2014 MLB Offseason Signings: Assessing top position player deals after April

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The MLB offseason saw several big-name position players sign huge long-term contracts. The results have been mixed for those players during the first month of the season, but for the teams with struggling signees, there's no reason to panic...yet.

It's never too early to assess offseason deals...right?

The beginning of May means that we're slowly drawing closer to the end of the played-out clichés like "There's still a lot of baseball to be played" and "It's a long season," and with that, we can now legitimately look at the offseason's top free agent signings and see how those players are doing with their new clubs–and, more importantly, how they're likely to perform for the rest of the season.

Of course, that's not to say that having one month under our belts completely eliminates the standard "small sample size" disclaimer, but hey, it feels meaningful that April has passed, so we have to talk about something.

With that, I welcome you to the first segment of this two-part series, in which I'll take a look at the top position player free-agent signings from this offseason. (Stay tuned for pitchers!)

Robinson Cano, Seattle Mariners

Date Signed Length (years) Total ($) Per Year Option? (years)
December 12, 2013 10 240,000,000 24M No

For all the talk about Cano's struggles this season, the Seattle second baseman has actually been rather consistent at the plate. Cano has failed to register a hit in only four games this season, with his lack of run production just as much a product of the rest of his team's offensive struggles as his own.

Even so, the power hasn't been there. While that's to be expected given the absence of the short porch Cano enjoyed during his time at Yankee Stadium, the decline has been especially dramatic–just one home run thus far–and has to be a bit concerning, even through just one month. Cano hadn't failed to hit multiple home runs in a month since April 2012, a two year span, before his lone long ball this April.

It might be time to get used to Cano as more of a line-drive hitter better suited for the two-slot, though the Mariners will obviously continue to expect middle-of-the-order production from their second baseman as long as they're paying him $24 million every season until 2023...that's a long ways from now, isn't it, Mariners fans?

At least there's this:


Jacoby Ellsbury, New York Yankees

Date Signed Length (years) Total ($) Per Year ($) Option (years)
December 3, 2013 7 153,000,000 21.857M Yes (1)

As with Cano, the hits have been falling for Ellsbury. In fact, he's been even better than Cano, as his .312/.369/.441 slash line suggests. However, also like the Mariners second baseman, Ellsbury is suffering from a power outage, to the tune of zero homers this season.

Fortunately, the Yankees don't need Ellsbury to hit home runs. That's why they also signed Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann this offseason (more on them later) to complement fellow power hitters Alfonso Soriano and Mark Teixeira in the lineup. Right now, Jacoby is doing what Jacoby does best: getting hits, stealing bases and scoring runs. The power would simply be an added bonus if it makes an appearance later this season.

Even so, while the Yanks don't need power from Ellsbury now, looking beyond this season, they're certainly paying a lot of money for a player who derives much of his value from his speed and fielding ability, both of which decline with age. That's just an accepted fact in baseball. Assuming Ellsbury's 32-homer 2011 season is an anomaly, a reasonable assumption given his lack of power this season, the Yankees are essentially paying just under $22 million annually for a player who figures to maybe be a .300 hitter (and not much more) by the end of his contract.

That doesn't even begin to address the injury risk, which is a very legitimate concern given the fact that Ellsbury has played in just 384 games over the past four seasons. He's currently dealing with a sore hand, which doesn't appear to be a long-term issue given the lack of structural damage, but the injury history is definitely something to keep an eye on.

Down the road, the Yankees might regret this deal, big time. Then again, this is the Yankees we're talking about–everything seems to work out for them in the end.

Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox

Date Signed Length (years) Total ($) Per Year Option (years)
October 29, 2013 6 68,000,000 11.333M No

No team took a bigger risk that the White Sox this offseason when general manager Rick Hahn signed Abreu, a Cuban slugger with as much big league experience as you and me heading into the season, to a lengthy and expensive deal.

Yet through just one month, Abreu's $68 million contract is already looking like a bargain, thanks to his 10 home runs and 32 RBI. He's also slugging .617 with 71 total bases, both tops in the league. Better yet, this might just be the beginning. Here's what Jorge L. Ortiz of USA TODAY Sports wrote about Abreu:

"Never in my life have I had to adapt to the cold. It's tough to deal with,'' Abreu, 27, told USA TODAY Sports in Spanish. "But ever since leaving Cuba my mind-set has been to confront any adversity that comes up. … I can't wait for the summer to arrive.''

That raises the question of what the slugging first baseman might accomplish once it warms up, and balls fly out of the White Sox's cozy yard.

20140423_jla_bd3_130.jpg.0_mediumDavid Banks/Getty Images

As Ortiz notes, Abreu has already gone yard off Justin Verlander, David Price and Chris Archer, showing his ability to handle the best that the majors has to offer. His tremendous opposite field power is a force to be reckoned with, and it foreshadows long term success in the power department.

Abreu might never compile a great batting average, and his plate discipline (nine walks, 28 strikeouts) leaves something to be desired, but the power is real, and for just over $11 million annually, that's a steal for a rebuilding Sox team who could use a star hitter to work around.

Brian McCann, New York Yankees

Date Signed Length (years) Total ($) Per Year Option (years)
November 23, 2013 5 85,000,000 17M Yes (1)

The Yankees have a surplus of young catching prospects, including Gary Sanchez and J.R. Murphy, but that didn't stop general manager Brian Cashman from inking McCann through the 2019 season.

McCann is off to a slow start, batting .224 with a disappointing .620 OPS this season, and that low average is something we might have to get used to given the numbers McCann posted in 2012 and 2013 (.230 and .256, respectively).

Even so, McCann has reached the 20 homer mark in each of the last six seasons and seven of eight overall, never falling below 18 in a season. He also has a solid eye at the plate and has the ability to take advantage of the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium.

There's also the issue that McCann might be pressing a bit in his new environment, something Pinstripe Alley's Derek Albin examined about a week ago:

Perhaps supporting the hypothesis of McCann pressing early on are some of his plate discipline PITCHf/x stats. McCann is swinging at 50.3% of pitches seen, while also hacking at 33.6% of offerings outside the strike zone. Those are up from career marks of 45.1% and 29.6%, respectively. To be fair, McCann is also seeing first-pitch strikes 26.9% of the time, well up from roughly 18% in his final two seasons in Atlanta. Being behind in the count more often has put him on the defensive, but it doesn't necessarily explain why he is chasing more bad pitches than before. McCann has been known to be a patient hitter, so seeing a bump in swings at balls is unexpected.

Those numbers are a bit outdated, and McCann has fallen off even more over the three games that have passed since Albin's article. Yet, the point remains the same: Pitchers are going after McCann more, which means he'll have to adjust. For the Yankees' sake, let's hope he does. (Or doesn't, if that's what you'd prefer.)

Shin-Soo Choo, Texas Rangers

Date Signed Length (years) Total ($) Per Year Option (years)
December 21, 2013 7 130,000,000 18.571M No

Choo is the definition of an on-base machine, but this is ridiculous.

Through 93 plate appearances spanning 22 games, Choo has a .452 OBP, but he hasn't been a one-trick pony either, as evidenced by his eight extra-base hits and .500 slugging percentage.

Choo has been limited in the early going after suffering a sprained right ankle, but he's left his mark when healthy. Expected to be the catalyst of arguably the best lineup in baseball heading into the season, Choo has held up his end of the bargain. Unfortunately, slow starts from Elvis Andrus and Prince Fielder, along with Adrian Beltre's injury, have essentially negated Choo's ability to reach base at the top of the order. Indeed, despite reaching base 42 times, Choo has scored an absurdly low total of 11 runs. The Rangers will always have a chance to score with Choo at the top of their lineup, but the middle-of-the-order hitters will have to start producing for that pretty-looking .452 OBP to mean anything.

20140423_jla_bd3_130.jpg.0_mediumTom Pennington/Getty Images

Part of what makes Choo's contract more practical than many of the other deals signed this offseason is his stellar eye at the plate. As players grow older, speed diminishes quickly and power becomes difficult to maintain, but plate discipline doesn't go anywhere. That's why the $21 million Choo will make during his age-37 season in 2020, the final year of his contract, will likely turn out much better than the disasters-in-waiting like Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano, who are owed a combined $56 million during their age-40 seasons.

Plus, Choo has great walkup music. With that type of mentality, how could you go wrong?

Carlos Beltran, New York Yankees

Date Signed Length (years) Total ($) Per Year Option (years)
December 6, 2013 3 45,000,000 15M No

If you thought Yankee Stadium's short right field porch would call to Beltran, you'd be right.

Through 24 games, Beltran has already hit five home runs, four of which have gone to right field. (The one to left came when he was batting from the right side of the plate.) Translation: Yankee Stadium can only help Beltran, and thus far, that's certainly been the case.

Beltran has cooled off a bit after a monster start, but if the beginning of the season has taught us anything, it's that Carlos Beltran is still, well...Carlos Beltran. He's on pace for 31 homers and 56 doubles, and while the plate discipline hasn't been there (20-to-6 K/BB ratio, .311 OBP), that middle-of-the-order power is exactly what the Yankees were looking for.

Additionally, while Beltran has lost a step in the outfield, the Yankees have the luxury of slotting him into the DH spot, as they've done on eight occasions this season. That somewhat offsets the negative impact Beltran carries on defense, though there's no looking around the issue that Beltran will only get worse defensively throughout the three seasons of his contract. A permanent move to DH looks like a necessity in the near future.

Nelson Cruz, Baltimore Orioles

Date Signed Length (years) Total ($) Per Year Option (years)
February 22, 2014 1 8,000,000 8M No

In signing Cruz to a simple, cost-effective one-year contract in February, Orioles general manager Dan Duquette managed to gain the services of a player coming off a PED-induced suspension for as little risk as possible. The move came in the dying moments of the offseason, which made it much easier for the O's to grab Cruz for a bargain price, and both sides have to be thrilled that they were able to come to terms.

The move is already making Duquette look like a genius, with Cruz more than justifying the $8 million the O's dropped on him. He leads the team in home runs (seven), RBI (25) and OPS (.956) while setting the table for the big bats out of the two-spot in the lineup.

Thus far, however, Cruz is doing more table clearing than setting, and his hot start is proving especially valuable to the Orioles given slugger Chris Davis' extended absence due to injury. Somehow, Baltimore has managed to maintain respectability (12-12) in a close, hard-fought AL East that is shaping up to be another grind for everyone in the division. Even if he only stays with the team for one season, Cruz will need to be at his best for the Orioles to keep pace in a crowded division.

So far, so good.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Miami Marlins

Date Signed Length (years) Total ($) Per Year Option (years)
December 3, 2013 3 21,000,000 7M No

A popular pick to decline due to his move to a less hitter-friendly ballpark and a weaker lineup, Saltalamacchia instead turned out the best April of his career, posting a .299/.409/.571 slash line along with five home runs.

The Marlins are asking a lot of Salty, handing him $21 million while expecting him to produce in the middle of a rather bleak lineup, but that doesn't even cover all of his responsibilities. Now entering his eighth season in the majors, Saltalamacchia brings a veteran presence to a Marlins team littered with young players. With all that experience under his belt, including a World Series ring from last season, it's no surprise the Marlins have asked Salty to take on a leadership role on the club, something confirmed by the Marlins catcher over at Fish Stripes:

"Otherwise, the biggest difference is that there are a lot of younger guys. I’m finding myself saying things like ‘This is how we did it’ or ‘This is what I’ve seen.’ In some ways, it’s almost more of a coaching [role].

There's also the issue that manager Mike Redmond has just one year of managerial experience to speak of, making Saltalamacchia's leadership all the more important.

20140423_jla_bd3_130.jpg.0_mediumSteve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The results are quite apparent so far. The Marlins rank 10th in the majors in ERA, at 3.38, showing Saltalamacchia's ability to handle a pitching staff.

A few of the Marlins' young hitters are also off to excellent starts, including Christian Yelich (.292 average, 17 runs) and Marcell Ozuna (.310 average, .844 OPS). Whether that's a testament to Salty's influence or not, there's no debating that the Marlins are in a better place with him as the starting catcher. At just $7 million annually, Miami is getting a catcher who can hit, on top of his additional "duties" with the team. That's a bargain in my book.

Curtis Granderson, New York Mets

Date Signed Length (years) Total ($) Per Year Option (years)
December 6, 2013 4 60,000,000 15M No

Granderson was never going to hit 40 homers again after moving to Citi Field to play for the Mets, but nobody expected him to be this bad.

The slow start brings up the question of just when one should stop using the "small sample size" excuse. Sure, Granderson only has 103 plate appearances this season (which is still a substantial amount), but building off last season, when Granderson posted a .229/.317/.407 slash line in 61 games, the Mets outfielder has just eight homers and 22 RBI in his last 302 at-bats.

Call Granderson's struggles a product of sample size; I'll call them the start of a trend. The ex-Yankee outfielder finished fourth in MVP voting in 2011, but that certainly seems like more than just three seasons ago. A start to the 2014 season like his, which has consisted of a .136 batting average and abysmal .468 OPS through 25 games, can tend to make you forget things like that. If there's any silver lining to this deal for the Mets, it's that they didn't sign Granderson to a deal longer than four seasons.

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