Jesse Rogers posted an article today on Jason Heyward and how he can possibly live up to expectations with the Chicago Cubs after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract (although he can opt out of the deal after the 2018 or 2019 seasons).
Heyward isn't the only big free agent facing the pressure of those enormous dollar figures. David Price signed a $217 million deal with the Boston Red Soxto help turn around a team that had consecutive last-place finishes the past two seasons and a rotation that ranked 13th in the American League in ERA in 2015. The Arizona Diamondbacks gave Zack Greinke $206.5 million to steal him away from their division rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Chris Davis re-signed with the Baltimore Orioles for $161 million. Justin Upton (Detroit Tigers, $132.75 million), Johnny Cueto (San Francisco Giants, $130 million) and Jordan Zimmermann (Tigers, $110 million) also signed nine-figure contracts. It's exhausting just reading the numbers.
What happens to big free agents in the first season after signing their mega-contracts?
We have to start by defining "big," and then we can compare how players performed before they signed the deal and after. Not counting international free agents such as Masahiro Tanaka, Jose Abreu or Yu Darvish, in the previous five offseasons, 38 free agents signed contracts worth at least $50 million. Collectively, the first years of their new deals were a disaster: Their total WAR (from Baseball-Reference.com) declined from 147.6 to 90.8 -- they lost more than a third of their value. Their three-year average WAR before hitting free agency declined from 132.8 to 90.8.
Only nine of those 38 free agents performed better in their first year:
Max Scherzer, Nationals, 2015: 6.0 to 7.1 WAR
Nelson Cruz, Mariners, 2015: 4.6 to 5.2
Ervin Santana, Twins, 2015: 1.2 to 1.6