As Nathan Eovaldi was buzzing through the Yankees in Tuesday’s AL wild-card game, he provided an example of how a free-agent contract can age.
Eovaldi starred in the 2018 postseason for the champion Red Sox and was rewarded with a four-year, $68 million pact — the fourth largest for any player that offseason and the second most to any pitcher. In Season 1 of his six-year, $140 million pact, Patrick Corbin was vital to the Nationals winning their first World Series in 2019.
There was sentiment at the time Corbin signed — I know I had it — that the Yankees had blown it by not bidding big on the left-hander, who grew up a fan of the team. But since then, of the 94 pitchers who made at least 30 starts between 2020-21, Corbin’s 5.50 ERA is sixth-worst in the majors. Washington would probably not reverse the decision to sign Corbin, because championships are forever. But the Nationals will be hoping for yet another twist in the final three years of that deal.
Eovaldi has experienced such a twist since a 2019 season full of injury and failure (5.79 ERA). Eovaldi was good in the shortened 2020 season and was the Red Sox’s best starter this year even before helping to oust the Yankees. And if Boston put him on the trade market now with one year and $17 million left, there would be a long line of suitors.
So remember that this review of the top 10 contracts of last offseason’s free-agent class — before we get to a deeper group this year — is a one-year snapshot:
1. George Springer (six years, $150 million)
Even after Springer’s three stints on the injured list in 2021, the Blue Jays would not undo this deal. In the 78 games Springer played, he was exceptional as always: he had 22 homers, a .904 OPS and familiarly rose to big moments. None of his leg injuries appear chronic. Springer is having a similar career to Bernie Williams.
J.T. Realmuto (five years, $115 million)
We might look back at Steve Cohen’s first offseason as Mets owner as an opportunity missed. The Mets did not go for Springer or Realmuto, but instead traded assets for Francisco Lindor, then gave him a 10-year, $341 million extension, and signed James McCann for four years at $40 million. It is interesting to wonder what would have happened with the 2021 Mets had they just used Cohen’s ample money at the top of the market.
Instead, the Phillies retained Realmuto, who had a terrific season alongside players who might win the NL MVP (Bryce Harper) and Cy Young (Zack Wheeler), and still Philadelphia finished just 82-80 and out of the playoffs for a 10th straight year.
3. Trevor Bauer (three years, $102 million)
It could have been much worse for the Mets — they had the high offer here. But Bauer preferred returning to his Southern Cal roots with a near-sure winner. Bauer has been accused of sexual assault, was first placed on administrative leave on July 2 and has not pitched in the majors since. His legal issues are still unresolved, and there is some not insignificant chance he will never pitch for the Dodgers again and perhaps will not appear in the majors again.
4. DJ LeMahieu (six years, $90 million)
He was the Yankees’ only sizable pursuit last offseason. The sides finally agreed to an amount that satisfied LeMahieu, who initially was trying to exceed $100 million, and was spread out over six years to help the Yankees with the luxury tax in the short term. LeMahieu was nearly the AL MVP in his first two Yankees seasons, but his OPS dropped from .922 (2019-20) to .711. There are few more important hopes for the organization than that the sports hernia that sidelined LeMahieu late was a factor that restricted him all year.
5. Marcell Ozuna (four years, $65 million)
It’s not a good look for the sport that two of the five biggest free agents from last year ended up missing much of this season following charges of domestic abuse. Ozuna was arrested May 29 for an alleged assault on his wife. The Braves brought Ozuna back after he led NL, in the shortened 2020 season, in homers and RBIs. He was underperforming in 2021, then injured a finger, before the arrest. His legal matter is not completely resolved, plus he still faces a potential suspension by MLB.
6. Liam Hendriks (three years, $54 million)
If you eliminate the Yankees, who put up seven runs (six earned) with three homers against Hendriks in 1 ¹/₃ innings over three outings, the righty would arguably be in play for one of the best relief seasons ever. Even including the numbers versus the Yankees, Hendriks was third in the majors in relief strikeout percentage (43.3) and second in lowest walk percentage (2.6) while holding hitters to a .174 average. He was worth every penny to the White Sox.
7. James McCann (four years, $40 million)
The White Sox did not keep their backup catcher, who was paid by the Mets like a frontline receiver, and with a full workload might have shown he is a backup catcher. His offense, which perked up in two Chicago seasons, returned to the well-below-average realm of his Tigers years. McCann was good defensively. The Mets spent lavishly last offseason on a starting catcher and might still need a starting catcher.
8. Justin Turner (two years, $34 million)
The Dodgers were determined not to let such an important player and clubhouse voice leave, and Turner did not want to go. His eighth year as a Dodger was familiar: He was productive and the team made the playoffs. I wonder if the success this year of hitter in their mid-30s and older, such as Turner, Brandon Crawford, Yuli Gurriel, Buster Posey and Joey Votto helps what has been a besieged class the past few years — the older free-agent position player.
9. Michael Brantley (two years, $32 million)
Brantley, 34, was another older hitter who remained elite even as his power dimmed. Here are the list of qualified players who have hit .300 or better in each of the past four seasons: Michael Brantley. End of list.
10. Didi Gregoirus (two years, $28 million)
There was a large subset of fans this year who would email or tweet at me how much the Yankees missed Didi Gregorius or how they should have signed him last offseason. Here is what I wondered each time: Had any of them actually seen Gregorius play this year? He was tied for the seventh-worst OPS-plus among players with 400 plate appearances, and his defensive metrics were among the worst in the majors — worse even than Gleyber Torres at short.
It is so bad that even with $14 million left next season for Gregorius, Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski would not guarantee him a starting job. Philadelphia needs him — like another ex-Yankee — to have an Eovaldi-esque rebound.