Pitchers and catchers report to MLB camps this week, some arriving at new destinations for the first time, their wallets heavy with cash after signing lucrative free agent deals this offseason.
It is a time for optimism — summer is around the corner, everyone has a clean slate, standings are reset and, unless you are of a Phillies persuasion, fans will be hoping this is finally their year.
Much of that optimism is fuelled by players acquired over the winter, by a front office pushing the boat out to turn their team into winners. However, more often than not, the highs end in lows, the expectation turns to disappointment.
Taking a look at the top free agents of the last six years, it is surprising to see how many of the contracts prove to be misjudged. It is even more startling to see how few actually make the playoffs after signing for a new team.
Of those 30 players, 21 failed to go to the postseason the following year. Only six won titles in their first season, but only one – Zack Greinke – propelled his team to a title having missed the playoffs in the previous season. Furthermore, the World Series wasn’t won once by a side who had signed a top-five free agent before the season. The Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Tigers and Orioles all missed the playoffs last season, and the odds are against them making it this year.
Matt Holliday – Cardinals – 91-71 NLC title to 86-76 missed playoffs
John Lackey – Red Sox – 95-67 ALE wild card to 89-73 missed playoffs
Jason Bay – Mets – 70-92 missed playoffs to 79-83 missed playoffs
Chone Figgins – Mariners – 85-77 missed playoffs to 61-101 missed playoffs
Randy Wolf – Brewers – 80-82 missed playoffs to 77-85 missed playoffs
Cliff Lee – Phillies – 97-65 NLE title to 102-60 NLE title
Carl Crawford – Red Sox – 89-73 missed playoffs to 90-72 missed playoffs
Adrian Beltre – Rangers – 90-72 ALW title to 96-66 ALW title
Jayson Werth – Nationals – 69-93 bottom of NLE to 80-81 missed playoffs
Adam Dunn – White Sox – 88-74 missed playoffs to 79-83 missed playoffs
Albert Pujols – Angels – 86-76 missed playoffs to 89-73 missed playoffs
Prince Fielder – Tigers – 95-67 ALC title to 88-74 ALC title
Jose Reyes – Marlins – 72-90 bottom of NLE to 69-93 bottom of NLE
CJ Wilson – Angels – 86-76 missed playoffs to 89-73 missed playoffs
Yu Darvish – Rangers – 96-66 ALW title to 93-69 ALW wild card
Zack Greinke – Dodgers – 86-76 missed playoffs to 92-70 NLW title
Josh Hamilton – Angels – 89-73 missed playoffs to 78-84 missed playoffs
Michael Bourn – Indians – 68-94 missed playoffs to 92-70 ALC wild card
Anibal Sanchez – Tigers – 88-74 ALC title to 93-69 NLC title
BJ Upton – Braves – 94-68 NLE wild card to 96-66 NLE title
Robinson Cano – Mariners – 71-91 missed playoffs to 87-75 missed playoffs
Jacoby Ellsbury – Yankees – 85-77 missed playoffs to 84-78 missed playoffs
Shin-soo Choo – Rangers – 91-72 missed playoffs to 67-95 missed playoffs
Brian McCann – Yankees – 85-77 missed playoffs to 84-78 missed playoffs
Masahiro Tanaka – Yankees – 85-77 missed playoffs to 84-78 missed playoffs
Max Scherzer – Nationals – 96-66 NLE title to 83-79 missed playoffs
Jon Lester – Cubs – 73-89 missed playoffs to 97-65 NLC wild card
James Shields – Padres – 77-85 missed playoffs to 74-88 missed playoffs
Hanley Ramirez – Red Sox – 71-91 missed playoffs to 78-84 missed playoffs
Pablo Sandoval – Red Sox – 71-91 missed playoffs to 78-84 missed playoffs
David Price – Red Sox – 78-84 missed playoffs to ?
Jason Heyward – Cubs – 97-65 NLC wild card to ?
Zack Greinke – Diamondbacks – 79-83 missed playoffs to ?
Justin Upton – Tigers – 74-87 missed playoffs to ?
Chris Davis – Orioles – 81-81 missed playoffs to ?
Boston and Arizona fans will be particularly giddy at this time of year, both sides landing premium aces on contracts north of $200million. Missing the playoffs last season is a distant memory and both will be focussed on October baseball. But are these teams merely papering over the cracks?
The American League East and National League West are extremely competitive and, even with a new front-of-the-rotation arm, they could still miss out on the playoffs.
New Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski has signalled his arrival with the signing of David Price, while the Diamondbacks brought in Greinke after he opted out of his Dodgers’ deal. There is no doubting the talents of the pair, having both narrowly missed out on Cy Young awards just a few months ago, and they are also signed away from division rivals. That is also true of top position player Jason Heyward, who signed for the Chicago Cubs after leaving the division-winning St Louis Cardinals.
Heyward makes the most sense, perhaps not in the length of contract, but that a team on the rise is spending to upgrade an area of concern. The others are trying to spend lavishly in the hope that a star free agent can project their team into the playoff race. In the case of the Tigers, they have an owner desperate for a championship and willing to spend whatever it takes, while the Orioles are bringing back their star first baseman, trying to keep that window of opportunity open a little longer. But is their heart ruling their head?
Chasing a championship proves a futile attempt. All too often, spending big is not the answer. As the 2013 World Series-winning Red Sox class showed, it is often astute to spend moderately on a few players than one prize asset. Even last season, the World Series was contested by teams who had built their teams slowly, developing through the farm system. After all, the sum is greater than its parts.