It'd be overly negative, even for me, to just look at the recent free agent acquisitions who are starting out on the wrong foot, so in the interest of fairness, today we'll look at some of the players who are making a great first impression over the first month-plus with their new teams. As before, I prefer to discuss shorter contracts here rather than longer ones, because the longer the contract is the more time the player has to make good (or bad) on it, and this will hardly be a comprehensive list -- just some of the new faces that are most interesting and impactful so far this season signed through free agency.
Russell Martin, Pittsburgh Pirates
For the last two years, Russell Martin was the definition of a solid, stable catching presence behind home plate in the Bronx -- bat just a tick below league average, which is entirely acceptable for a catcher, good but not great defensive skills behind the dish, and a caught-stealing percentage slightly above league average. The New York Yankees thanked him for his services and sent him on his way, preferring to give Ichiro Suzuki a two-year, $13 million dollar contract instead of signing Martin to the two- year, $15 million deal he eventually reached with the Pirates. There were rumors after the fact that Martin wasn't retained due to some fallout with the Yankees front office, which considering the egos involved is becoming less and less surprising news with each passing week.
The Pirates are just fine with the arrangement, of course, because the guy who hit .224/.317/.405 for the Yankees is currently batting .272/.362/.543 for Pittsburgh through his first 105 plate appearances of the year. While Martin certainly won't continue to slug at this level for much longer, let alone the rest of the season, his batting average and on base percentage are far closer to his career line --.260/.353/.403 -- than one might expect going by his Yankee years alone. Of course, most of those high(er) batting average seasons came in his mid-twenties with the Los Angeles Dodgers as he was just breaking into the big leagues, and the days where he can sustain that sort of production across a full season might be gone for good. Still, every player's entitled to an unsustainable run of success every once in awhile and Martin's been a big part of why the Pirates are in the mix early in the NL Central.
Kyle Lohse, Milwaukee Brewers
Lohse is going to be in Milwaukee for two more years after this one, and I want to see how he's doing in 2015 at age 36 making $13 million before talking about whether or not this contract was overall a good idea. But, so far, the former Cardinal looks to have seamlessly carried over the successful habits of his contract year to his new home in the Milwaukee rotation, which is more than the last guy to make that jump can say. Obviously "being better than late-career Jeff Suppan" is a somewhat low hurdle for a veteran major league pitcher to jump, but Lohse is exceeding expectations in a Brewer rotation that is otherwise in free fall, with Yovani Gallardo, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada all having disastrous first months.
He's doing it much the same way he did it last year: Striking out a moderate number of batters, inducing poor contact from others, and above all not walking batters. Right now he has 24 strikeouts to three walks, and while it's unlikely he's going to keep up a K/BB of 8 -- Cliff Lee, Lohse ain't -- his walk rate has been declining over the last three years. So far, it looks like it wasn't all due to Dave Duncan's dark pitching coaching magic. There's still a long ways to go even this year, however, and it's somewhat unfortunate that the Brewers are wasting his good starts right now with poor performances at the plate.
Mark Reynolds, Cleveland Indians
First off, having watched Mark Reynolds play every day for the last two years, there are two things to take away from his start to 2013: he's not going to keep hitting .300, and the way that television broadcasts package baseball as a product tend to highlight the positives of his defense at first base (his glove, especially his ability to pick balls in the dirt) and downplay the big negatives (his positioning, lack of on-field awareness and most importantly lack of range). That's it. Those are all the bad things I have to say about Mark Reynolds.
In every other aspect of his game, he's been everything the Indians could have wanted and more -- the patience in his approach is still there, even as he's hotter than he's been at the plate in years, and the ball is just flying out of the park off his bat. There are times this April I wished the Orioles had fully recommitted to putting the same roster out there for 2013 as they did at the end of 2012, just for the possibility of Reynolds and Chris Davis having the same sort of madcap seasons they're having right now on the same club. But of course it's impossible to say that Reynolds would be hitting like this if he were still in Baltimore -- Terry Francona and his coaching staff have undoubtedly been working with Reynolds on things, and who knows, maybe now he actually has figured out how to hit for average as well as power, though I doubt it. His swing profile remains the same as it ever was: swinging at a lot of stuff inside the strike zone, very little outside of it, and whiffing a whole lot. There's nothing out of line with his BABIP (batting average on balls in play), and most of his peripheral stats seem reasonable, though it's unlikely almost a third of his fly balls will continue to leave the park.
It's entirely possible the Indians could have 2009 Diamondbacks Mark Reynolds (.260/.349/.563, 662 PA) on their hands instead of the less impressive Baltimore variety … or it could all fall apart next month, but I doubt it. Either way, so far it's a very respectable early return on Cleveland's one year, $6 million investment -- so good that they'll probably end up wishing they'd signed him to two years by the time it's all said and done.