The cream of the 2013 free-agent crop was obvious and expensive.
Teams entered the offseason flush with cash and spent prodigiously. Outfielder Josh Hamilton was the best position player, while B.J. Upton and Michael Bourn followed not far behind. Right-hander Zack Greinke was clearly the top free-agent pitcher available. All together, the four top free agents signed multiyear contracts worth close to $300 million.
And what do those teams have to show for it? The trio of outfielders has hit a combined .205 with a paltry nine home runs, five stolen bases and 93 strikeouts. Greinke added a lone win and a broken collarbone.
Conversely, there are a number of lower-priced free agents who are more than earning their paychecks. Since the top four free agents haven’t lived up to their usual performance levels, which free agents have been the best bargains in baseball so far? Here’s a ranking of the top 10 so far:
Note: Performance to date, salary and long-term commitment were all considered for this ranking.
1. Anibal Sanchez | RHP | Contract: Five years, $88 million
Performance: 3-3, 1.97 ERA, 45.2 IP, 11 BB, 58 SO
The Detroit Tigers traded prospects Rob Brantly, Jacob Turner, Brian Flynn and a 2013 compensation draft pick for Sanchez and Omar Infante last July. The deal could be considered a success only if they got to the World Series and/or were able to sign Sanchez long term. “Check” on both counts. Sanchez’s impressive postseason, which included a 1.77 ERA in three starts, was enough to convince Tigers boss Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland that signing Sanchez would give them the best chance of getting back to the World Series. Sanchez has proved them right so far.
2. Jeremy Guthrie | RHP | Contract: Three years, $25 million
Performance: 5-0, 2.28 ERA, 1.18 WHIP
The Royals shipped disappointing lefty Jonathan Sanchez to the Colorado Rockies for Guthrie last July, and he rewarded Kansas City with five wins and a 3.16 ERA in 14 starts before jumping into free agency. Convinced the performance wasn’t a fluke, GM Dayton Moore signed Guthrie to a three-year deal. He has led the Royals to second place in the AL Central, and helped his team become a bona fide contender for a wild-card berth. Meanwhile, Sanchez was released by the Pittsburgh Pirates this week.
3. Mark Reynolds | 1B/DH | Contract: One year, $6 million
Performance: .291 AVG/.367 OBP/.645 SLG, 6 2B, 11 HR, 29 RBIs
Reynolds leads the AL in home runs and is giving the Indians much-needed run production from the middle of the lineup. He also has provided above-average defense at first base. He has helped propel the Indians to respectability and left Orioles fans wondering why they couldn’t afford to re-sign him on a similar deal, especially with Baltimore’s DHs hitting a league-worst .142.
4. Rafael Soriano | RHP | Contract: Two years, $22 million
Performance: 12 saves, 2.25 ERA, 0.88 WHIP
A confluence of circumstances collapsed the free-agent market for the 33-year-old Soriano, and he was left stranded until the Nationals swooped in and grabbed him. Soriano was coming off another successful season with the Yankees, saving 42 games with a 2.26 ERA. With so many big-market clubs such as the Angels, Dodgers and Tigers saying no despite their need for a closer, the Nats took advantage even though they already had a closer in Drew Storen and set-up man in Tyler Clippard, who saved 32 games himself. The old baseball adage holds true: You can never have enough pitching.
5. Mike Napoli | 1B/C | Contract: One year, $5 million with incentives
Performance: .268/.327/.529, 16 2B, 6 HR, 32 RBIs
The Boston Red Sox initially outbid the Texas Rangers for Napoli’s services this past offseason with a three-year, $39 million contract, but the deal was reworked to a one-year deal when Napoli flunked his physical because of hip problems. However, Napoli has quickly proved the hip is not affecting his swing as he leads the league in doubles and hovers among the leaders in RBIs. Napoli signed with the Red Sox because of the opportunity to be their full-time first baseman -- he’s happy and does not miss catching at all. If Napoli continues to perform at current levels, the Red Sox might have to consider giving him back his original deal.
6. Ryan Dempster | RHP | Contract: Two years, $26.5 million
Performance: 2-3, 2.93 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 43 IP, 55 SO
In 2012, the Red Sox finished last in the AL East but have quickly turned it around, floating at the top or close to the top of the division this season. Shrewd free-agent signings have been the key for the Sox, most notably Dempster, who turned down a more lucrative offer from the Milwaukee Brewers. Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester have returned to ace form while Dempster’s behind-the-scenes leadership seems to have helped. As Boston’s No. 3 starter, Dempster has been a huge lift in making the Red Sox a legitimate contender again.
7. Torii Hunter | OF | Contract: Two years, $26 million
Performance: .344/.387/.461, 10 2B, 1 HR, 16 RBIs
The 37-year-old Hunter wanted to re-sign with the Angels, but after being told they couldn’t afford him, he went with his second choice. He felt Detroit to be his best chance of winning a world championship. The Angels replaced him with Hamilton, the most expensive free agent on the market. In the meantime, all Hunter has done is improve Detroit's defense in right field, its offensive production in the No. 2 hole, and in the clubhouse where his vocal leadership has been appreciated by everyone in it.
8. Russell Martin | C | Contract: Two years, $17 million
Performance: .263/.358/.526, 7 2B, 6 HR, 11 RBIs
Surprisingly, the New York Yankees did not even make Martin an offer. So when the Pirates aggressively put their best offer on the table, it was so much better than Martin's other options, he grabbed it. Martin has done a great job calling games, and his right-handed power has helped balance the middle of the Bucs’ lineup.
9. Travis Hafner | DH | Contract: One year, $2 million
Performance: .284/.408/.568, 3 2B, 6 HR, 18 RBIs
Hafner spent much of the past few seasons on the DL in Cleveland, but Yankees GM Brian Cashman signed Hafner to an under-the-radar deal, citing the team’s need for left-handed power and considering Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field. So far Hafner has stayed healthy, and his high on-base percentage has helped the Yankees remain relevant as they wait for Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter to return from the disabled list.
10. Kyle Lohse | RHP | Contract: Three years, $33 million
Performance: 1-4, 3.53 ERA, 43.1 IP, 5 BB, 30 SO
The Brewers finally relented in late April and agreed to give up their first-round pick to sign the 34-year-old Lohse. They were desperate for a consistent starter behind Yovani Gallardo after a number of their young starters got off to bad starts. Although Lohse has only one win, he has kept the Brewers in most of his seven starts.