It's still early -- and yes, I'll be starting just about every column with words to that effect until about late June -- but we're getting to the point where seasons and narratives are beginning to shape up. We can start taking a more informed look at the big free agent signings of the offseason and see which ones aren't exactly living up to their promise.
Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
We'll give Hamilton an incomplete so far, his horrible play to this point in the season notwithstanding, because it's downright unfair to judge a five-year contract based on the first thirty days or so of the deal. That said, those first thirty days have gone just about as poorly as one could've imagined short of a significant injury. Hamilton's being paid $125 million over five years by the Angels thanks to a special budget allocation by owner Art Moreno, and so far the rightfielder has paid that back by hitting .208/.255/.296 in 137 plate appearances at the end of yesterday's action. On Saturday manager Mike Scioscia actually benched the $25 million-a-year man, though Hamilton took extended batting practice before that and every other game of the Angels' home series against Baltimore, with multiple cameras recording his swings, so the Angels' instructors clearly think there's something wrong there they can fix.
Unfortunately, the underlying issue --Hamilton's impatience at the plate and see-ball-hit-ball hitting philosophy -- is more mental than mechanical, and slumps like this are just something that the Angels are going to have to live with throughout the former MVP's tenure with the team. That said, forcing the star rightfielder to take a long look at how he approaches the plate and his swing probably won't hurt, and should eventually help Hamilton hit his way out of this hole. If he can't learn to at least lay off pitches out of the zone a bit better -- Hamilton has swung at 38.3 percent of the pitches he sees outside of the zone for his career, and over the last two years that's been well over 40 percent -- then he's going to see his effectiveness plummet even faster than the usual aging player's as his bat slows down. It's been a rough bit of luck so far for the Angels, who overpaid both Hamilton and Albert Pujols with the expectation that while they would decline, as elite players, they would decline gracefully. So far, with Pujols's recurring plantar fasciitis and Hamilton's swing issues (persistently rumored to be related to eyesight problems), that has not been the case.
Melky Cabrera, Toronto Blue Jays
The Toronto Blue Jays have been a disappointment on just about every front so far this season, but the only major underperforming part that joined the franchise through free agency rather than trade this offseason is Melky Cabrera, the former Giant and Royal (and Brave, and Yankee) who made news last year for hitting an awe-inspiring .346 over the first two thirds of the seasons… before being caught using PEDs and suspended for 50 games in one of the more bizarre cases MLB investigators have encountered when tracking down cheaters, complete with a fake website selling the fake supplement Cabrera claimed his "false positive" came from.
The Giants and MLB were nowhere near as amused by this as the rest of us, as one would expect. Cabrera, his chances for a big multi-year deal dashed, was not even invited back to the team for San Francisco's postseason run. He hit the market and quickly signed a two-year, $16 million deal with the Blue Jays. The premise was that even with the PED use, Melky had taken significant steps forward with his swing and discipline and was likely to provide at least enough baseline value to be worth $8 million a year, and perhaps substantially more, if it turned out the performance-enhancing drugs were, in fact, not quite so performance-enhancing. Cabrera had a great camp but has been a disappointment since, hitting .252/.294/.315 over the first 137 plate appearances of the year. It's hard to single out Cabrera for blame due to basically every other hitter on the team dropping the ball now that Reyes is hurt -- even Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are unimpressive at the moment, outside of their dingers -- and the pitching staff being an injury disaster in progress for the second year in a row. Still, that doesn't mean his bad start should be ignored.
The good news is that there aren't any big red flags with Cabrera from either a scouting or statistical perspective. His swinging strike rate is about one percent higher than his career average, meaning he's whiffing more often, but the rest of his various swing percent numbers are in line with last year, and I expect a larger sample to correct that outlier. His current ineffectiveness is just One of Those Things. There's always the possibility, though, that Cabrera is one of those (rare, actually) guys who actually does need PED help to push him from a role player to a first-division starter, and that now that he's clean he's not going to be worth the investment.
Scott Baker and Edwin Jackson, Chicago Cubs
Of all the Cubs free agent acquisitions, Chicago fans are probably least enamored of Edwin Jackson at the moment -- being 0-4 with a 6.27 ERA in your first six starts for a club will tend to turn its fans against you -- but Jackson's got a long history of being an around-average major league pitcher instead of a complete schlub, and he'll be in town through the 2016 season. If we're going to withhold judgment on the Hamilton contract, it's only fair to do the same for Jackson. That said, I should point out that Edwin Jackson's upside -- a slightly above average innings-eater type who throws 210 innings of 110 ERA+ baseball a year, best-case scenario -- is a lot lower than Josh Hamilton's upside, and much, much less worthy of a massive, long term deal. The Cubs should be able to find someone like Edwin Jackson every offseason to slot into the back of their rotation, instead of locking Jackson up for four years. Because who knows when a guy's going to completely collapse?
That said, Scott Baker is actually turning out worse for the Cubbies from a sunk-cost perspective; Edwin Jackson is at least pitching. Baker, meanwhile, was shut down again in late March for the elbow problems that sidelined him last year with the Twins, and will return at earliest in late June assuming no other setbacks. Some analysts absolutely loved the deal, most notably FanGraph's Dave Cameron, who rated Baker's one year deal as the seventh-best deal of the offseason even assuming that Baker would miss the first half of the year, figuring that Baker would give the Cubs a deal on the next contract he signed with them. But Baker isn't so good a pitcher that this sort of multi-stage, multi-million-dollar master plan should be necessary. Generally when a guy like Baker signs a one year deal with a non-contender, on his end it's to rebuild his value for his next big contract, and on the team's end it's so they can flip him and get something back for his half-year of service. With Baker's setback, that plan is pretty much scuttled for the Cubs, but if Baker comes back and does well as the season ends he very well may get the multi-year deal he desires -- with whatever team is willing to pay him the most.