Sometimes you get what you paid for immediately. Sometimes you have to wait. Sometimes it doesn't come to you at all.
We don't know who the best free-agent signings were this offseason. It's likely we won't know until the end of the year, if even then. For guys with huge multi-year deals like Robinson Cano and Masahiro Tanaka, we won't even be able to tell by this time next year how good those contracts are on the whole. We're pretty certain the Tanaka contract is going to turn out well and that the Cano deal is going to go the other way, but we're not going to know until at least a couple years down the line.
Very few contracts are like that, fortunately, because very few contracts last more than six years or pay out over $150 million. Most contracts are short-term investments, and almost all free-agent contracts are expected to provide their maximum value immediately, in the first year or two of the deal. While a slow start doesn't signify a bad contract -- we won't know just how much of a disaster the Ricky Nolasco deal is until the end of the season, for example, though the early returns are not promising -- we can at least take a look at the shorter, cheaper signings around baseball and identify who has gotten a head start on making good.
Mike Morse, LF, San Francisco Giants
It's not exactly breaking news that the Giants prefer to sign veteran hitters. Morse in particular, however, looked done. He spent most of 2013 on the hapless Mariners, hitting a bit worse than league average. Then he was traded to the Orioles for Xavier Avery as part of Dan Duquette's attempt to grab help for the playoff push. Morse hit .103/.133/.103 for the O's. A multi-year deal for his services was out of the question this offseason, and before the Giants came calling, it was conceivable that Morse might have to go the NRI/minor-league deal route to find work in the league. Instead, San Francisco signed him to a one-year, $6 million contract and asked him to platoon with Gregor Blanco in left. He's rewarded them with 87 PA of .300.345/.575 hitting so far. Blanco has been relegated to a defensive replacement for the time being, and if Morse continues to hit like this (probably not, but weirder things have happened), that's likely where Blanco will stay.
Nelson Cruz, LF/DH, Baltimore Orioles
Formerly of the Rangers, Cruz wasn't the biggest victim of draft-pick compensation this offseason -- poor Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew still haven't found work, and likely won't until after the amateur draft in early June -- but the one-year, $8 million contract he finally signed with the Orioles fell far short of the lofty expectations he'd had going into free agency. One month in, Cruz's adventures in the outfield have already been ... distracting. That said, he's the only guy on the Orioles hitting right now except for Matt Wieters, batting .284/.376/.580 over 101 PA so far this season. Cruz still shouldn't be playing the field, but the combination of his production and the fact that fellow free-agent signing Delmon Young is hitting .324/.375/.486 to start the season -- and that Young essentially has Cruz's skillset but is worse in every way -- has kept Cruz from being the pure DH that Orioles fans hoped he would be when he was signed.
Jason Hammel, SP, Chicago Cubs
As part of their core strategy for rebuilding the team, the Cubs have been signing starting pitchers on the "cheap" and trying to flip them to other teams at the deadline for a couple years now. Sometimes this works, like with Scott Feldman last season. Sometimes this blows up in their faces, and they end up tossing $6 million down the money hole, like with Scott Baker last season. So far the early returns on Hammel -- who is in town on the same one-year, $6 million deal the Cubs gave to Baker -- lean more in the direction of Feldman: 34.2 IP of 2.08 ERA baseball, 27 strikeouts to 7 walks. There are some warning signs here: Hammel has the lowest WHIP in the league among qualified starters at 0.692, which is roughly half his career average. He isn't known for durability or longevity as the season goes on; he's never even thrown 180 innings in one season over the course of his career. Of course, the Cubs are hoping that'll be someone else's problem come July. They just want him to stay good enough for long enough to bring back someone -- preferably a starting arm in the high minors -- who will be part of their long-term solution instead of the problem.
Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana, SP, Atlanta Braves
And the Braves were supposed to be in trouble when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy went down. Instead, Atlanta swooped into the contract talks between Ervin Santana and the Blue Jays and Orioles and signed him to a one-year, $14.1 million deal to headline their rotation. Then they went out and grabbed Aaron Harang off the scrapheap on a one-year, $1 million deal just to hold down the fort until someone got healthy. Santana's thrown 27.2 IP of 1.95 ERA ball so far; Harang's put up a 0.85 ERA in 31.2 IP to lead the entire league. Not a bad start to a $15 million investment, though it's hardly sustainable -- eventually balls in play will start falling in or leaving the ballpark against Harang, at the very least, and Santana's never been the kind of guy who could sustain an ERA down in the Clayton Kershaw zone for very long. Still, they've not only kept Atlanta in the race to start the season, but have been key to the Braves' rise to the top of the NL East by the end of April, despite a slow start from a number of their key bats.
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There are other guys worth mentioning as well -- Edinson Volquez, Jason Vargas and A.J. Burnett come to mind -- just as there have been a number of disappointments so far. But again, it's still early. We'll check back in with these guys midseason, and by that point we should have a much better idea how well those contracts are all playing out.