that his ground-ball rate was an even 50 percent. These are good signs, and here's guessing that Nolasco's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) isn't going to stay over .400 for very long.
Thus does he avoid an F grade here.
Ubaldo Jimenez, Baltimore Orioles
Contract: Four years, $50 million
When we last saw Ubaldo Jimenez in 2013, he was pitching like an ace to the tune of a 1.82 ERA in the second half.
He didn't look so much like an ace in his Orioles debut, however.
Jimenez gave up a couple of two-run homers in six innings against the Boston Red Sox at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Those accounted for the four earned runs he gave up, and he also allowed five hits and three walks with six strikeouts.
Frankly, Jimenez's mediocre performance should have been worse. His fastball velocity was notably lower than it had been in 2013, and he spent a lot of time pitching up in the zone. That helps explain why, according to FanGraphs, he got only one ground ball.
Jimenez was facing enough of a challenge in moving from the AL Central and Progressive Field to the AL East and Camden Yards. If he can't throw harder or keep the ball on the ground, he's facing an even bigger challenge.
Curtis Granderson, New York Mets
Contract: Four years, $60 million
After struggling to get power from their outfield and from the left side of the plate in general, Curtis Granderson was something of an obvious target for the Mets in free agency.
Unfortunately, the bad Granderson showed up in the Mets' first two games, going 0-for-9 with five strikeouts. He had to face Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, granted, but still not an ideal start.
Granderson's next two games, however, were more like it.
The veteran outfielder came to the plate eight times on Thursday and Friday, reaching base four times on three hits and a walk. All three of his hits were doubles, one of which chased home a run.
Though he hasn't gone yard yet, we can call Granderson's first four games a sort of microcosm of what the Mets can expect. The strikeouts are going to be there, and there will be games when he looks totally overmatched.
But when he hits for power, things will be good.
Brian McCann, New York Yankees
Contract: Five years, $85 million
A few moments ago, we were talking about the Cardinals needing Jhonny Peralta because of a lack of offense at shortstop. The Yankees needed Brian McCann for the same reason, as their catchers managed just a .587 OPS in 2013.
For what it's worth, McCann has been an upgrade. Through three games, his OPS stands at a whopping .615!
Kidding aside, that low OPS is more a reflection of a lack of power in the early goings than anything else. McCann hasn't picked up any extra-base hits yet, but four hits in 13 at-bats does give him a .308 average.
What's harder to get a grip on is how McCann has impacted the Yankees defensively. He did have a wild throw in their season-opener in Houston, but you also have to give him some credit for helping see Masahiro Tanaka through his major league debut.
So we'll call that a push and a solid grade for the veteran catcher.
Shin-Soo Choo, Texas Rangers
Contract: Seven years, $130 million
Choo came to Texas with a reputation for being able to get on base by any means necessary, be it a hit, a walk, a hit-by-pitch or whatever.
If you watched his first three games, you'll know that Choo did a fine job of living up to his reputation.
In his first 15 plate appearances, Choo got three hits, three walks and got hit by a pitch to reach base seven times. One of the walks he drew was a game-winner against Jonathan Papelbon.
Mind you, that had less to do with Choo's discipline and more to do with Papelbon being unable to hit water if he fell out of a boat, but a walk-off walk is a walk-off walk is a...you get the drill.
The bad news is that the Tampa Bay Rays were able to keep Choo off base Friday. The good news is that he still has a .389 OBP on the (very) young season even despite that.
The Rangers can expect more of the same. They're also bound to get around 20 homers and 20 steals too, as is Choo's custom.
Jacoby Ellsbury, New York Yankees
Contract: Seven years, $153 million
The Yankees didn't necessarily need a center fielder, as Brett Gardner did a fine job out there last year. But when you have a chance to sign a guy like Jacoby Ellsbury, well, sometimes you just have to do it.
It was hard to notice Ellsbury in his first two games in pins...er, road grays. Though he got on base twice via walks, he didn't collect any hits in seven at-bats. If anything, the only times he stood out were when he seemed gun-shy around Tal's Hill chasing after some extra-base hits (see photo).
Friday, however, was a different story.
Against the Toronto Blue Jays, Ellsbury went 3-for-4 with a couple of doubles, a walk and two stolen bases. He also made a nifty sliding grab in support of Masahiro Tanaka in the sixth inning.
As any Boston Red Sox fan can vouch, that's Ellsbury. We can't forgive his first two games, but his most recent outing was one heck of a makeup effort.
Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
Contract: Six years, $68 million
For the biggest contract ever given to a Cuban defector, word was the White Sox were buying a guy who would give them plenty of thump in the middle of their batting order.
Abreu sure looked the part in Chicago's opening series against the Minnesota Twins. He made 12 trips to the plate and collected five hits and five RBI. He was also walked intentionally twice in the second game, making him the first player since 1955 to collect two intentional walks within the first two games of his career, according to Dan Hayes of CSNChicago.com.
Best of all, though, was what Abreu did on Thursday. He had a booming double and a booming triple, with the latter coming on a slider off the outside part of the plate that he drove deep to center field. There aren't that many hitters with that kind of plate coverage, let alone the power to boot.
"We know he’s good, he knows he’s good and you let him show everybody. You just let his bat talk for him," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura, via Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Abreu cooled down a bit against the Kansas City Royals on Friday, going 0-for-4 with a couple of strikeouts. Even with that he had a darn good first week.
Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees
Contract: Seven years, $155 million (plus $20 million posting fee)
Masahiro Tanaka's major league debut against the Toronto Blue Jays didn't get off to a very good start. He gave up a leadoff home run to Melky Cabrera, and by the end of the second inning he had allowed three runs (two earned) and four hits.
But after that? Shoot, how do you say "smooth sailing" in Japanese?
In his last five innings of work, Tanaka allowed no additional runs on just two additional hits. He ended his evening with seven innings pitched, just the two earned runs allowed, no walks and eight strikeouts.
Per Brooks Baseball, Tanaka sat 92-93 and reached 95 with his velocity. Even better, he got 10 whiffs on his notorious splitter, a figure that says, yeah, it lived up to the hype.
Tanaka didn't match the gold-standard debut of fellow free agent Matt Garza, but he was pretty darn good.
Robinson Cano, Seattle Mariners
Contract: 10 years, $240 million
One supposes that the Mariners didn't need to sign Robinson Cano, as they could have just handed their starting second base job to Nick Franklin.
But then again, when you're dead-last in the majors in runs over the last five seasons...yeah, it can't hurt to pay for the bigger bat.
And so far, Cano has been about what the Mariners were hoping for. He only has one extra-base hit (a double), but that's one of six hits in 16 at-bats. That's a .375 average, and Cano also has four walks to boost his early-season OBP to .500.
To my recollection, we haven't seen Cano make one of his casual rangy plays on defense yet. But we did see him make a perfect throw on a relay that cut down a potential inside-the-park home run in Oakland on Thursday night, which is worth something.
It's been a pretty good first week for Seattle's $240 million man.
Matt Garza, Milwaukee Brewers
Contract: Four years, $50 million
I hesitate to call Matt Garza an ace, but there are certainly times when he looks like one.
His first start for the Brewers on Wednesday at Miller Park was one of these times.
Garza took a no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves into the seventh inning before Chris Johnson broke it up with a solo home run. That proved to be the difference in a game the Brewers lost 1-0, but there's no faulting Garza. In all, he allowed only two hits and a walk in eight innings while striking out seven.
Garza's fastball was his money pitch. It accounted for 63 of his 90 offerings, sitting around 95 mph and generating whiffs and ground balls. Though he'll have to mix it up in future starts, the Brewers can take this as a sign that Garza still has plenty of gas in his tank despite turning 30 over the winter.
Milwaukee's rotation started the season with an underrated vibe about it. It looks even more so after what Garza did in his debut.